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The benefits of open source networking for enterprise IT

The benefits of open source are proved among large providers. But enterprises are less inclined to use open source networking, due to its limited functionality and support.

Open source software has proved its benefits for various aspects of the IT community in terms of costs, agility and flexibility. Open source networking software is in its early stages of deployment among enterprises. Meantime, hyperscale cloud providers and the largest service providers have made effective use of open source networking.

It is standard in large IT organizations to consider open source software alongside packaged software and SaaS as part of their IT architecture. Enterprise IT shops frequently deploy open source software in test environments and when designing new applications, like in DevOps.

IT organizations report a range of benefits from open source software, including innovative design, time to market and agility. While open source software helps reduce some costs, deployment in production environments is generally accompanied by a vendor-supplied support contract.

Growth of open source networking

Proponents of open source networking point to the success and benefits of open source software for IT environments. In this nirvana-like perspective, network software would be open, interoperable, agile, programmable and, of course, less expensive. IT organizations could mix and match network functions -- switching, routing, security, WAN optimization, etc. -- to fit the unique requirements of their branch, campus or data center networks.

Where do software networking deployments stand among enterprises?

Many distributed organizations have deployed SD-WAN to reduce WAN costs and improve application performance. As for data center SDN, Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure and VMware NSX are popular in large data center environments. Enterprise IT teams have tactically deployed SDN controllers in new network architectures.

Network operating systems for white box switching in the data center have made limited inroads among enterprises. Hyperscale cloud providers use open source networking software extensively, and many leading service providers are deploying open source software in switching and routing applications.

The current state of open source networking deployment in enterprise accounts is limited -- only the large hyperscale cloud suppliers report significant benefits to their networks. The reasons behind this tepid adoption of open source networking include limited functionality, overlapping standards organizations and limited code contributions.

IT organizations have found it difficult to adapt open source networking to their requirements and easier to continue with branded, well-supported networking options, from the likes of Cisco, Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and others.

Standards organizations promote open source networking

A number of organizations promote the use of open source networking. ONUG has several working groups focused on various aspects of open network software, including software-defined WAN (SD-WAN).

The Linux Foundation is an umbrella organization for open source coordination with networking-focused groups, including the following:

IT organizations have found it difficult to adapt open source networking to their requirements and easier to continue with branded, well-supported networking options.
  • Open Networking Foundation;
  • Open Network Operating System;
  • OpenDaylight, a software-defined networking (SDN) controller;
  • Open vSwitch;
  • Stratum, a network operating system;
  • Disaggregated Network Operating System, for routing; and
  • Open Platform for Network Functions Virtualization.

Other contributions to networking open software include Facebook Open Switching System and Microsoft's Software for Open Networking in the Cloud. This list is notable for the sheer number of individual standards options and the fact that none of them has gained critical mass in the enterprise market.

Real potential, but not quite there

Open source software provides real value for many IT applications, such as containers. But open source software for networking applications significantly lags its use in IT applications, and many IT organizations consider it unprepared for prime time. Networking standards organizations have produced many standards -- perhaps too many -- but their code generally isn't competitive with commercial vendor software in terms of performance and reliability.

The potential benefits of open source networking are real. However, the industry must consolidate around a couple of the most viable open source options, compared to the dozen or so currently available. IT organizations will have to take more risk with networking deployments and help their network engineers adopt a new mindset and learn new skills to work with open source networking tools.

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