Let it rain: The triumph of trickle-down tech

Trickle-down doesn't work so well for economies, but it makes for great low-cost networking and storage gear

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The lines between enterprise and consumer-grade infrastructure devices are blurring faster than ever — which is saying a lot, given the advances of the past decade. The events of the past 30 years have shown that the concept of "trickle down" doesn’t work very well in economics, but it works great for technology. Alongside the massive strides made in various open source network, storage, and virtualization projects, trickle-down tech is why we’re suddenly seeing such advanced options available in consumer and prosumer devices today.

Essentially, we’ve brought enterprise tech to the small business.

We’re at a place where you can buy a $60 wireless access point and router that can do nearly anything you could possibly need at home or in a small business, as well as WPA2 Enterprise with LDAP authentication. Need to cut different SSIDs on different VLANs for security and guest networking? No problem. Need 802.1x and QoS? Not a problem. DD-WRT does all of this and more, and it's now coming standard on some wireless routers, rather than requiring a knowledgeable user to flash their compatible device. It’s becoming a standard.

The same with projects like pfSense. I celebrated pfSense a few weeks ago, but it deserves to be mentioned again. You’d be hard-pressed to find any task a commercial firewall can do that pfSense cannot, and for far, far less than the commercial alternative. You can even get support should you seek it. If you need a firewall capable of doing load balancing and QoS on multiple 1G links with fail-over redundancy, pfSense can do that for the cost of a suitable server. Have lots of IPSec VPNs? Get a box with AES-NI and go to town for pennies on the dollar versus commercial solutions.

Another area where the enterprise has come home is storage. A number of SOHO/small-business storage devices have optional 10G Ethernet and SSD storage, include iSCSI and NFS, and come VMware-certified. They also provide a seemingly endless number of other features, including firewalling, standard network services, media streaming, picture and video storage, cloud integration, email, VPN services, and even RADIUS authentication. A few have HDMI outputs, remote controls, and XBMC/Kodi built into the OS so that you can play back audio and video content directly from the NAS itself. We're talking 4K video playback and transcoding too.

This blend of enterprise and home features can be somewhat puzzling at times, but it's common, and there’s a market for it. Still, I find it odd that the same low-cost device can run a small-business VMware farm, handle email and MySQL tasks, and directly play back "MacGyver" reruns on a TV — possibly simultaneously.

Tellingly, the management interfaces of these storage devices are generally far easier to work with and much more agile than their counterparts in many enterprise-level storage solutions. I won't name names, but more than a few big-name storage vendors need to reinvent their management tools, like, starting five years ago.

Even in the larger arenas, we’re seeing the commoditization of what used to be only enterprise-level gear with enterprise-level pricing. SDN and the rise of white-box networking hardware is bringing high port counts of 10G Ethernet to the middle of the market. This is the same cycle we saw in the late 1990s when Linux on standard x86 servers brought the costs of proprietary enterprise server hardware and operating systems down to Earth. That is the same cycle that oversaw the death and dismemberment of several large companies that failed to adapt to the market shift in time.

Where Sun Microsystems once stood, now stand other companies that had best get this particular memo.

Meanwhile, we reap the rewards all the way down the line. Whether it’s a small company that can implement segmented wireless across several locations for only $100 per access point or a large company buying “prosumer” NAS devices for noncritical, low-transaction, or data archiving purposes, we’re all winning because of the killer combination of trickle-down hardware costs and open source solutions.