open networking

What is open networking?

The term open networking describes a network that uses open standards and commodity hardware. In other words, open networking is the ability for a computer system to be open in terms of hardware and software component compatibility, expandability and extendibility. Open networking is also an umbrella term used to encompass a general meaning of the use of open standards.

Network administrators can benefit from an open networking system. For one, they have an extra level of choice for what kind of hardware and software make up their network, and they don't have to rely on a single vendor for products. Some of the main benefits of open networking include the potential to save money compared to proprietary vendor products and the extra level of configurability.

With open networking, organizations can add applications or tools directly onto existing hardware. For example, organizations can find open source options for routers, switches, firewalls or load balancers to help create and maintain an open network.

Open networking is similar to the concept of open standards, which focuses on creating standards for interoperability and data exchange around general and public consensus-driven processes. An open network opposes the idea of a closed network, which is one that limits networks by a set of providers.

Ways to define open networking

There isn't one rigid definition for open networking; the extent of the term might differ based on the individual. Open networking could mean something broad, like the level of network interoperability and substituting one component for another.

Others may define open networking more narrowly, like as an approach to software defined-networking (SDN) with open source protocols. Open networking could also mean pairing an open source network OS with publicly available hardware in a virtual machine (VM).

Open networking also has different meanings for vendors. A vendor might define open networking as a way to conform to existing networking standards, or as a way to use a set of publicly sourced APIs that work with other tools. Vendors can also define open networking to mean only the level of openness of their own network, rather than other standards around them. The term can also relate to white box networking.

Characteristics of an open network

An open networked product typically shares characteristics including the following:

  • open APIs;
  • open industry standards related to hardware and software;
  • open source components, such as network devices and compute hardware;
  • an open ecosystem that cooperates with other types of tools and hardware; and
  • cloud computing.

SDN in open networking

SDN is also a common aspect of open networks. SDN is an architecture that aims to make networks agile and flexible to improve network control. SDN enables network administrators to view traffic from a centralized control console. The SDN architecture contains an application layer, a control layer and an infrastructure layer. SDN enables enterprises and service providers to respond quickly and adapt to changing business requirements.

Image depicting a software-defined networking architecture.
SDN architectures include application, control and infrastructure layers, and they can connect with northbound and southbound open APIs.

Open networking takes advantage of SDN principles while adding the use of open source platforms and defined standards. SDN networks also typically use open APIs. Operators can manage an entire network and its devices with a control layer, even if the underlying network is complex.

SDN works well with open networking because it enables multivendor interoperability and supports a multivendor approach to networking. Open APIs support many applications, while publicly available software manages hardware from different vendors that use open program-based products.

The Open Networking Foundation

The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) is a nonprofit organization that promotes a collaborative community focused on open networking. ONF develops software-defined standards for open networking. ONF breaks down its standards into the following classifications:

  • Technical specifications. Includes framework documents, protocol definitions, information models and component functionalities.
  • Technical recommendations. Defines APIs, protocols and data information models.
  • Informational. Includes case studies, use cases, white papers and testing reports.

ONF also works on projects related to broadband, mobile, edge cloud and SDN for creating open source tools and standards.

Open networking examples

Applying open networking principles is just as broad as the term, but organizations can use an open source controller OS to manage lower-cost hardware across a computer network.

In September 2019, Comcast and ONF deployed Trellis, an open source software. Trellis is an architecture pattern that develops SDN-based and network functions virtualization (NFV)-based fabrics for network services. Trellis works with an open source SDN controller, and an OpenFlow protocol which functions as a southbound API.

An OpenFlow protocol enables servers to tell network switches where to send packets. ONF defines OpenFlow as a standard communication interface that sits between the control and forwarding layers of an SDN-based architecture.

In conventional networks, each switch has proprietary software that tells the switch what to do. Comparatively, the packet-moving decisions in OpenFlow are centralized, meaning the network can be programmed independently of the individual switches and data center gear.

Editor's note: This article was republished in November 2022 to improve the reader experience.

This was last updated in November 2022

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