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Open source network software matures, but needs incentives for use

Open source network software is maturing, but the networking industry needs to create compelling economic incentives for large suppliers and buyers to contribute, as well.

For IT applications, the widespread use of open source has redefined how software is created and maintained by...

leveraging broad communities of contributors. Open source network software for network applications is maturing, as the industry adapts its innovative ideas to the specific requirements of network and telecom applications.

Increasingly, the IT community is leveraging open source software as an integral part of new application development. Many organizations have realized open source benefits in the form of leading-edge design, improved flexibility and reduced costs. Open source code is generally free, but most organizations report the need for significant support and maintenance -- either via internal resources or by paying for external services.

Open source benefits in networking applications

Software-based networking -- as opposed to traditional device-based networks, with their integrated hardware and software -- is in its early stages of market development. The networking market can benefit from the open source experiences in the IT industry in terms of community contribution, accelerated innovation and reduced costs.

Many IT organizations recognize the need for open, interoperable, software-based networking. In a software-defined world, the network must be open, standards-based, programmable, agile and adaptive. DevOps teams should be able to quickly and easily design, install and manage networks that meet the specific requirements of their unique application environments.

Current status of open source network software

The industry must also create economic incentives for large suppliers and buyers to contribute to open source networking.

Most network suppliers are using open source network software to reduce research and development costs, increase innovation and improve time to market. Many network and IT suppliers, including Cisco, Ericsson, Intel, Red Hat, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Huawei, have contributed software to open source communities via standards organizations. Other vendors, like Juniper Networks and Big Switch Networks, offer open source versions of their network software. AT&T recently released a significant part of its management and orchestration code as open source.

The ability of end users -- both enterprise and service providers -- to leverage open source software for networking applications remains limited, however. Among the end-user community, only the large hyperscale cloud suppliers, like Google, Microsoft and Facebook, have broad, large-scale deployment of open source network software.

Organizations driving open source

A large number of organizations support various aspects of open source network software development and the associated communities. These include the Open Networking Foundation, Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter, Open Compute Project, OpenStack, Open Networking User Group (ONUG) and many others. The challenge is many of these organizations are working on the same or overlapping software networking projects. Organizations wishing to start open source network software projects are often unsure which community or standards are likely to gain the most traction long term.

Challenges to deploying open source in networking

Networking open source adoption challenges run the gamut of technical, political, cultural and economic. On the technical front, the networking community must adapt IT code to the strict interoperability and performance requirements of high-speed networking. Politically, standards organizations, leading suppliers and large buyers must agree on the common frameworks and architectures for software networking. Culturally, network engineers need to adopt a new mindset and learn new skills to work in software-driven environments with rapid change.

Economics is perhaps the biggest challenge area. The network and telecom infrastructure business generates approximately $200 billion in annual revenues. But the open source community has yet to create appropriate business incentives for large vendors and users to broadly contribute to open source efforts. Large network equipment suppliers are skeptical of software business models. The large communications service providers build their networks to provide differentiated services and have not yet broadly contributed to open source communities.

The IT industry has been significantly affected by the rapid adoption of open source software, like Linux and OpenStack. The networking and telecom industries now have a wide range of open source options, all running on standard hardware platforms, like Intel x86, ARM and Broadcom switches. The recent Open Networking Summit, ONUG, OpenStack and Red Hat events were full of use cases and examples for open software networking. The challenge is for the networking and telecom industries to develop a critical mass of standards, architectures and related expertise to widely adopt open source network software design. The industry must also create economic incentives for large suppliers and buyers to contribute to open source networking.

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This was last published in May 2017

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