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Networking's open at last. Now what?

Stephen Lawson | March 17, 2015
Networking hardware and spontaneous applause don't often go together, but Facebook's Omar Baldonado set off a round of cheering this week when he told engineers there's finally an open-source hardware design that they can use to build switches.

Networking hardware and spontaneous applause don't often go together, but Facebook's Omar Baldonado set off a round of cheering this week when he told engineers there's finally an open-source hardware design that they can use to build switches.

It was a goal the Open Compute Project had been working toward since mid-2013, and though the breakthrough happened late last year, Baldonado's speech at the organization's summit in San Jose, California, was a occasion for line-rate, no-packets-barred celebration.

OCP had done the same thing for networking that it did for computing: Make hardware designs openly available, so vendors can build lots of different boxes easily and cheaply, and promote open software development to give IT teams a choice of what to deploy.

It's a move away from the "black box" approach that for years has tied networking OSes and features tightly to proprietary hardware. Microsoft, Accton Technologies, Dell, Big Switch Networks and Facebook itself are among the companies contributing technology to the project.

Like open-source computing, open networking started at big Internet companies like Facebook but could draw in other enterprises looking for lower costs, a dev-ops way of running IT, or even more stable networks. It will take time to get traction in the average company, but eventually more than a third of IT shops are likely to do some open networking, according to one analyst.

Enterprises are used to buying switches and routers from tried-and-true vendors and getting the software to manage them as part of the deal. That's the main way Cisco Systems, the biggest seller of network gear, does business. That's because not everyone has an army of engineers like Facebook, which does networking -- of servers as well as people -- for a living. So vendors and system integrators are working on creating supply chains for open networks that look more like traditional IT purchasing.

However, open networking is inherently harder to do than open computing, just because of the complexity of making lots of boxes talk to each other. Not everyone is ready for that -- yet.

"People have a lot more options than they did before," said Lee Doyle, principal analyst at Doyle Research. "But if you look at Cisco's revenue and stock price recently, they're choosing Cisco."

That will change, analysts say, though it's not clear how many IT shops can make the leap. It will probably be the top 20 percent by size -- carriers, Internet content providers and big enterprises, Doyle said. "It's not worth it to save $10,000. If you're trying to save $10 million, that's a different deal."

Goldman Sachs, which participated in the OCP Summit, said it's using open networking because traditional gear comes with a lot of alert codes and management databases that the company doesn't need but still has to test and integrate into its architecture. Goldman bought OCP-compliant switches and wrote its own hardware management software.

 

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