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Several Different Meanings of "Open"

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Several Different Meanings of "Open"

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The networking industry at large is talking a lot more about all things “open” these days. This Open Awakening is being fueled somewhat by movements around SDN, network virtualization and NFV, but I think the real drivers are probably deeper than that. Tolerance for deeply integrated vertical solutions seems to be waning in some circles, and this has created a very real anti-vendor-lock-in push in IT as a whole and in networking specifically.

I actually have no issues with the Open Movement. I think it is healthy that the industry is vocalizing dissatisfaction that has likely been building for years. I don’t even mind that marketers everywhere have seized on the sentiment and are pushing it more aggressively (especially in the context of open SDN). But I do think we are doing ourselves a collective disservice by not being more precise about what we want when we say "open." We run the risk of relegating a concept that is very real and has very tangible implications on our business to nothing more than a marketing term bandied about with reckless imprecision.

So what are the parts of the amorphous "open" definition that we really care about? In my mind, there are probably five different things we really mean what we say open:

  • Standards-based technologies
  • Interoperability
  • Open source (typically software, but increasingly hardware as well)
  • Interchangeability
  • Access

Each of these is somewhat different, and we need to be precise in what we actually mean. I actually don’t have a strong opinion about which open attributes are important; I think different attributes are important at different times.

Standards – Discussions around Open frequently gravitate toward technology standards and the bodies that support them (IETF, ONF< and so on). In this context, the thinking is that technologies that are standardized will exhibit fewer (if any) vendor-specific elements. A well-documented technical specification means that any vendor can develop the technology, and components from disparate vendors should be able to interoperate.

Interoperability – In practice, the most common meaning behind the word open is interoperable. For many, the end goal in IT is generally a solution that can be effectively deployed in a heterogeneous, multi-vendor environment.

Open source – In some technology areas, open has become shorthand for open source. Advocates of open source initiatives are primarily interested in allowing a community of developers to leverage and build upon the work of the collective.

Interchangeability – If interoperability is the measure of how well devices can interact, interchangeability is the measure of the degree to which multiple items are directly substitutable. Put simply, if device A and device B are functionally equivalent, they are interchangeable.

Access – For some solutions, the word open refers primarily to the free accessibility of information. This is particularly true for solutions that require API or integration layers.

Each of these has its own merits, so the intent is not to advocate any one over the other. But the implications of using the term open to refer to all of these things simultaneously could be profound. It is certainly possible for a solution to have some of these traits but not others.  So the question is: Are you really getting what you want? If you are not sure what you want, you will just be swept up by the marketing message, which serves no one particularly well.


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