The elusive promise of open software networking
Software promised to eat the world, but networking has proved a little harder to digest. While applications and data centers have experienced dramatic and visible change, the network itself has remained remarkably stubborn to virtualization and automation.
Network vendors sold magic pills to grow superpowers, matching hyperscale providers in skills, technology and speed. Placebos of course, take time to be discovered and the promised agility remained elusive.
Meanwhile, a quiet revolution brewed at providers. In backrooms and labs, on weekends and in free moments, passionate, committed renegades have been working on the technology to bring transformational change to their networks. These teams realize that change has to come from within and cannot be outsourced. No magic pill can replace the hard work that all lasting change requires. Their call-to-arms is open source, virtualization, and automation. They take inspiration from the methods of hyperscale providers but must apply technology pragmatically to both their new and old infrastructure.
In these labs, all of the right ingredients—open source software, agile technologies, white boxes, abstraction models and programming skills—are now proving themselves in performance and in features. So what is stopping these solutions from escaping the lab and being deployed in production networks? I believe the missing ingredient is a catalyst.
By definition, a catalyst causes ingredients to react, to bond, and to change the form of elements around them. Such a catalyst is needed to bring the new into the existing network, to integrate with what is there, and to bond the benefits from the greenfield to the brownfield. And perhaps most importantly, to furnish expertise, support and enablement to the internal teams charged with making it all happen.
This change from within has reached a critical moment. Providers must now choose technology differentiation from within, or wait for the market to deliver turn-key solutions. If differentiating now carries risk, waiting to be usurped by others surely carries more. Those who think competitively realize that turn-key is a zero-sum game. Everyone gets essentially the same solution at the same time, in a world where time is now the greatest competitive force setting apart the winners from the losers. Those who build their own solutions—using off-the-shelf components married to unique in-house developed functionality—build-in the agility and options for difference that are necessary to stay ahead. Few would argue that differentiation in the digital world demands control of your own destiny in how you develop and deploy technology.
Changing together with each other
At the center of every transformational change are heroes. These heroes form one part of the change, their network and their organization the other. Yet, these heroes often have to work in conflict with their organizations that have ingrained ways of working.
It’s not as if these heroes have not been offered ‘help’ along the way. Traditional networking vendors and integrators have fallen over themselves to sign providers up for transformational change. But the results have been lackluster, at best.
When you put the fox in charge of the hen house, it eats time and money, then leaves a trail of legacy software and hardware behind. No, the challenge is that the change must come from within—meaning that providers must be responsible for their own journey and cannot simply outsource the work to the cheapest or most shiny bid that comes in from the outside. Maybe I’m being too hard on the fox. The reality in many cases is that the fox does want to change, does want to adapt but isn’t really in a position to affect change because, well, they still love to eat chickens.
As an alternative, many in the networking community have spent the last three years working out how to build software networks out of open components. The thinking is that if you can build your software network with open source, where the possibility to change vendors is always available, these vendors will continue to work extremely hard on your behalf, to stay at the top of their game, and to do what is best with you.
And so, I’ve come to believe that what heroes need is a catalyst that will work with them and their organization. Deliver projects with them is the big idea—not to them, or for them. Working together, from within, change is genuine and sustaining. It is shaped to specifics of the organization. I believe that with a catalyst, teams can achieve self-sufficiency and resolve the indigestion now afflicting their networks.
Being a part of the change
I am most fortunate to have formed, with a mighty team of similarly-minded challengers, our own company that we called Lumina Networks. As Lumina Networks, we are embracing the ethos of catalyst, a catalyst that works with our customers, our partners and our developer communities. We are focused on aiding transformational change in providers—without reservation or conflict from other considerations (e.g. hardware)—working with our customers to make change possible, one small advance in capability, one shift in mindset, one step at a time.
For the past three years, and as part of Brocade we’ve been able to learn much about execution in this new way of business. Our development engineers and NetDev Services team have been working closely with the world’s largest providers in building open technologies and integrating them into large, complex production networks. We’ve been there, in the room, working through the gnarly challenges of what it really takes to change networks. We’ve been there as customers consider what it means not only for their architectures and technology, but also for those who must operate the networks reliably, securely, at carrier scale, and for those who must figure out how all of this now works with the back office delivery systems.
We see the industry evolving quickly in how it collaborates through the vehicle of open source community to build the best of what’s possible. Providers know there’s much they must do together in developing technology, while using how they define and deliver services to stand out in the experiences they create.
Lumina Networks Principles
As we set out, we wanted a set of principles for Lumina Networks that guide us, and represent our “true north”. These principles are simple, yet they govern difficult decisions, balance tradeoffs and help us to avoid pitfalls.
- Open source first. Work with engineering communities to develop platforms that solve industry-wide problems.
- Pure open source network products. No forking from community code or proprietary extensions that create lock-in, packaged for specific use cases and ease-of-use, and commercially supported for reliability. To ensure 100% compatibility, we upstream our enhancements and fixes.
- Network products as swappable components. Open interfaces and software elements focused on a small, well-defined set of clear functions to provide ease-of-integration, based on standard models.
- Integration with third parties. Products readily combined with those from other companies, including the lengthy list of legacy technologies and interfaces now embedded deeply into provider networks. Meet the needs of today and tomorrow without needing to rip out of everything that providers have today.
- Platform approach. Components combined to create extensible solutions for infrastructure and customer services. Not only does a platform approach ease change in the future, it enables an incremental approach today to deliver immediate, achievable improvement.
- Designed for serviceability. Embracing the DevOps and Site Reliability Engineering movements, operations and support teams and their requirements are brought to the front of the design and development process. Networks shake off their past and deliver the holy grail of increased reliably in conjunction with increased agility.
- NetDev Services. Engineers leading the Agile development and deployment of new software technologies, both networking and operations software, must be willing and able to work in joint teams to pass on knowledge and skills, tools and practices that lead providers to self-sufficiency.
- Open business relationships. Licenses and contracts that define how vendors and providers work together must change so that developers have full ownership of their innovation, customers have full control over their priorities for change, and well-defined outcomes leave the flexibility to adjust in details with new learning of teams.
We see our job to be the catalyst in bringing open software out of the lab and into the live network. These are the principles that guide us in working with providers and in building the open software networks of the future.
If these principles resonate with you, and if you have a software networking project in the lab that you are ready to move to the live network, reach out. Join our movement and get out of the lab today!