Until recently, open source had a relatively modest impact on networking. As demonstrated by the impact that open source is having on the development of SDN, the role of open source in the network environment is changing quickly. One reason open source is becoming more important is because networking is becoming more software-centric. Another reason is that many people in the industry believe that the traditional way of developing standards takes an inordinate amount of time and doesn’t lend itself to interoperability.
Many in the industry also believe that open source projects are more agile than traditional standards processes and they believe that if vendors build products based on open source solutions then those parts of the products that are based on these solutions will interoperate. Given the momentum behind them, one likely result of these open source endeavors is that the open source code that gets developed becomes a de facto standard.
One of the more visible open source communities in networking is the OpenDaylight (ODL) Project. ODL, which was founded in April 2013, is a collaborative open source project hosted by The Linux Foundation. The goal of the project is to facilitate a community-led, industry-supported open source framework, including code and architecture, to accelerate and advance a common, robust SDN platform and to create a solid foundation for NFV.
ODL claims that a number of vendors use ODL code as the basis of their SDN products and that its code is also used by the Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV) platform. As of September, the consortium had 50 members.
In June, OpenDaylight announced the availability of its third software release, Lithium. Lithium added a range new functionality, including application-layer traffic optimization, control and provisioning of wireless access points, resource reservation, the ability to interact with devices using SNMP, and a framework to coordinate encrypted communications.
I interviewed, Neela Jacques, ODL executive director, about the relationship between the use of open source code and interoperable products. Jacques said that based on what people do with the solutions, open source may or may not lead to interoperability. He added that nobody dictates how a company implements an open source solution, and he speculated that some companies will implement ODL solutions in a proprietary way in part because that reduces their time to market.
When I asked about what influences ODL, Jacques described three primary ways in which the ODL community is influenced to develop code. In descending order of importance, those ways are:
- A group such as the ETSI NFV ISG writes a paper and the members of the ODL community respond to that paper by saying, “That’s cool. We want to build to this.”
- A member company is involved in another organization such as the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) or the IETF and agreed to support an initiative sponsored by that organization. Since the member company agreed to support that initiative, they drive it within the ODL community.
- A liaison between two organizations.
Jacques explained that the liaison model is not as impactful as the other two approaches because in an open source community, there isn’t currently and never will be a benevolent dictator for life (BDFL). Even if Jacques and Dan Pitt, ONF executive director, were to agree on something that the ODL community should develop, Jacques would still have to convince the community of that.
One criticism of OpenDaylight is that it's run by vendors who will advocate for proprietary solutions. Jacques refuted that criticism, saying that belonging to an organization such as ODL requires a commitment of resources, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the first wave of companies to join ODL were network vendors. He said the second wave of companies to join ODL were service providers such as AT&T and Comcast. He pointed to the fact that companies such as NASDAQ and Credit Suisse have joined ODL’s board of advisors as proof that a third wave of companies -- enterprise organizations -- is joining ODL.
Jacques' remark that open source communities don’t have a BDFL is a polite form of a traditional critique of open source communities that compares them to the Wild West where anybody can do anything. Gaps are ok, and people can put in multiple proposals for the same thing.
Whether or not that critique is accurate, right now the influence that open source communities have over the development of networking is increasing and the influence of traditional standards organizations is decreasing.