Linux and open-source software revolutionized the server industry a few decades ago, and my hopes are high that open-source operating systems can do the same for networking today.
In this new age of software-centric everything, Linux provides the stability of a proprietary system without all the added-on licensing costs that tend to pile up quickly. There are still some challenges to open-source networking equipment, but the cost savings they deliver will likely overcome all obstacles.
I recently received a network hardware/software price quote from my value-added reseller for a new project in which I'm involved. Talk about sticker shock. The funny thing is that it's not only the hardware that's ridiculously expensive; it's also all the software features and licensing fees that are tacked on the bill of materials. After reviewing each line item, I've come to the conclusion that network vendors are nickel and diming us to death.
It used to be that, when you bought a network appliance such as a switch or firewall, all the software functionality came along with it. Sure, there were some add-ons here or there, but paying extra for features was largely the exception. These days, it seems you have to pay an added licensing fee to use even the most basic features. Because the IT department has to pay for every little network feature, it creates an environment of inflexibility, especially when IT budgets are tight.
CIOs looking to meet growing enterprise demand for increased network bandwidth and speed need to circumvent situations in which the networking team is operating at odds with the rest of the IT department. Unfortunately, until now, network engineers couldn't do anything about it. There are only a handful of respected vendors, and they're all playing the same game.
Open-source could upend networking industry
Now it looks like the introduction of network software based on open-source operating systems might turn the industry on its head. This creates the possibility of running networking components on generic hardware with lots of free add-on features.
Innovations such as software-defined networking are causing network vendors to veer away from being hardware- and appliance-centric companies. They are beginning to focus much more on the software side. Hardware is being decoupled from its software and is quickly becoming a commodity. And if one simply looks at router and switch software, separate from hardware, it's easy to imagine how the OS can be replaced with an open-source OS such as Linux.
Startups such as Cumulus Networks, with its Linux Network Architecture, offer an alternative to proprietary hardware/software solutions. Cumulus sells only a networking operating system; it doesn't sell hardware. The underlying Linux OS can operate on a wide variety of generic network hardware that's considerably cheaper than what we're used to buying. It's not second-rate hardware, either. Internet giants such as Google and Microsoft have been building their own network equipment with similar hardware for years.
Because the OS uses an open-source Linux platform, it can integrate easily (and freely) with other open-source applications. This is especially important for datacenter network hardware. There are a plethora of open-source datacenter automation and management tools to leverage. This is in stark contrast with the current model of paying top dollar for any and all types of add-ons to make datacenter management a bit easier.
After reviewing that latest network hardware/software price quote, I gladly welcome the possibility of Linux and other open-source software shaking up the network industry landscape. If I could purchase hardware and software at a fraction of the usual price with the flexibility to use add-on features at little or no added cost, I'd be very interested. How about you?