Open Season on Proprietary Networks

Cisco, Facebook, Avaya, and others open up to open source. What does this mean for network managers?

By Arthur Cole | Posted May 10, 2013
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Open source is everywhere these days, even in networking. In fact, reaping the full benefits of virtualized, or software-defined, architectures may require networking to embrace open source technology to an even greater degree than server or storage infrastructure. The distributed networks of the future will require extensive interoperability to maintain end-to-end connectivity, after all. In pursuit of that interoperability, many vendors are looking to open frameworks.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, even Cisco Systems, which has quite a legacy hardware portfolio to protect, acknowledges the benefits of open formats like OpenFlow and OpenStack. Cisco is taking a relatively cautious approach to open networking, though. The vendor hopes to give its own platforms a competitive edge by offering broad integration with the open network community while simultaneously providing specialty ASICs that give value-added functionality to Cisco software running on Cisco hardware.

Others—primarily those not beholden to any vendor's network hardware to begin with—are pursuing a purer open strategy. In this arena, one particularly surprising player has emerged: Facebook. With its Open Compute Project, Facebook hopes to move beyond social networking to networking networking by leveraging its customized server, storage, and power platforms as reference designs for the data center industry. The project's latest move seeks to stake a large claim to the enterprise infrastructure market. At Interop earlier this week, Open Compute's Frank Frankovsky announced plans to develop an open hardware device designed to accommodate various operating systems, in much the same way that personal computer hardware can accommodate various OS installs.

At the same time, other networking firms are embracing open source to enhance their products' ability to reach across disparate architectures. Extreme Networks, for example, developed its Open Fabric Edge architecture with an eye toward helping campus networks accommodate new mobile and virtual platforms. The system provides a unified view of WLAN, UC, audio-video bridging (AVB), and physical security infrastructures. It uses programmable APIs and both OpenStack and OpenFlow for network customization.

Open platforms are also making their mark in wide area infrastructure. At Interop earlier this week, Avaya showed off a Shortest Path Bridging (SPB) system, which aims to improve performance and service delivery in disparate networks by placing provisioning functionality on the network edge. The system utilizes the Intermediate System to Intermediate System (IS-IS) protocol to build multipath fabric architectures between network nodes, cutting the costs and complexity usually associated with inter-node network topologies. The multi-vendor demo was staged primarily to prove the efficacy of SPB’s interoperability capabilities. Firms like Alcatel-Lucent, HP, and Spirent contributed various technologies and service platforms.

Without question, open networking is more easily accomplished in software than in hardware, especially if you hope to integrate it into legacy infrastructure. That alone will make open source important to future networking development. Keep in mind, however, that open systems do not inherently improve network performance or simplify operations. What open systems can do is help streamline network infrastructure and improve resource utilization to enable the kind of flexibility that the increasingly dynamic data universe demands.

In that vein, network managers should apply the same purchasing criteria to open source platforms as they do to standard equipment. Don't rush to deploy open architectures out of fear of arriving late to the party. The ultimate goal is not simply to build openness into enterprise infrastructure. It's to create cost-effective solutions that enhance end-user productivity.

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