Open vs Open-source: A Paradigm Shift in Networking

April 26, 2022
Vishal Shukla
Open vs Open-source: A Paradigm Shift in Networking

The networking industry saw a huge number of startups evolve in the last decade. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them did not deliver on the promise of creating a truly open and disaggregated networking ecosystem, which is evident from the consolidation that followed their evolution. Fortunately, two broad concepts in networking were clear winners: 1) Software Defined Networking (SDN), and 2) Disaggregation in Networking solutions. SDN started off well with controller (NSX) and non-controller (EVPN) based methods and is now used as the basis of orchestrating VPC (Virtual Private Cloud) networks in public clouds. Disaggregated Networking as a concept was popularized by companies such as Cumulus, which helped immensely in generating the demand for standards-based solutions across multiple ASIC and Switch vendors. What did not change, however, was the networking protocols, and to put it simply – BGP remains BGP, even after decades of innovations and transformations.

In 2017, Microsoft and the Open Compute Project (OCP) rolled out SONiC (Software for Open Networking in the Cloud) as a free and open-source network operating system based on Linux. It allows cloud operators (public, and private) to share the same software stack across hardware from different vendors. As SONiC started gaining popularity, the disaggregated solutions started referring to themselves as Open Networking solution providers. The word ‘Open’ makes sense in the context that customers are open to using any hardware, but it also creates a false pretense that the whole solution is open-source, which was never the case. As someone who used to sell disaggregated networking solutions from some of the aforementioned vendors, I was often asked by customers to provide code-level access, since the solutions were advertised as ‘Open Networking’, only to find out that  ‘Open Networking’ did not really mean  ‘Open-Source’.

"As true believers of the ‘Open Source Networking’ paradigm, we not only contribute towards SONiC’s development but are honored to be managing the SONiC Development Program as a neutral entity in the SONiC ecosystem."

Fast forward to today, with the level of maturity and adoption SONiC has achieved, we (at Aviz Networks) believe that now is the right time for the industry to start delivering on the promise of truly ‘Open Networking’ a.k.a ‘Open-Source Networking’. If you are looking to transition to truly Open Networking, our recommendation is to consider the following when evaluating options:

Is the ‘Open Networking’ stack forcing a vendor lock-in?

In the early 2000s, networking solutions used to be completely proprietary, primarily from the traditional networking companies. In the next decade, disaggregation happened, and a choice of the white box was made available, which was a welcoming step forward for the industry. But there was still a lock on the NOS, which was not only closed source but also came with a hefty price tag. The huge licensing fee for commodity features will continue until we move towards an Open-Source NOS as an industry, much like how Compute and Storage adopted Linux. ‘Open Networking’ solutions must work as a truly open stack – from the ASIC to the NOS. If there is any proprietary component in any of the layers, specifically on the software side, the whole solution locks you into a vendor-specific ecosystem.

Is the ‘Open Networking’ solution future-proof?

In the past decade – a series of proprietary NOS acquisitions by Switch/ASIC vendors created a deadlock for customers, which clearly shows that any solution sold under the conventional tag of ‘Open Networking’ is not future-proof. Customers who deployed proprietary NOS  on non-acquirer/competing vendors’ ASICs were left with no choice. They essentially have to either go back to traditional networking companies or buy another expensive NOS distribution. We see some NOS vendors committing to avoid such deadlocks, but they are also using the same proprietary NOS approach. Simply put, the cycle is repeating, and as long as there is proprietariness in the NOS layer, the networking stack will never be future-proof.

Is the ‘Open Networking’ solution only about Switch & NOS? What about Cloud and Apps?

Today, a vast majority of providers (including public cloud), talk about disaggregated applications that can run on any infrastructure as long as there is a standard OS layer. This is a proven model within the ‘Compute’ and ‘Storage’ ecosystem (with Linux) and for the Mobile platforms (with iOS and Android). We recommend that the NOS you select should adhere to standards adopted vastly by the majority (if not all) vendors, and has the ability to drive innovation for networking applications, and cloud adoption.

Shifting to Open-Source

Truly Open Networking solutions must work as an ‘Open Source’ stack – from the ASIC to the NOS and Truly Open Networking solutions must work as an ‘Open Source’ stack – from the ASIC to the NOS and be standards-based for nurturing application and cloud-focused innovation in the network infrastructure. Today, we see SONiC as the only truly Open Source NOS that allows you to build your own networking stack, specific to your needs, and gives you the ultimate flexibility of using any ASIC or any Switch, all without locking into a vendor-specific ecosystem. Additionally, since SONiC makes the necessary networking protocols available as open-source software, it forces the license-based consumption model to move towards a pay-for-support and pay-for-apps ecosystem, a mode that has been widely adopted in Compute and Storage already. This is what ‘Open Networking’ promised, but Open-Source SONiC is delivering. Once implemented in your Data Centers, Campuses, and Edge Networks, SONiC will not only give you the control you always wanted, but it will also result in huge TCO savings that can be reinvested into your growth.

At Aviz Networks, we are committed to enabling our customers and our partner ecosystem with ‘Open Source Networking’ via SONiC. As true believers of the ‘Open Source Networking’ paradigm, we not only contribute towards SONiC’s development but are honored to be managing the ‘SONiC Development Program’ as a neutral entity. We are working with several customers to make their SONiC deployments successful by offering SONiC enablement products and services that address critical gaps in SONiC adoption at the moment. We even provide containerized microservices on top of SONiC that are first of their kind networking applications to turn your hardware-based network functions (e.g. Network Packet Broker Taps and Aggregators) into software-only modules. Connect with us to learn more about our products and services or if you are interested in a demo.