When Brocade acquired Vyatta, it didn’t seem that they fully comprehended just what they had their hands on. Vyatta was an efficient, powerful, flexible network operating system based on Linux, which could run just as easily on commodity hardware or (para)virtualized infrastructure. The possibilities were endless. Unfortunately, the result was predictable.
The concept behind Vyatta was amazing
Think about it: why spend the price of a mid-range supercar on a top-tier brand (with only the processing horsepower of a modest cell phone) when you could handle 10+ gigabit of filtered traffic and millions of packets per second for a few grand?
Maybe you need to quickly provision a full-featured router for a lab before that big demo on Friday. Don’t pick up the phone and call your sales rep. Instead, just drop a Vyatta image on your existing Xen/VMWare/KVM/whatever infrastructure and plumb the interfaces. Could be that you’re tired of fighting with Amazon’s integrated VPN facility and want something that just works, and works the same everywhere you need it. Vyatta can be that, too. Want a real home router that’s not designed to be used by somebody as technically inept as your grandmother and doesn’t require daily reboots? Yeah, Vyatta again.
“But what if you need to add a captive portal for school library visitors with a filtered proxy and a district-mandated anti-virus gateway for normal Internet access, except on every 2nd Tuesday of the month, where all image search results must be replaced with motivational posters from the 1970’s featuring cats in humorous poses?” I hear you ask. Well, first, that’s a hell of a run-on sentence. You should be ashamed. Secondly, Vyatta’s based on Debian, with a full user-land, so you can run pretty much anything you want on there. Your imagination’s the limit.
Open source, not secret sauce
The real beauty of the whole concept is that Vyatta is based on a bunch of open source tools, quilted together nicely in a neat stack and administrated from a unified, Junos-like interface. This means all Brocade had to do was lead the project, nurture their community (or at least try not to piss them off too badly), occasionally push bugfixes and new features back upsteam, and reap the rewards. Much of the heavy lifting is done by developers who aren’t even on their payroll.
And with open source comes the associated community; essentially a loyal, dedicated user base. While some companies view these folks as leeches who just want something for nothing, even from a purely commercial standpoint the reality is actually a lot more interesting. You can generally categorize a commercially-driven open source community into three main camps:
- Developers contributing code either because other interested companies are paying them to, or because they like the product and want to improve it for their own use. In other words, free code.
- Users who enjoy the product, understand its benefits, and eventually go on to become paying customers. These are also quite often the same folks offering ad-hoc technical support to their peers, thus alleviating some of the load on customer service. Again, for free.
- Those who will never pay for the product still add value indirectly by acting as evangelists. To put it another way, free marketing. (And if they’re using your product without paying, at least they’re not cutting any checks to your competitors, either.)
Missed opportunities (could’ve, would’ve, should’ve)
Brocade really could have done a lot with the platform. When I heard they’d acquired Vyatta, I’d personally envisioned Brocade-branded core switch-fabric with dozens or hundreds of ports running Vyatta under the hood. Powerful routers with all the flexibility and control you’d expect from your Linux servers.
Or, imagine SOHO network gear that’re designed as open platforms: inexpensive, running open source software, mod-friendly, easy to cobble into something bigger, more interesting. Budget-conscious and enthusiast users tend to love platforms which are flexible, extensible and aren’t limited by the feature list that tickles the product lead’s fancy that particular quarter. And like it or not, those people make up a huge chunk of the overall market.
As a case in point, consider the legendary WRT54G series home routers from Linksys. They sold countless millions of those little guys, with a run that went on for 10 years solid. It wasn’t the hardware that was so special, but the fact that the platform was extremely hacker-friendly. A product like that would have let Brocade grow into a whole new market space, and Vyatta could have been the linchpin.
If you could run the same network OS you’re already familiar with in your public cloud infrastructure, your colo, your office network, your lab, your home… exactly which market wouldn’t they be dominating a few years from now? The price to performance ratio of solutions like those should have left the likes of Cisco and Juniper wondering why their analysts never saw it coming.
The predictable outcome
Rather than innovating, Brocade has consigned Vyatta to a proprietary VM appliance for use only in the mythical cloud, tucked away in the backwaters of their corporate website. The Vyatta forums are closed, open source builds discontinued, the community discarded.
Perhaps Brocade was afraid of undercutting their [arguably stagnant] switch market. Maybe they simply didn’t know how to sell it, exhibiting the same lack of imagination as Vyatta before them. In any case, the sad truth is that in my opinion, the unique opportunity presented by the acquisition seems to have slipped through their fingers.
Vyatta is dead, long live VyOS / EdgeOS
Perhaps the best outcome of this unfortunate eventuality was the resulting fork. It seems Ubiquiti picked up several Vyatta expats, creating their own commercial/open-source fork dubbed EdgeOS. They currently have several platforms in the EdgeMax line which can filter millions of packets per second for well under a grand. I haven’t yet got my hands on the hardware to test it, but knowing the underlying software platform, this is an extremely interesting development for those looking at routers in the SOHO and SME market spaces.
As for the open source community, they’ve created a fork of Vyatta called VyOS, picking up right where Vyatta left off. So far, the momentum is encouraging. Many of my own bugs have already been acknowledged and either addressed or are scheduled to be fixed in the next upcoming release. VyOS is also presently backwards compatible with the last community release of Vyatta (6.6R1), so current users of Vyatta are not left without an upgrade path.
For my part I’m still hoping that, against all odds, Brocade will realize how badly they’ve fumbled and will eventually recognize the potential they’ve missed up until now. A world where powerful routing hardware runs on a flexible, open source software platform is one I’m very much interested in experiencing. Until then, I’ll be doing my best to support and contribute to both EdgeOS and especially VyOS as much as I’m able. Even if it’s too late for Vyatta, here’s hoping for a long and fruitful life for the legacy Vyatta has left for us.