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An open source networking ecosystem shapes up

Open source networking is becoming a reality now that standards bodies, vendors and development communities are working together. Yet these players face a slew of challenges.

Open source software, increasingly influential in the IT industry, is poised to significantly impact enterprise...

and telecom networking. A number of open source networking groups, including the Open Networking Foundation, OpenDayLight, OpenStack, and most recently Open NFV, have the potential to accelerate innovation in the networking industry.

With open source networking, ISVs will be able to develop a wide range of new networking services and applications, and users can custom design their infrastructure based on individual need.

The dark ages of networking: Proprietary middleware

The networking and telecom industries have traditionally designed proprietary operating systems, with specialized middleware, running on highly optimized network hardware. Classic examples include Cisco Ethernet switches and routers, Ciena optical equipment, and Ericsson wireless base stations. Previous attempts to standardize network-specific middleware (e.g., the Service Availability Forum) have had only limited impact on the industry.

How SDN and NFV change networking software

Over the last few years, the significant resources invested in SDN and network functions virtualization (NFV) have set the stage for open source networking software and standard hardware in enterprise and carrier networks. In 2012, the ONF became the first organization to significantly influence open network design with OpenFlow. Founded in 2013, OpenDaylight has collected a broad group of networking buyers and suppliers to develop open standard and open source networking software. OpenStack working groups are also developing open source networking code via Neutron. Juniper's Open Contrail and Brocade Vyatta are examples of open networking efforts that started within vendors.

The rise of network virtualization and NFV have also brought open source to the telecom infrastructure. In October 2014, the Linux Foundation announced Open NFV (OPN), driven by members of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) NFV organization. OPN's goal is to combine (and test) upstream code from OpenStack, OpenDaylight and the Linux Kernel with management, orchestration and security code to meet the specific telecom infrastructure requirements.

Benefits of open source networking software

Open source has the potential to unlock network software innovation by creating a broad ISV and developer community independent of the largest network equipment suppliers.

Increased interest in open source networking fundamentally comes from the demands of both telecom and enterprise buyers that need accelerated innovation, increased flexibility and lower costs, while eliminating the status quo of vendor lock-in.

Open source has the potential to unlock network software innovation by creating a broad ISV and developer community independent of the largest network equipment suppliers. The IT industry has a number of examples of open source projects (Linux, Open Compute Project, Cloud Stack and OpenStack) that have already made huge progress in these areas.

Open source networking challenges

The road to broad open source networking adoption is long, with a quite a few hurdles to overcome along the way. For one thing, the vast majority of engineers who work on network software are employed by the large suppliers (e.g. Huawei, Ericsson, Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia, etc.). Meanwhile, these large network suppliers face the conflict of maintaining their existing revenue streams through selling boxes while supporting multiple standards organizations.

What's more, the networking ISV community is relatively nascent and small. Interested parties, including Intel, HP and Red Hat, are investing to adapt IT technology for large network/telecom use and to accelerate open source and open standards for networking. Large telecom organizations, such as AT&T, NTT, Verizon and Telefonica, have the resources to develop open network software, but only time will tell if they are willing to contribute innovative code to open standards bodies.

The long and short of open source networking

Network buyers will have a wide range of choices in how to implement and evolve their networks. Open source networking will accelerate the decoupling of network software from hardware, and enable a vibrant network ISV community. It will take time for network suppliers and buyers to adopt open networking, and early implementation is likely to come from Web-scale organizations, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, as well as the largest telecom suppliers.

About the author:
Lee Doyle is a principal analyst at Doyle Research, which delivers quantitative and qualitative analysis, forecasting, and market positioning advice to network and IT industry professionals. At Doyle Research, Lee researches the evolution of intelligent networks: SDN, Opex and Commercial off the Shelf.

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This was last published in September 2014

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