Will open networking lock you in?

While open networking may sound like it’s made up of interoperating parts that make for greater flexibility, it’s more difficult to achieve than you might think.

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There’s open, then there’s open.  At least that seems to be the case with network technology. Maybe it’s the popularity and impact of open-source software, or maybe it’s just that the word “open” makes you think of being wild, happy, and free—whatever it is, the concept of openness in networking is catching on. Which means, of course, that the definition is getting fuzzier every day.

When I talk with enterprises, they seem to think that openness in networking is the opposite of proprietary, which they then define is a technology for which there is a single source. That suggests that open networking is based on technology for which multiple sources exist, but as logical as that sounds, it may not help much.

Let’s take the ever-popular concept of white-box switches and routers. Are these open networking in action? Probably not as much as you’d think. Are all white boxes from all sources equivalent?  No, and in particular they often use different networking chips that have different interfaces to the software, which means that if you take your white-box software from one white box to another, it may not run.

Everyone knows hardware these days is just something you run software on, so what is open software for networking?  Is it open source or is there another criteria to be applied?  For high-performance networking, it’s actually hard to find a true open-source package because of those pesky network chips.  The chip interfaces are different, as I noted above, so you need a PC-like “driver” concept to create a consistent software interface across the chips.  There are initiatives, like the P4 flow programming language, that could support an open higher-layer switch or router with a licensed P4 driver, but not all chip vendors support P4. Broadcom, the biggest, has its own P4 competitor, Network Programming Language or NPL.

Should we admit that true open networking is doomed, then?  Maybe not, because there’s another more complicated criteria for openness, and we get to it by looking at what users don’t like about proprietary networking—lock-in.

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