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Why there's no open-source standard-bearer for the network

Jon Gold | Dec. 3, 2014
Plenty of reasons, according to experts, including the difficulty of challenging established incumbents, the dangers of getting eaten alive by a large customer and the sheer scale and complexity of managing a heterodox network in an orthodox way.

Open-source software plays an increasingly prominent role in many areas of modern business IT it's in servers, databases and even the cloud. Vendors like Red Hat, Canonical and others have managed to graft open-source principles onto a profitable business model. The former company became the first open-source-centered business with $1 billion in annual revenue in 2012.

So what about the network? Why isn't there an open-source alternative there?

Plenty of reasons, according to experts, including the difficulty of challenging established incumbents, the dangers of getting eaten alive by a large customer and the sheer scale and complexity of managing a heterodox network in an orthodox way.

THE HEAVYWEIGHTS

Obviously, the incumbents in most fields of enterprise technology are formidable enough, but networking hopefuls have to contend with a bona-fide giant of the realm in the form of Cisco which sells between 65% and 70% of the world's enterprise switches, 80% of the enterprise routers, and 18% of the security appliances still good for tops in its category, according to IDC.

More than that, however, they're actually pleasing their customers, according to 451 Research analyst Peter Christy.

"If you talk to Cisco customers, rather than viewing them as a predatory, monopolistic company they would like to get away from, they view them as the best tech vendor they deal with in terms of helping the customer succeed," he said.

Companies have to compete with Cisco to do a better job providing a working network, which isn't easy to do. (Not that it's stopped some companies from trying Brocade bought open-source networking software maker Vyatta in 2012 with that end in mind.) And that's not to say that companies that, like Cisco, depend on branded hardware are going to have it all their own way in perpetuity.

John Michelsen, CTO for CA Technologies

Neela Jacques is the executive director of the Open Daylight project, which is a collaborative group that works to create open-source networking software. He argues that some pricey proprietary hardware isn't worth it.

"In some areas, there's been tremendous innovation and differentiation, where you're paying $100,000 for a box and it really is solving a problem you couldn't solve otherwise," he said. "But especially at the lower end of the market, there's been very, very high margins for a long time, and the boxes haven't really changed as much."

All too often, Jacques said, networking hardware is made by a no-name ODM in China, programmed with a specific vendor's network operating system, and marked up by a factor of five to 10.

"People have been looking at that and saying wait a second if we could just create an open-source version of that network operating system, then someone could get the exact same SKU that they're putting into their environment,'" he added.

 

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