Open Source Software: Costs and Benefits

Some of those accessing this blog are undoubtedly considering deploying pfSense on their home network, or perhaps in a small office/home office (SOHO) environment. For that reason, I thought it might be useful to devote an article to the costs and benefits of using free and open source software (FOSS) versus commercial software and hardware when deploying a firewall/router.

Open Source Software: Factors to Consider

open source software

The Linksys WRT54G, an example of a consumer grade router.

The most obvious factor to consider is the monetary cost. Initially, this would seem to weigh heavily in favor of pfSense and other free firewall software. For $20 to $50, however, you can purchase a small Linksys, Netgear or Asus router, which uses almost no power and supports port forwarding, performs Network Address Translation (NAT), acts as a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server, and provides stateful packet filters. If you use Linux and netfilter, or for that matter m0n0wall or pfsense, even if you have an old PC on which to run the software, it will cost you at least a few dollars a month in electricity. Unless you are familiar with the software you are using, you will find it more difficult to configure than one of the cheap consumer-grade routers, so there is an additional investment of time. If you are setting it up for a small business, it will cost more to pay for the employee’s time to set up a Linux or pfSense firewall than the Linksys would cost to buy. If all you require is a router/firewall than can do port forwarding and DHCP, then there are readily available commercial solutions that are affordable.

If you require additional functionality, however, the situation may change. Commercial VPN solutions can be staggeringly expensive. Yet free solutions such as pfSense and m0n0wall will also work. Even taking into account the fact that the free solutions may not have the same features and capabilities of the commercial version, if you need to implement a virtual private network and there is open source software that meets your requirements, then you can achieve substantial savings.


There are additional factors, some of which are related to cost. For example, support: what does it cost, is it available, and how timely is the support? Moreover, what format does support take: phone, e-mail, online forums, service calls, and so on?

open source software

If installing and configuring netfilter, pfSense or another open source solution doesn’t sound intimidating, an old PC may be suitable.

Time is another factor, and this can cut both for and against open source software. Take the case where a business is considering entering into a partnership with another company. This other company is concerned because the partnership requires sending sensitive data, and the business only has a consumer-grade firewall. The IT department could recommend the purchase of an enterprise-level firewall. This will require contacting vendors, getting quotes, passing a quote on to a manager for approval, and then submitting a purchasing order to the accounting department. Or the IT department can just find an old PC, load Linux and netfilter onto it (or m0n0wall or pfSense or IPCop or any one of a number of open source software solutions), and be done with it, especially if time is of the essence. On the other hand, if your IT department is not familiar with Linux or BSD, deploying an open source solution may actually cost you time, so you would be better off seeking a commercial product.

Another related factor is performance. Speed, efficiency, and reliability are important indices of performance. A fast solution that crashes all the time isn’t very useful. Conversely, a reliable software package that runs slowly may not be the best option.

Usability is another factor, and it relates to cost. If the learning curve is very high, then your training costs will rise. You may want to consider whether a product is customizable if it does not do exactly what you want it to do.

It is often important to consider how well-established the product is. The more well-established the software is, the more likely its creators will be around in the future. A larger and more well-established project will also likely have better community support and reliability. You do not want to invest a lot of time into a product that is likely to go away. In this regard, open source software does well. The netfilter project started in 1998; m0n0wall has been around since 2004, and PF, the packet filtering software on top of which pfSense is built, has been part of OpenBSD since 2001.

Even a security product like a firewall involves security implications, which should be an important factor in your choice. Is the product secure, and will it be handling secure data? You want to consider whether it will be opening any security risks, as well as what type of auditing and logging it can produce.

Finally, you will want to review the license agreement closely. Often the free software is not free if you are a business, or there are special restrictions on the number of installations or other criteria. If your company has a legal department or if you have legal counsel, it might not be a bad idea to have them review the license agreement.

Conclusion

It may just be my bias as the owner of a blog devoted to a particular piece of open source software, but I am inclined to think that in many if not most circumstances, you will find open source software to be the more cost-effective and efficient solution. At one end of the spectrum, commercial consumer-grade routers provide a lot of functionality at a low price. At the other end of the spectrum, enterprise-level firewalls often provide a greater level of management control and logging capabilities, which a mid-sized or large company may require. These capabilities often justify the higher cost. But for those who fall in between these two extremes, often open source software provides the better alternative.


External Links:

The True Cost of Open Source – web site devoted to explaining how you can cut development costs and improve performance with open source software.

Open Source Applications: Benefits and Risks at www.networksolutions.com

10 Reasons Open Source Is Good for Business at www.pcworld.com

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