Linux WAN Routers
Every time I deploy a Linux system for my company, the phrase “Linux in a production environment? It'll never happen,” stills echoes through my head. At a previous employer, this was the pat answer to all of my queries as to when we could try Linux out in our product evaluation lab. I have since had the chance to use Linux to solve real-life problems, and I am ready to report—“It happens every day!”
This article will discuss the advantages of Linux-based WAN routers in terms of total cost of ownership. Although many technicians may find this approach unsavory (it certainly does not appeal to the idealist in me), the truth is that most finance departments are rarely interested in the technical elegance or excellence of their IT departments. In the eyes of those signing the checks, value is more important. Cost includes not just hardware and software, but all related personnel and maintenance costs.
In today's penny-conscious corporate environment, technicians need to be cognizant of the fact many companies offer routing as a service, which may (at least on paper) look less expensive than your salary and equipment. Therefore, it makes good sense for network administrators to remain conscious of the value they are providing their employer. If you are a solutions-provider, this article may help you increase your profit. And for those operating with a limited budget, deploying Linux routers may be the only choice for connecting sites to each other or to the Internet.
Costs aside, in my opinion Linux routers do possess technical elegance and excellence. I will focus on the functional “niceties” of this platform—plus some day-to-day experiences. For those of you already familiar with Linux, it might be interesting to see how it is being used in a 24x7 production environment. For those not yet using Linux, this article will acquaint you with some of the possible applications of this versatile and stable platform.
From this point on, the term “Linux router” will be used to refer to an x86-based PC running Debian/GNU Linux and outfitted with Sangoma's WANPIPE S508 router card (Figure 1). After using this platform as an alternative to “BigName” traditional routers for more than 18 months for frame-relay and Internet routers, I am a strong proponent of this solution.
Linux routers are economical both in terms of hard costs and the associated hidden costs in providing a routing infrastructure. These costs include:
Telco access (+ usage-based charges where applicable)
Router software, upgrades and support
Personnel costs, including salary, training and maintaining the router during day-to-day operations for both troubleshooting and upgrades
Lost productivity and revenue due to downtime—in the holistic view of your company's management, often quite expensive
For usage-based access methods (e.g., most types of ISDN), monthly costs depend upon the connect-time. In this case, it is beneficial to control when and for what reason a connection is initiated. Many routers cannot provide this sort of control at all; a Linux router comes equipped with schedulers and scripting languages.
Router hardware costs can vary wildly, depending upon the interface types and speeds, protocols supported, capabilities provided (such as packet-filtering) and switching speed. For less than the cost of the least expensive traditional router that supports a V.35 interface, you can have equivalent connectivity with superior functionality and supportability using a Linux router.
An easily overlooked cost of working with digital circuits (other than ISDN) is the CSU/DSU, which is used to interface your router to your telco access. This device understands the signaling on the digital access line, e.g., a T-1, and converts it into a bit stream on a V.35 interface. They can be expensive. The Sangoma S508 is offered with an integrated CSU/DSU which saves money and makes cabling and mounting easier.
The cost of router software, hardware and software upgrades, as well as the cost of yearly support agreements for router hardware and software, can be significant. (Traditional support is often 10 to 15% or more of the new price of the hardware per year.) These costs approach zero for the Linux router solution. The operating system, including tools and upgrades, is free. The PC hardware is inexpensive, and because the requirements are so modest it can often be inherited from others trying to upgrade their desktops for more horsepower. (All of my systems are “hand-me-downs”.)
Even more important than the base hardware costs, Linux routers offer investment protection since you have a clear upgrade path for all aspects of your router. Additional links can be added for cost of another Sangoma card. Mixing links and media types is simple and inexpensive. For example, if you wish to upgrade your LAN backbone to 100Mbps or to ATM, adapters for our BigName router cost about $4000.00 each, but for Linux any decent 100Mbps Ethernet card will work fine. Faster switching is merely a motherboard/CPU upgrade.
Now and then someone will quip that a PC is not fast enough to be a WAN router. I think this statement shows a lack of imagination. If this were true, there would be no point in having 100Mbps Ethernet cards. How can you expect your desktop to send or receive packets at 100Mbps when it is not able to read+send packets arriving at 1/100th of that rate?
Packet-filtering, address translation (IP-masquerading) and proxying are often add-ons for traditional routers. By contrast, adding this functionality to a Linux router is free, and easier to install and manage.
BigName router software upgrades can be time-consuming. Unless you have spare BigName routers, practicing your upgrade is not an option. This is even worse when you have both “BigName X” and “BigName Y” routers. Different procedures, different problems and phone support for any of them can be expensive. Having more than one closed-system router vendor also means more money for training and more “fragmentation” of the skill-sets of your support staff. Instead of three capable generalists, you have one person trained for X, one for Y and a third who tries to keep up.
This leads to another part of the cost of providing routing services. How much does it cost to have people tend to the environment? Salary, training, time spent configuring, developing reports, upgrading and troubleshooting are all part of the total cost of ownership. I would say that this is the most important reason to seriously consider Linux as a router platform. First of all, there is an ever-increasing supply of talent that has experience with Linux. This keeps salaries for support staff reasonable. (Try to find enough money to hire a BigName specialist.) Even salty UNIX administrators feel at home on Linux systems, once again increasing the resource pool, providing backup support and easing cross-training within your IT department. This element of commonality cannot be stressed enough. Secondly, configuring a Linux router uses the same tools as configuring the network card on any UNIX system. Anyone who feels comfortable at a shell prompt and understands TCP/IP is a potential resource. This is important, because at some point, your environment will need support.
Maintenance of WAN networks tends to be infrequent but intense. Problems tend to occur at 2:00AM six months after you last touched your BigName router. (You are most likely at home, sitting in your bathrobe, dialed-in to your office. What are the chances you have the manuals at hand?) By contrast, a Linux router uses many of the same tools you work with every day, and you have all of the documentation on-line in the form of man pages or text files. You may not have worked with the router for a while, but you use ifconfig and look at /var/log/messages each day. Even the hardware-specific tools tend to be more fully featured and easier to use. For instance, Figure 2 is a screen showing Linux PPP statistics as monitored from an attached workstation.
For day-to-day troubleshooting, you have a whole suite of tools at your fingertips that you can use to hack your way around the problem. And because these tools are familiar, your problem resolution time is shorter. A keep-alive ping script may not be the prettiest solution, but it will keep you out of reactive mode long enough to research the real problem. When I was younger and very naive, I believed that when you bought a piece of hardware or software from a BigName it was fully debugged. This is ridiculous—all code has bugs in it. The real question is—what options do you have to deal with these bugs?
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