Untangle could turn out to be a poster child for free software. The company started out considering both free and proprietary software for its platform, but settled on a flat-out, pure-play open source approach. In return, they demonstrate the kinds of enhancements a commercial firm can make to free software in a range of areas commonly known as productizing.
Where their software comes from and what they’ve done with it
Untangle is an integrated computer security solution aimed at small businesses (about 250 employees or fewer). Today they unveil their Untangle Gateway Platform, billed as “the world’s first commercial-grade open source solution for blocking spam, spyware, viruses, adware and unwanted content on the network.”
A peek at their product listing shows a collection of free software applications that’s largely familiar to system administrators in the Unix/Linux world: SpamAssassin, Clam AntiVirus, OpenVPN, and so on (along with some more obscure open source projects). But this doesn’t mean that you could get the benefits of Untangle by loading all those applications on a server and piping network packets between them.
According to Dirk Morris, Founder and CTO, the Untangle development team started by trying to simply run each application as a process and send network packets through them via sockets. The number of processes and context switches increased geometrically with the number of applications, and latency for packets slowed down to seconds. They quickly switched to something smarter.
The current implementation ensures that the relevant pages for all applications stay in memory and that a single packet can traverse them all without context switches between processes. They call this virtual pipelining, and like to say “the data is the thread.”
The applications have been massaged so that they are all part of a single Java Virtual Machine. Scaling is now linear, and the user can run pretty much as many applications as he wants on a single system, although having a multi-core processor definitely helps.
Untangle’s aggressively integrated platform is all open source. In addition to giving this back, they submit bug fixes and try to keep in touch with the projects whose software they’ve incorporated into their product.
Free software wins on quality and collaboration
According to Raul Mujica, VP of Marketing, the company was not formed with a particular commitment to free software. Founded in 2003, they were determined to build their platform on the best combination of products, whether proprietary or free, but they noticed something interesting as their research progressed.
First, the quality of free software in the security area tended to be higher. Second, the free software projects were much easier to work with. There was too much red tape and too many barriers dealing with the proprietary vendors. Finally, Untangle took the leap and decided to base their product 100% on free software–and to open source their product in return.
They invite other free software projects in the areas of network management and report generation to work with the Untangle platform and hook in their projects.
Productizing community projects
I already mentioned how Untangle integrated different projects so they can run efficiently on a single, low-cost machine. Other common forms of productizing (described in an O’Reilly book, Open Source for the Enterprise: Managing Risks, Reaping Rewards) have also emerged from this company’s work:
- Enhancing projects such as SpamAssassin with the types of modules most users would want but that weren’t packaged in by the developers
- Providing a free “phone home” capability for automated updates of spam, spyware, and virus signatures, and of the products themselves
- Writing documentation
Untangle’s free product is released under the GPL version 2. They will offer an add-on Professional Package for sale to to mid-sized customers, to include live technical support and advanced management capabilities such as Active Directory integration and managing multiple web usage policies.