When “open” really means not so much

Open is good. Maybe a little too good. The idea of “openness” is so attractive to users that vendors have adopted increasingly broad definitions of the term. And, depending on the market, the functional definition can differ remarkably from what comes to mind when you think of that benchmark of IT openness, open source software.

The software-defined networking (SDN) space is a case in point, according to Network Computing columnist Ethan Banks. In a recent column. Banks says that while the O-word is used freely in the SDN market, it all depends on your point of view.

“I think we’ll find that the notion of open has become fluid,” Banks says. He then looks at how three SDN-related organizations use the term.

First up is Cisco. Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO)describes its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) as an “open ecosystem” that provides “support for open networking,” and that offers “open software flexibility for DevOps teams and ecosystem partner integration.” That’s three “open”s right there.

“So what does this really mean?” Banks asks. “Can you download APIC and use it freely? No. Can you dig into the source code and modify it as you see fit, launching your own APIC fork on GitHub? Again, no.”

The term seems to apply to the fact that users can integrate products or processes with the APIC controller using a variety of APIs that Cisco provides. That is a degree of openness, Banks concedes, but it’s not the kind of openness that network practitioners expect.

“While Cisco will open the door to anyone who wants to integrate with its infrastructure – a savvy, if obvious, business decision – Cisco is not giving intellectual property away to anyone who might like to use it,” Banks says. “Cisco ACI, OpFlex, and related APIs are open in the sense that Cisco is offering a key to drive its car around. It is not opening the hood and allowing engine modifications.”

Next he looks at the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), the organization behind the OpenFlow protocol. Banks points out that participation in OpenFlow development is open only to ONF members – and membership costs $30,000 a year ($1,000 a year for the first two years for startups). And only ONF member email domains are allowed into working group and discussion group mailing lists.

Is the product, OpenFlow, really open? Well, that’s complicated, Banks says. Users have to contact the ONF for a license agreement, unless usage falls into an exception category. There’s an exception for community-developed implementations “released free of charge and under an Open Source Initiative-approved license.”

Banks says it might sound as if anyone could use OpenFlow for noncommercial purposes, but the plot thickens when he reviews the ONF Intellectual Property Rights document. It says “Each Member, on behalf of itself and its Affiliates, hereby grants to the other Members and their Affiliates… worldwide license under their Necessary Claims to make, have made, use, import, offer to sell, lease, sell and otherwise distribute Compliant Portions.”

In other words, Banks says, ONF members allow all other ONF members to use OpenFlow “compliant portions” however they like, with some further conditions. “I believe most of the networking industry feels that OpenFlow is an open standard. However, the ONF’s process is closed to public viewing, participation, and productization, making OpenFlow somewhat less open than its name implies.”

Finally, the good news. OpenDaylight (ODL) really is as open as the name suggests, according to Banks. The ODL SDN initiative is a completely open project, with truly open membership. Anyone can commit code, if the community determines it has merit. And OpenDaylight is soliciting contributors.

“The ODL products are consumable by anyone,” Banks says. “Whoever would like to work with OpenDaylight’s first release, Hydrogen, can freely download the product. OpenDaylight could even be used as a baseline for other products that are later commercialized.” ODL is as open as it gets, he concludes.

“Clearly, open means different things in networking literature; context is extremely important. All of the technology I mentioned here is indeed open… from a certain point of view. IT practitioners need to understand the context and point of view clearly to know what is meant when the word ‘open’ is used. Armed with that knowledge, they can then decide which open basket to place their eggs into.”

Andrew Brooks
Andrew Brooks
Andrew Brooks is managing editor of IT World Canada. He has been a technology journalist and editor for 20 years, including stints at Technology in Government, Computing Canada and other publications.

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