Open-source startup Vyatta has released free software that provides basic router functions while running on a commodity PC. The company had released a beta version earlier this year.

The company offers its Open Flexible Router software as a free download and charges an annual fee starting at US$497 for technical assistance and upgrades. The company claims that the product, which is aimed at midsize organisations and branch offices, has the high availability and security that even large companies expect.

Early users said the open-source router is ideal when they need something simple and cheap. Lance Knox, a Pittsburgh-based networking consultant to non-profit groups, said he installed Vyatta's software on a Pentium 3 PC that was "headed for the Dumpster" to route certain data between two buildings at a Pennsylvania mental health centre. "It solves a basic routing issue and avoids passing on an exorbitant routing cost," he said. Even paying $500 for a router from Cisco would have been tough for the non-profit, Knox said.

He said the Vyatta router has been in production for about a month with no problems. Knox noted that he hasn't tested the router's scalability, but it "could definitely handle a branch-office routing need" for a larger business.

Sam Newnam, owner of North Carolina-based SystemSam Technologies, said he has used the Vyatta software for two weeks on a small HP rack-mounted server. "We didn't want to pay lots of money for features we'd never use," he said. "With an open-source package, we could keep things simple."

Going forward, he said his business could use open-source code for more complex networks without making large investments. "On top of cost savings in production, it opens up a whole new world of testing and brainstorming," Newnam said.

Analysts said the Vyatta release is significant because open-source is just beginning to grow in networking. "In five to 10 years, open-source will be much more prevalent in routing and networking generally," said Rob Whiteley, an analyst at Forrester Research.

However, Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Research, said Vyatta's product might not catch on for a while because businesses aren't clamouring for inexpensive routers. "If people wanted a cheaper router, wouldn't the low-cost router companies have more market share?" he said. "I always say with open-source that you don't get what you don't pay for."