Using Non-Enterprise Gear in an Enterprise World
Different IT organizations have different needs. The one-man shop might find the best success with open-source software, while enterprises often need something a little more. But occasionally you’ll see an enterprise using open-source or something designed for a small to medium-sized business. This can be a good thing in certain instances, though it’s not without risks.
So, why might you want to use SMB or open-source gear in an enterprise setting, and when might it be a good thing?
You may not be able to run it across your entire deployment, but the free Pi-Hole software, for example, can test DNS filters in a branch office or lab environment. Free routers and firewalls, like VyOS, mimic well-known vendors and can be deployed in a lab environment. These can be useful if you’re trying to get a feel for a vendor before making a substantial financial commitment.
A low price tag—or even a free price—can be appealing. Ubiquiti UniFi offers networking gear designed (and priced) for small to medium companies, and some enterprises use it. It doesn’t have all of the same features as equipment designed for enterprises, but the price difference is significant enough that enterprises are willing to use it anyways.
Often, you might need a device—let’s say a small switch, for example—right now. You can’t wait for your usual vendor to ship it to you. So, you go to your local electronics store, buy whatever’s available, and plug it in to the network.
A word of caution: purchasing IT equipment and/or software outside the IT department’s approval chain is known as shadow IT. While you’ve solved your immediate problem, you’ve also potentially introduced an unknown vendor that may not be manageable. This might be OK as a temporary fix, but will it be replaced later? If it sits there and does the job for $5, it might get forgotten. The presence of shadow IT can introduce security risks and compliance issues, so proceed at your own risk.
Most SMB gear is meant for small to medium-sized businesses. Scalability can be an issue—though some SMB software is built to scale for the enterprise—and features can be an even bigger issue. The only thing worse than a missing feature is a half-baked one. It’s there, but it doesn’t work the way you expected it to do. Or perhaps, the vendor threw out a technical term, leading people to believe it’s what they need, only for the IT pro to find out it’s something completely different.
Support is another factor. Few open-source or freeware solutions offer a support package beyond perhaps a help forum. Features might be dropped with little to no warning, and sometimes with no reason provided. That’s a problem if it’s a feature on which you rely.
Finally, when the price is so low, you have to ask: is it too good to be true? I recently read about a company using Google ads in their management interface—a bit weird to suddenly see ads in an enterprise environment and could ultimately cost users their privacy. With cloud systems running in the background, you don’t always know what’s happening with your data.
So, is using open-source gear in an enterprise environment a good or a bad thing? It’s debatable. It’s not always manageable—your network monitoring software might not understand those tiny unknown vendors because they often do their own thing without following protocols.
There are certainly risks and benefits, and I don’t intend to push you either for or against—ultimately, you have to weigh your choices and do what’s for your organization.