Home Grown / Open Source vs Appliances

The last few days I have been having a pretty good debate with a friend about the virtues of open source vs Appliances. At times its gotten pretty heated but its all in good fun. The current debate centers around email infrastructure. There are options on the table to use an appliance, or a 3rd party service to control the spam. Of course I was appalled that SpamAssassin and brethren were not on the table.Don’t get me wrong, I am a lazy bastard and appliances can be great. But there are budget crunches all over the place and saving money is important. Sure, implementing an open source solution can be costly in man hours. But a licensed product is guaranteed costly over the long term. The debate went into the gutter so far as to say no one uses SpamAssassin. I of course rebutted with the list of commercial appliances that run SpamAssassin, services that use SpamAssassin that use SpamAssassin as at least one tool. I’m not saying that SpamAssassin alone will fulfill all of your filtering needs by any means. But I do believe that if someone can ship an appliance or base a service off of mail filtering, that I can build something comprised of open source tools that can do the job at least as well. Granted it may not have a slick interface but it will work, and its maintenance cost is sunk because you are already paying me to do other things.

This is a belief that permeates my being. If the tools are available I can stick them together to make something. I’m not a developer, but I can even write things myself to a limited degree. I don’t think that I could write a hypervisor, but I know I can use the opensource Xen hypervisor just as well as I can use the Citrix provided Xenserver. I don’t think I could write my own spam filter, but I know I go for weeks without getting a single spam in my inbox and I am only running SpamAssassin on my mail server.

Whats your take? Remember I love appliances because they do make life easy. The premise here is that opensource products work just as well as commercial counterparts and that in time of increasingly shrinking budgets it can make sense to maintain these infrastructures yourself.


  • Logan Windows Vista Firefox 3.5.7 wrote:

    I’ve been on both sides of this argument at different times in my career. Sorry, but your friend has it right.

    I spent years as the email admin at a small ISP using open source tools, including Spam Assassin. Those responsibilities took about 4 hrs a day on average, maintaining rules, tweaking access lists, and attempting to develop scripts to automate updates.

    When that ISP closed, my next job was in a company that had one of the more effective anti-spam appliances installed. It was a revelation. For a few thousand dollars per year, it just worked. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than what I could cobble together on my own. … and it take near zero maintenance time by our personnel.

    Someone has to keep up with endless cycle of spam fighting. It’s much cheaper to pay someone else to do it so you can spend your time on higher priority projects.

  • I have to come down on the side of homegrown, just because you know your level of competency but you don’t know if a vendor is really going to deliver or not. I have been burned so many times by vendors promising and then failing to deliver. If I don’t produce results then I know who to blame. 🙂

    There are exceptions to this, for example it very well might make sense to use a spam filtering appliance as in the first comment. However I would never outsource my entire email infrastructure to a company like google. Something like that is just too valuable to trust to a third party.

  • In regards to email filtering, the problem comes into the scale of management. If you want to look at open source options you have to include several pieces, upwards of ten or more. When you start getting to a scale of 2+ million attempted email connections a day and then have to trouble shoot those connections for any one of the thousands of customers, your trouble just increased by 10 fold when including all the open source tools. If you can get an appliance that you know has a good name behind it and the company is offering to spend the money for the appliance to provide a better experience to the end user I don’t see the debate. Open source works great in some places but for spam filtering there isn’t a complete package yet. Sure there are products like Zimbra, but even their mail filtering is gimped and who wants a whole cake when you already have one and just need a piece. If someone know of an open source product that has complete management with tracking facilities that can be handed off to other departments with hardware guarantees and a decent support contract offering please let me know.

    @Phil I don’t know what vendors you are looking at, but if you don’t have trust in them then I don’t think your looking hard enough nor would you make the right decision. When you look for a vendor to supply you with a product one of the first things you should look for is if the vendor can deliver. Do your homework first and ask others what they think. I don’t think outsourcing the whole piece is good either. Especially when you tell your customers that you are providing the service, it just looks unprofessional. I do though think that it is ok to split different pieces of the mail into maybe an appliance to handle filtering and maybe another one to handle storage.

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