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What does 'open network' really mean today?

One of the Open Networking User Group's most important conclusions of 2015: "Open networking" now means user choice, not a particular protocol or open source project.

One of the most important questions the Open Networking User Group considered in the last year was: What do "interoperable" and "open" mean in today's market? Twenty-five years ago these concepts were easier to define, as there were two main open protocols to consider: the Open Systems Interconnection model and TCP/IP. We all know which approach won. But the point is that we defined "open" by a protocol or set of protocols that exchanged information between devices to move packets. We all know TCP/IP is an open protocol defined by the Internet Engineering Task Force. And yes, it allowed different vendors to connect in this forwarding of TCP/IP packets, thus providing a level of interoperability.  

What most don’t know is that an engineer at the MITRE Corporation held a million-dollar-plus contract over the heads of vendors, saying the contract would be granted to the vendor or vendors that supported Simple Network Management Protocol, as SNMP delivered interoperability. The vendors at the time were willing to adopt an open approach to forwarding packets, but management of devices was proprietary. Thus, in reality, SNMP fell short of enabling total interoperability by today's standards -- as NetOps would have to master various network management systems that would naturally limit the number of vendors.  

'Open' now means choice and options -- not necessarily a particular protocol, technology or open source project.

In today's market, there is no TCP/IP or SNMP equivalent that will open up the networking industry. At a 2015 Open Networking User Group (ONUG) board meeting, we reviewed the results of a survey that asked the ONUG community “How open is your network?" Ninety-seven percent said they had "not at all" open or "somewhat" open networks. We pondered this result and ultimately agreed that "open" now means choice and options -- not necessarily a particular protocol, technology or open source project. The separation of proprietary hardware from its software is at the root of today’s open software-defined infrastructure movement and spans networking, storage and servers -- encompassing both legacy applications and new, distributed computing, based upon microservices, library OS, unikernel, etc. 

Open networks call for decoupling software and hardware, which has two implications. First, hardware becomes less relevant, and hence the drive for commoditization to lower its cost. Second, software can run on different types of hardware -- such as white box switches, server/x86 or disk drives -- and can support integration of embedded functionality and external controller applications via APIs. Network virtualization, container networking, network overlays and DevOps automation are services enabled by the separation we see in open networks. This is where choice and options are coming from today -- the opening or separation of hardware and software as IT moves to a software-defined world.

Interoperability means IT controls procurement, mitigating vendor lock-in. Many are looking for interoperability through automated orchestration software that configures and change-manages infrastructure components, be it servers, virtual or physical networking devices, or storage. Just like SNMP allowed interoperability at the management level 25 years ago, so too could orchestration software like Kubernetes, Mesophere, Ansible, Puppet Labs, SaltStack, Chef, CFEngine, Vagrant, homegrown DevOps, et al, today. The goal is for these orchestration systems, some of which are open source projects, to enable the mixing and matching of devices at each level of the IT stack, through control, automation and management. At ONUG we've announced the IT services lifecycle management framework, which seeks to open up orchestration so interoperability can once again be a central part of the IT stack.

As we move into 2016, ONUG is committed to advancing open networks, open software-defined infrastructure and interoperability, with two major meetings planned for the coming year. Intuit will host our spring conference in Mountain View, California, on May 9-11. In the fall, ONUG returns to New York, meeting at the Metropolitan Pavilion on Oct. 24-26.  

Next Steps

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This was last published in December 2015

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