A group of networking experts has launched a project designed to give Cisco's routers some open source competition.

The project, called the Open Linux Router, joins some other efforts at bringing open source into the world of routers, notably the Extensible Open Router Platform (XORP) sponsored by Vyatta, but aims to add features such as a file-sharing server and a firewall.

It is the brainchild of four Michigan university students, who acknowledged Vyatta as an inspiration but saw the need for a more expandable, easier-to-use system. The system, like XORP, is intended to run on off-the-shelf hardware, with enough modularity to allow it to run on anything from an embedded device to an enterprise server.

"These tools are wrapped up in such a way that the user does not need to know or fully understand their inner workings, only how to implement them," the developers said on the project's site.

Core to the project, announced late last month, is a simple interface that allows users to configure the device and add new features without extensive technical knowledge. One criticism of devices like the XORP or Asterisk's open source PBX is that the companies buying them don't necessarily have the technical knowledge to deal with maintenance.

While the Open Linux Router project is at an early stage, it is part of a growing interest in using open source to compete with companies such as Cisco in the realms of routers and PBXs.

For now, the movement is largely limited to small and midsize organizations and is focused around the Asterisk open-source private branch exchange and Vyatta open-source routers. Cisco and other old-time networking vendors certainly aren't yet shaking in their boots over it. But it's a growing movement that they ignore at their own peril; lower-cost, higher-function technologies have a way of replacing existing architecture far faster than vendors realize, open-source vendors say.

A tentative feature list for the Linux router includes SSL web interface, serial console, wireless support, VLAN support, packet filtering and other features. It is based on the Webmin configuration tool and initial code is available via Google Code.

The first substantial release of the project is scheduled for May or June, developers said.

Other Linux-based projects targeting firewall and network server include ClarkConnect, IPCop, m0n0wall, and Smoothwall.

Computerworld's Phillip Britt contributed to this report.