Open source router startup Vyatta today announced support for 10-Gbps Ethernet, a move that it says makes software routers viable competitors even in high-end data center applications. Vyatta also claims that it can beat Cisco's venerable 7200 series routers in performance, even though the Cisco-box product costs more than four times as much.
Technically, very little of the improved speed is due to anything Vyatta itself has done. The company's software runs on a standard Linux server, so performance is entirely dependent on the underlying hardware. All Vyatta has to do is ensure that its platform works with the latest high-end PC, which in the case of the Cisco comparison means an IBM System X 3550 blade server with a 2.66-GHz quad-core Xeon processor. Vyatta resells the IBM hardware (as well as similar boxes from Dell) pre-loaded with the routing software, which is also available on its own -- both as a free download and as a commercially supported product.
Cisco probably won't worry too much about Vyatta right now. Only two weeks ago, it announced the Advanced Services Router, which looks a lot like a replacement for the 7200 series and is based on a new Cisco chip -- something that a standard PC platform can't offer.
But perhaps Cisco and other router vendors should be worried in the long term. PC performance increases at a faster rate than WAN bandwidth, meaning that software running on commodity hardware will become more competitive with routers in a growing number of areas.
Router vendors are responding by making boxes that do more than just route, building in features like deep packet inspection or even a Linux server. However, all of these can also be implemented in software: Vyatta's platform already includes a firewall and VPN, and can itself run virtualized in the same way as any other server. The company already offers a virtual appliance version of the software, which it says accounts for about a third of downloads.
Software routing is still a niche, but one that's likely to grow. It also represents a countertrend to networking vendors' recent moves into the application layer: Just as routers and switches are able to run server apps, servers are able to route.