The networking industry at large is talking a lot more these days about all things “Open”. This Open Awakening is being fueled somewhat by movements around SDN, network virtualization, and NFV, but I think the real drivers are probably deeper than that. Tolerance for deeply integrated vertical solutions seems to be waning in some circles, and this has created a very real anti-vendor-lock-in push in IT as a whole and networking in particular.
I actually take no issue with the Open Movement. I think it is healthy to voice what has likely been latent frustrations for years. I don’t even really mind that marketeers everywhere have seized on the sentiment and begun pushing it more aggressively (especially in the context of Open SDN). But I do think we do ourselves a collective disservice by not being more precise with what exactly it is we want when we say open. We run the risk of relegating a concept that is very real and has very tangible implications on our business to nothing more than a marketing term bandied about with reckless imprecision.
So what exactly is it about Open that we really care about? In my mind, there are probably five different things we really mean what we say open:
- Standards-based technologies
- Open source (typically software, but increasingly hardware as well)
Each of these is somewhat different, and we need to be precise in what we actually mean. I actually don’t have a strong opinion about which Open attributes are important; I think different attributes are important at different times.
Standards – Discussions around Open frequently gravitate towards technology standards and the bodies that support them (IETF, ONF< and so on). In this context, the thinking is that technologies that are standardized will exhibit fewer (if any) vendor-specific elements. A well-ocumented technical specification means that any vendor can develop the technology, and that components from disparate vendors should be able to interoperate.
Interoperability – In practice, the most common meaning behind the word Open is interoperable. For many the end goal is generally an IT solution that can be effectively deployed in a heterogeneous, multi-vendor environment.
Open source – In some technology areas, Open has become shorthand for open source. Advocates of open source initiatives are primarily interested in allowing a community of developers to leverage and build upon the work of the collective.
Interchangeability – If interoperability is the measure of how well devices can interact, interchangeability is the measure of the degree to which multiple items are directly substitutive. More simply, if device A and device B are functionally equivalent, they are interchangeable.
Access – For some solutions, the word Open refers primarily to access of information. This is particularly true for solutions that require API or integration layers.
Each of these has its own merits, so the intent is not to advocate any one over the other. But the implications of using the term Open to refer to all simultaneously can be somewhat profound. It is certainly possible to be one without the other, so the question is: are you really getting what you want? If you are not sure what exactly you want, you ultimately end up being at the whim of a marketing message, which serves no one particularly well.