You might have seen this Register article this week which summarized a Future:Net talk from Peyton Koran. In the article and the talk, Peyton talks about how the network vendor and reseller market has trapped organizations into a needless cycle of bad hardware and buggy software. He suggests that organizations should focus on their new “core competency” of software development and run whitebox or merchant hardware on top of open source networking stacks. He says that developers can use code that has a lot of community contributions and shares useful functionality. It’s a high and mighty goal. However, I think the open source part of the equation is going to cause some issues.
A Penny For Your Thoughts
The idea behind open source isn’t that hard to comprehend. Everything available to see and build. Anyone can contribute and give back to the project and make the world a better place. At least, that’s the theory. Reality is sometimes a bit different.
Many times, I’ve had off-the-record conversations with organizations that are consuming open source resources and projects as a starting point for building something that will end up containing many proprietary resources. When I ask them about contributing back to those projects or finding ways to advance things, the response are usually silence. Very rarely, I hear that the organization sees their proprietary developments as a “competitive advantage” that they are going to use to either beat a competitor or build a product that saves them a significant amount of money.
The analogy I like to use for open source is the “Take A Penny” dish that many businesses have next to their cash register. The idea is that people can contribute something small to help out others. If someone needs a penny or two to help make payment for a good or service, they can take one. If they have a few left over they can give back. It’s a way to give back a little now and then.
However, there are a couple of types of people that skew the trend for the penny dish. The first is the person that gives back much more than the norm. That person might put a quarter in the dish or put in four or five pennies at every dish they find. They contribute above the norm often and give a lot. The second type of person takes quite a few pennies from the dish and never gives back. They may see the dish as “free money” to be used to augment their own. They don’t care if all the pennies are gone when they finish just as long as they got what they needed out of it.
Extend this metaphor into the open source community. There are quite a few contributors that put in significant time and effort in their projects. They may have found a way to do it full time or may be paid by their company to participate in projects. These folks are dedicated to the cause.
On the other side of the metaphor are the people and organizations that take what they want from open source and never give back. They never contribute to the project, even if their enhancements are needed and welcome. They take a free or inexpensive starting point and use it to build a product that could be used internally to give the organization an advantage. The key here is that it’s something used internally. The GPL covers distribution of software that is based on GPL code, but it’s not really clear about what happens if that software is consumed internally. An enterprising developer may say to themselves, “As long as I don’t sell it, I don’t have to give my code back.”
Networking For Pocket Change
There are quite a few open source networking projects out there. Quagga, BiRD, and Open vSwitch are great examples of projects that have significant reach and are used by a lot of companies to build great products. However, imagine what would happen if no one gave back to these projects. Imagine what would happen if contributors decided to make their own BGP daemons or OVS-like program and use it without regard for helping others in the community.
Open source software needs developers willing to contribute back to the project. If networking is going to embrace open source projects as Peyton suggested in his talk, it’s going to take a lot more contribution than quiet consumption. Whether or not you agree with the premise that networking vendors are corrupt and evil you do have to concede that they’ve given us mostly stable protocols like BGP and OSPF. These same vendors have contributed ideas back to the standardization process to improve protocols like spanning tree and power over Ethernet. Their contributions helped shape what networking is today.
If the next generation of software based network developers wants to embrace and extend these contributions with open source, they’re going to need to be transparent and communicate with the project leads. They’re also going to need to push back when someone high up the food chain sees the development process as a way to gain an advantage and try and keep it all secretive. If developers aren’t going to give back to the community it negates the advantages of open source and instead takes us back to the days of networks being one-off creations that have no interoperability beyond a few protocols. Islands in a sea of home-grown lava.
As anyone that attended Future:Net within earshot of me can attest, I wasn’t overly thrilled with Peyton’s take on the future of networking. I have some deep seeded reservations about the “screw the vendors, build it all yourself” mentality that is pervading organizations today. Not everyone is a development shop. Law firms and schools don’t employ software engineers regularly. If you want to transform those types of users into open source adherents, you need to lead the pack by giving back and talking about what your doing with open source. If you’re not willing to lead the way, stop telling people to take the fork in the road.