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Cisco's and Juniper's Open OSs Are About Selling Hardware, Not Software

Both Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks this week announced plans to open their switch and router operating systems, IOS and JUNOs respectively. The Cisco announcement is the most important to enterprise customers, as Juniper's applies mostly to carrier-class gear, but Juniper's plans look closest to fruition.

Cisco has talked about becoming a software company, leading to some speculation that it would decouple IOS from its own hardware. However, this isn't what its (or Juniper's) announcement is about. "Open" is a relative term, and in this context opening up routers and switches doesn't mean that IOS and JUNOS will be able to run on commodity hardware, let alone that the vendors are giving away their source code. Rather, it means that switches and routers will be able to run third-party applications at some point in the future. That makes them about as open as the iPhone.

The motivation is the same as Apple's: to sell more proprietary hardware, not to move away from it. Cisco has talked many times about turning the network from a dumb pipe into a smart platform, something that entails letting others build apps for it. The role model is Microsoft, whose continued success is due in large part to its attracting outside developers to build applications on Windows.

But being closed isn't necessarilly such a bad thing for switches and routers. Some customers are already reluctant to use Cisco's AON line (which offloads XML services from servers to the network) because of fears that using a router to do anything except route might undermine the network's stability, or at least require service interruptions while software is installed or rebooted. Such fears may be groundless in the case of AON, which confines the application code to a separate blade (or sometimes even a separate appliance), but making apps run on IOS itself entails much greater integration --- with much more to go wrong.

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