These days, most of us have to cut back expenses to survive. Why not start with your computing and networking budget? Maybe sell an expensive appliance or put off buying it and use a free open source solution running on your own computer or server. Perhaps move some computers to a Linux distribution instead of upgrading to the costly Windows 7.
There are many ways to save money on the network. Small businesses can even get enterprise features without spending top dollar. In this piece, I'll highlight many different operating systems, routers, services, applications and servers -- all of which are free -- most open source.
Unix and Linux Distributions
Unix and other Unix-like platforms, like Linux, offer secure, stable, and cost-effective operating systems. Think before you lay down more money for the next Windows or Windows Server edition. Here are three free Unix/Linux distributions (distros) that are among thousands of others you might consider using:
- Ubuntu:Though one of the newest distros, it is one of the most popular—especially for novice users. Ubuntu offers a desktop and server version. There is a wealth of documentation and support on its site and across the Internet.
- FreeBSD:Derived from BSD, the version of UNIX developed by Berkeley University, FreeBSD's code base has undergone over thirty years of scrutiny. Its advanced networking, performance, security and compatibility features make it a great choice for an intranet or Internet server.
- openSUSE: Started nearly two decades ago, this distro is known for its great desktop environments (KDE and GNOME) and excellent system administration utility (YaST).
Open Source Networking Platforms
The core network components don't have to be expensive. You can use open source software on your own hardware. For smaller networks, you can just use a regular desktop computer or a cheap wireless router. Cisco will always be there, but here are a few more cost-effective options to consider:
- Vyatta:This open source project touts itself as a low-cost Cisco alternative. It provides free community access and support for its network operating system, in addition to commercial offerings. Run the router, firewall, VPN and other services for your physical, virtual and cloud-based networks. It provides great documentation on installing and configuring via its command-line environment.
- MikroTik RouterOS:Here's another networking platform, available free with limited features. It includes the main router features with additional functionality, such as virtual access points. Great documentation is available via a wiki.
- DD-WRT:This open source firmware uploads to wireless routers, replacing the factory firmware. This can give a cheap router many enterprise features, such as a hotspot captive portal, VPN server, VLAN support, and multiple SSIDs. It can even act as a wireless bridge or repeater.
- CoovaAP: This open source firmware, based on OpenWrt, turns wireless routers into hotspot gateways. It includes the CoovaChilli and WiFiDog access controllers, embedded captive portal, Facebook integration, traffic shaping, and other features. This is all configurable via the easy-to-use web-based control panel.
Free Hosted Services
Sometimes you must use third-party services. Some servers might be too difficult to run in-house and make more sense to out-source. Here are numerous services that can be time and money savers:
- OpenDNS:In addition to offering a smart, fast, and reliable DNS service, it provides content filtering. No more configuring each computer with a filtering solution. Simply apply the DNS settings to the router and the entire network is protected.
- AuthenticateMyWiFi: This service helps small businesses quickly and easily use the Enterprise mode of WPA or WPA2 encryption to secure their Wi-Fi network. It provides access to RADIUS/AAA servers for the required 802.1X authentication. Unlike traditional authentication servers, this service can easily secure networks at multiple locations. (Editor's note: AuthenticateMyWiFi is a service run by the author. Read a recent review of AuthenticateMyWiFi at Wi-Fi Planet.)
- No-IP:An expensive static IP address from an ISP isn't necessary for most situations, even when running a server or remote access from the location. The lower-cost Internet connections with a dynamic IP address can suffice. This service provides a hostname (URL) that's always updated, pointing to the Internet connection's changing IP address.
- Free SharePoint:Microsoft's SharePoint solution provides a great platform for collaboration, content management, portals, and searching. Instead of running a dedicated SharePoint Server, consider using this hosted service.
- Shields UP:This helps identify any network vulnerabilities visible from the Internet. It runs a port scan to see if the firewall is doing its job and is properly configured.
- Pure Networks Security Scan: This isn't a typical port scanner; it internally examines the router and network. It reports problems with the computer, router, and wireless security.
Free Applications and Servers
Here are a few more free miscellaneous applications and servers you might find useful:
- Amanda:This is an open source backup program offered in addition to Zmanda's commercial solution. It supports all the major platforms, even can run tape and disk backups simultaneously, and supports encryption.
- Wireshark:Formerly named Ethereal, this is the world's most popular network sniffer and analyzer, and it runs on all the popular OSs. It captures live traffic from hundreds of network protocols. Use it to learn, snoop or troubleshoot.
- FreeRADIUS:This is an open source RADIUS server, providing the three A's (Authentication, Authorization, and Accounting) for many network and Internet services, such as Internet access, VPN access, and 802.1X. Though documentation is provided, it's designed to be installed and configured by administrators experienced with networking and the RADIUS protocols.
- Nagios:This is a powerful open source monitoring system for keeping tabs on hosts, services and networks. It's installable on Linux distributions.
- PacketFence: This is a network access control (NAC) system, providing captive portal registration, intrusion detection, and network protection features. For a more robust and custom system, configuration will take some time.
Eric Geier is the Founder and CEO of NoWiresSecurity, which helps businesses easily protect their Wi-Fi with enterprise-level encryption by offering an outsourced RADIUS/802.1X authentication service. He is also the author of many networking and computing books, for brands such as For Dummies and Cisco Press.