In Featured, Industry Insights, SDN

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
  • Interoperability
  • Open source (typically software, but increasingly hardware as well)
  • Interchangeability
  • Access

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.

Showing 4 comments
  • Reply

    I love that you started this conversation Mike. I think that in this shift to mutual participation and invention in Open Source by Manufacturer, Customer and Integrator that some companies have used Open as a marketing message.

    Good or bad, having a discussion about open ness and inter-operability is important. I’m glad that you started it.

    • mike.bushong

      I originally wrote this because of all the talk of “Open SDN”. I don’t personally have any religion about any of the various flavors of Open, but I think the imprecision in the discussion leads to bad decision making. If the desired outcome is choice and flexibility, for example, simply looking for a standard (out of an SDO) is not necessarily the right action. EIGRP is standard, but since no one else supports it, you don’t end up with choice or flexibility (using this as an example and not an indictment against Cisco).

      Would love to see the industry talk more plainly about requirements. I suspect we will find that things like open access (as with APIs for control) and open source (as with OpenDaylight and OpenStack) play a larger role than people might imagine. I also think that interchangeability needs to be especially considered when deciding on what features to deploy. The more specific the feature, the less likely that there are a number of choices to replace it. And when you make dozens or hundreds of feature choices, you end up locking yourself in…even if they were “standard”.


  • Aernoud van de Graaff

    The thing with open is that once an open solution becomes commercially interesting, the drive for a common goal (develop and use a solution that is available to all and all can contribute in making it better) suffers as contributors build their own variant of the open solution to ensure customer lock-in. Though they still probably comply with all the standards, they reduce the interoperability and the interchangeability. In the networkspace I do not see Nicira (currently VMware NSX) work well with Cisco’s version of SDN (btw, running in hardware).

    E.g. for OpenStack (because of the complex nature of integrating all the components), I see enterprise solutions being developed by IBM and HP, and I am sure there are more. Like Linux I think we will end up with several variants of OpenStack. Is that a bad thing. Not really, but you have to limit your expectations on interoperability and interchangeability.

    From a user perspective I would focus more on ensuring your IT environment is truly hybrid and you can move your workloads from (and to) you own environment to public providers. I feel this will be the next ‘open’, but then on a service level in stead of technology…..

    • mike.bushong

      You make a fantastic point here, and this is why I think that the discussion needs to move beyond standards or imprecise definitions for “Open”. If you want interchangeability, then make that the goal. If you want interoperability (for your hybrid environments), then buy based on that. But the architectures will need to reflect the actual underlying driver. You nailed it with this example.

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