The Wrong Choice: VPN outsourcer stumbles with proprietary tool

After a series of wrong choices with proprietary vendors, a networking services provider found what it needed from the open-source community.

Talk about a worst-case, wrong-choice scenario: The vendor of an IT services company's mission-critical software is acquired, and support gets lost in the shuffle. Then the acquiring vendor goes belly up.

That's what happened to Brunswick, Maine-based Nexus Management Inc. -- and it's just the beginning of its story.

A few years ago, Nexus, which specializes in VPN technology, remote network, systems and desktop management, and help desk and on-site support, decided to consolidate its expertise, according to chief technology officer John A. Sullivan III. Nexus wanted to build a powerful VPN that would strengthen internal connectivity and which the company would be able to sell as a service to customers.

At the time, the company was using Internet Dynamics' Conclave access control technology on Microsoft Windows NT. Nexus ran Microsoft Exchange internally and used Lotus Notes for client e-mail and groupware. The company also used both Windows and NetWare for file and print servers. Intraspect handled knowledge management.

Sullivan had some concerns about the longevity of Conclave, but he found Conclave's technology very compelling. It ran "rings around Checkpoint, Nortel, Cisco, all the major players," he said. So, despite some reservations, Nexus decided to stick with Conclave.

This decision kicked off a series of wrong choices and vendor-related disasters that were eventually solved by dipping into the open-source pool.

Support falls through cracks

In mid-2000, IPsec VPN vendor RedCreek Communications acquired Internet Dynamics. RedCreek/Internet Dynamics' customer support fell through the cracks during the transition. This cost Nexus "a huge amount of business" in the interim, Sullivan said.

Six months down the road, RedCreek faltered and was subsequently acquired by SonicWall Inc. In the interim, the Conclave product was dropped. For Nexus, this year of changes wasted "a huge amount of time and effort," Sullivan said.

Nexus began looking into offerings from more stable vendors. Impressed with Nexus' unique core infrastructure, Helsinki-based SSH considered building its entire VPN appliance line around Nexus' architecture. However, despite enthusiastic talks, the collaboration never panned out, according to Sullivan.

"Finally, we threw up our hands," Sullivan said. "We had decided three years ago that we didn't want to self-develop the product, because we're a services company." Clearly, Nexus had to rethink that position.

"Toward the end of the debacle with SSH, we realized the world had changed, and the change was the rise of the open-source movement. We looked around the open-source community and saw all the parts and pieces that we needed," he said. Nexus only needed to develop "the management console to glue it all together."

Moving quickly, Nexus implemented open-source solutions on the Linux platform for several critical systems, including its infrastructure, security and firewalls, and a remote control help desk function that allows its support staff to tap directly into users' computers when necessary.

Open-source was right choice

Now, whenever Sullivan finds a mature open-source program that fits Nexus' needs, he deploys it. With open-source software and Nexus' own management "glue," the company can maintain control, rather than being vulnerable to "vendors' vagaries," he said.

The cost benefits of Linux have become obvious. Nexus has a sophisticated VPN offering that is now being rebuilt on Linux. It will replace a "killer service" that was popular but cost so much that prospective clients balked. Now, using mostly open-source software reduces Nexus' costs so much that hardware is the biggest expense. Nexus said it can pass its savings along to clients and reduce sales barriers.

Some clients also balked at using services supported by open-source software because of fears about software security. One client's parent company is hesitating, for example. Sullivan said the company wants services based on commercial software so that it can sue a vendor if something goes wrong.

Sullivan has discovered many benefits to using open-source software and Linux. For one thing, he said, it's a relief to no longer be a "slave to which way the wind blows for our vendors." Also, thanks to the open-source development model, problems get patched quickly, and Nexus doesn't have to use "an ounce of our resources to do it," he said.

Weaned off Windows

At Nexus, the benefits of open-source offerings are trickling down to the desktop. "We're dabbling quite seriously in OpenOffice," Sullivan said. "I've weaned myself from Windows on the desktop." Besides the OpenOffice.org office suite, he also runs Mozilla and Gimp on his own desktop. "I live in a Linux desktop world and live in it quite successfully," he said.

In the future, Sullivan hopes that the open-source development community also benefits from its achievements.

With the wider usage of open-source products, "a significant capital shift will happen from traditional software vendors to hardware and service providers," he said. He hopes that revenue generated in hardware and services will be passed along to developers: "Someone needs to pay people to write software," he said. "I think that's the only way we can make the open-source model economically viable."

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Nexus Management's open-source VPN management project: "Integrated Secure Communications System"

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