Are we in a golden age of open source or just openwashing?

More developers than ever are contributing to open-source projects, but many vendors are practicing openwashing where their claims are more spin than reality

Are we in a golden age of open source or just openwashing?
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We are witnessing a golden age of open source. Never in the history of the technology industry have we seen so many developers coding in the open, jointly working on common codebases that can be leveraged by any individual user or company.

This trend is a huge step forward, with broad benefits to both the user and vendor community. It is spurring significantly greater innovation and interoperability across solutions. 

+ Also on Network World: The shift in open source: A new kind of platform war +

Our entire industry has fallen in love with all things open, especially open source. Linux has become all-pervasive from supercomputers to GoPros to vehicles, and new open-source projects are sprouting like daylilies in the Texas summer. In networking alone we have Open Network Summit, OpenFlow, OpenDaylight, ONOS, OPNFV, OpenNFV, OpenSwitch, OpenvSwitch, Open Virtual Networking, Telecom Infra Project (Facebook), IO Visor Project, FD.io, Open Source Mano and, most recently, Open-O.

In IOT, we have Netbeast and Node-RED, while for cloud, containers and PaaS, there’s Open Container Initiative, Cloud Native Computing Foundation, Docker (the open source project), Rocket, CloudFoundry, OpenShift, CloudStack and, of course, OpenStack

These are not small, meager efforts run by two engineers in a garage. The stakeholders and contributors behind these projects, representative of the largest companies in the industry, are investing deeply in open source: IBM, Cisco, VMware, Intel, Huawei, NEC, HPE, Ericsson, Qualcomm, Red Hat, Citrix, Oracle, EMC, AT&T, Google, Facebook, China Unicom, China Mobile and Telefonica to name a few.

We’ve seen an especially amazing transformation in the IT and information and communications technology (ICT) industries over the past few years. It used to be that almost no one talked about “openness” and open source. Hardware and software companies were focused on building ever-better solutions to solve their customer’s problems, and you were lucky if you got a usable API. Open source was limited to the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Python/Perl) stack, and that was about it. 

Marketing spin about vendor 'open' credentials

Yet underneath the covers, things aren’t quite so rosy. While many vendors are indeed contributing to open-source projects, the number and quality of products being offered to the market based on open source remains more limited than we would hope.

While many vendors tout their open credentials, too often this is openwashing—marketing spin rather than reality. Almost every vendor pitch made to China Unicom, AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Fidelity, etc. includes slides on how “open” the solution is, how it’s based on “open standards” and has “open APIs.”  Many vendors show colorful charts on the number of engineers who contribute to various open-source projects. Yet when we dig deeper, the facts don’t always match the claims.

Vendor lock-in is tremendously attractive to vendors, so it would be naïve to believe vendors would abandon such a powerful force. Most solutions pitched by vendors remain closed and proprietary. Too often customers encounter a bait and switch, where a vendor touts their openness and then turns around and pushes a closed proprietary solution. 

Open camp vs. closed camp

Within almost every major company we see two camps: the open camp and the closed camp. In many cases, engineers, product managers and executives are right now battling over their company’s strategy. Many vendors have both closed and open solutions, often with direct overlaps. While the advocates for open have made great strides within many of these companies, they are far from winning the war. As long as proprietary solutions keep selling, we will continue to see this dynamic. 

Some companies, such as Facebook, Google and Baidu, are simply bypassing vendors for key parts of their infrastructure and building and open-sourcing their own software, design and architectures.

This phenomenon isn’t isolated to networking; cloudwashing and containerwashing are also on the rise, with vendors trying to convince customers and prospects that they are a player in the burgeoning world of containers. 

There is another way, but it will take leadership from the end-user community. RFIs and RFPs need to require solutions based on open source. Companies such as China Unicom, AT&T and Tencent are already taking the lead by stating unequivocally that they strongly favor open technologies over closed ones. For example, Tencent told each of its vendors they must leverage or integrate with the open source OpenDaylight platform if they wish to sell to them. This would enable open solutions to outsell closed ones, declaring victory for the open camp. 

The open question for the rest of the user community is: Will you join us in demanding that vendors lead with open solutions and put an end to openwashing?

Mr. Shao Guang Lu, SVP, China Unicom, contributed to this article.

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