The open source impact on networking

As other areas of the technology industry embrace open source, how is the trend affecting networking?

The rate of innovation in the technology world is startling. 

Just consider the past few years of cloud computing; virtualisation; Intel’s new Haswell processors; big data; social networking; software-defined networking (SDN); the tablet computer revolution; and even tech that is just gaining traction now, such as mobile payments and wearable technology.

The datacentre has not been left out of those innovations; in fact, it can be argued it is at the forefront of the changes enterprise technology is going through. 

Most of the trends mentioned above affect the datacentre and networking spaces many times over by increasing the need for more storage and more bandwidth, while hoping to keep costs and power consumption down.

But one of the key themes of many of these new technologies is being open, and again the datacentre is not being left behind in that regard. 

Opening up the network is not necessarily a new thing; OpenFlow (and by extension SDN), Open vSwitch and Project Floodlight are just three recent examples.

Creating waves

There are many startups creating waves in the open source networking sector – Big Switch Networks is perhaps the most exciting, while the likes of Nicira, Contrail Systems and LineRate Systems have been snapped up by traditional networking suppliers (VMware, in Nicira’s case) looking to make their mark.

Much of this innovation is being driven by users though rather than suppliers. Facebook’s Open Compute Project, for example, was borne out of the social networking giant’s need for more control over the components used in its datacentres.

In our view [the switch] should be just another server in the rack that shows up with no operating system on it

Frank Frankovsky, vice-president of hardware design and supply chain operations at Facebook

It was launched in April 2011 by engineers at Facebook who built their own software, servers and datacentres from scratch. 

The group’s website said designers and engineers stayed true to their hacker roots by sharing the technologies as they evolved. Cutting out the hardware suppliers in the middle saved Facebook 24% on infrastructure costs and made its datacentres 38% more efficient.  

The missing piece

The obvious missing piece in Open Compute’s arsenal was networking, until Frank Frankovsky, vice-president of hardware design and supply chain operations at Facebook and president of the Open Compute Project Foundation, announced open source switches that were able to run any operating system.

As Frankovsky said when unveiling the switch at Interop 2013: “Unfortunately, the [network] hardware and the operating system (OS) today are still sold as a black box. If I buy a switch, it comes with an OS embedded on it.”

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Frankovsky expanded on those ideas.

“It dawned on us that we are building these massively-scaled datacentres in large part out of open source software and hardware, but the way we're connecting them to each other and to the internet is still through a very closed and proprietary switched network,” he said.

“The ability to treat the switch hardware separately from switch software is a real critical component of this, so that customers can have flexibility and choice in how they deploy the hardware. In our view [the switch] should be just another server in the rack that shows up with no operating system on it.”

The next logical step

Datacentre networking is the next logical step to get the open source treatment, said Joe Skorupa, a Gartner analyst focused on advanced network architectures.

“If you look at what is needed in the datacentre from a networking perspective, you can argue that we’ve gone the wrong direction,” he told Computer Weekly.

“There has been a big push of having a single network OS that runs across all your products. But datacentre needs are relatively simple and the goal is stability. WAN is driven by a complex environment where feature velocity is most important. They are diametrically opposed.”

Skorupa added: “Of the maybe five million lines of code you see running in a switch, you could argue that in a datacentre you need only maybe a quarter of a million. 

"The rest of that is liability: the more lines of code you have, the more bugs, unintended consequences and instability you have. One of the things the open source guys are doing is looking at what’s most simple for the datacentre and leaving everything else out.”

Focus on innovation

So what can Facebook, and the rest of the industry, hope to get out of taking an open source approach to networking? 

Traditionally, advocates of open source technologies state increased customisation and reduce costs are two of the key benefits. However, Skorupa said innovation will be the primary focus.

“It’s less about customisation; we are not going to see folks bringing in their own routing protocols for giggles. In the datacentre the goal is stability,” he said. 

“The problem we’ve had in networking innovation before was that if you wanted to do something exciting, you had to raise $150m to build hardware to ship the product. If you don’t have to do that, and if you really can leverage open source, then there is the potential to really open up innovation.”

“It means substantially more innovation because it isn’t locked up. It means dramatically lower prices, greater risks and it means new and interesting business models,” he said.

If you really can leverage open source, then there is the potential to really open up innovation

Joe Skorupa, analyst at Gartner

These new business models could include companies selling their software running on open source hardware, just to disrupt the likes of Cisco.

But alongside the benefits, there are, of course, risks, particularly from a buyer’s perspective. 

As Skorupa pointed out, if there are many companies all building switches that look the same and have the same components inside, how can you tell who is using really high quality power supplies? How do you know the latest code release works on the hardware you have sitting around?

The fact that many business will have invested heavily in proprietary networking gear over the last few years will also hold back the open source movement.

So, despite the potentially huge benefits, it seems true open source networking is a long way off. The datacentre is the heartbeat of many organisations so businesses naturally take a conservative approach to it; a rapid move to open source in the datacentre will not happen.

A three- to five-year wait is most likely before the networking industry embraces widespread open source. But when it does, as other technology strands have before it, the benefits will be felt far and wide.

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