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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.

Christy noted that three of the four biggest clouds out there Amazon, Facebook, and Google, with Microsoft the odd company out build their own networking boxes. Even hardware makers like Riverbed say that commodity hardware is the wave of the future.

"Why should they buy the same thing from Cisco if they can build what they want, somewhat tweaked, by themselves, with the same outside manufacturers?" he asked.


Even so, CA Technologies CTO John Michelsen said, attempts to create a broad-based performance management framework in an open-source manner, like OpenNMS, haven't been terribly successful because the issues faced are simply very difficult.

"It's a freaking hard problem. It's just a lot of things to try to cover, and the market moves," he said.

The well-known aphorism of UNIX philosophy says to "write programs that do one thing and do it well" a problematic stance for broad-based network management and performance optimization systems, which are, almost by definition, heavily multi-functional.

Michelsen said that his company's application performance management product is designed to monitor eight separate aspects of the network.

"It's very hard to bring an integrated set of very deep-science things in several different areas. Each of these different types of monitoring are their own science project," he said.


Despite the philosophical and logistical problems, open-source technology is still a major part of the network it's just in there at a very low level, according to 451's Christy.

Big companies that buy a service from smaller ones impose tough contractual terms around code escrow meaning that the vendor will have to provide a copy of their offering's source code for legal safe-keeping, so that the bigger firm will be able to continue to function if the smaller one goes out of business.

Open source obviates a lot of those headaches, in principle. It also offers companies in the same industry a way to collaborate on development without fear of being accused of collusion.

But it also means that open source tends to get swallowed up by big companies in the network space, one way or another. Key early adopters of open-source networking technology have had so much in-house technological expertise that it becomes difficult to offer them a paid service offering they can simply do that themselves.

"The biggest users always self-support it's not a commercial opportunity," said Christy.

That same open-source code, freely viewed and tinkered with by companies full of top programming talent, helps fuel the aforementioned shift in the direction of commodity hardware.


But, obviously, not every company has Facebook or Google's battalions of elite developers. It's because of this that the hands-off, managed service option remains popular.


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