What “Open” Means for Your Network and Why It Makes a Difference

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How open source and open standards sustain new networking philosophies

The hinges on government’s legacy networks are rusting, but they’re still hanging on — barely.

Today, networks are facing an increasingly dynamic set of demands thanks to a bulk of data and the ever-expanding Internet of Things. They are becoming more and more congested, incapable of managing high volumes of traffic and running into roadblocks when trying to deploy new features and services.

Enter the New IP, an alternative to legacy networking grounded in a set of characteristic principles: open with a purpose, automated by design, programmable, user-centric, systemic and evolutionary.  The New IP begins with infrastructure upgrades to fabric-based physical networks and evolves to software-defined, virtual services and advanced methods of control and orchestration.  In an end-to-end proposition, the New IP federates network, servers, storage, applications and the edge to deliver the unified and rich experience that federal end users, citizens and warfighters demand.   

Within the New IP’s bedrock philosophy of openness, open source and open standards are driving forces toward interoperability and software-defined networking (SDN). To implement open standards well, it’s important to know what they aren’t: proprietary. A standard ceases to be open when it becomes limited to single-vendor operation.

The next key to unmasking these superheroes of the networking world is to know what makes them distinct and how they work together. Open standards refer to human-language descriptions of commands and responses within a network, while open source refers to a machine-language method for developing code that controls functions within the parameters of those descriptions.

“It’s the difference between a picture and a thousand words,” says Colin Dixon, distinguished engineer at Brocade and Chair of the Technical Steering Committee at the OpenDaylight Project, a community of developers leading the way to open, software-defined networking platforms.

Openness of code and standards can help agencies in both the short and long runs, Dixon says.

Interoperability in open standards means users can select from multiple vendors to obtain the best technology possible, empowering agencies to develop highly tailored network solutions. Open standards from multiple vendors can turn an agency’s creaky, single-vendor network into a powerful amalgam of best-of-breed solutions.

And interoperability ties in closely with agility, Dixon says. Using open standards, agencies can easily plug and unplug different solutions, test new ones and remove unnecessary services as its goals dictate.

Finally, open source and open standards boost security. Keeping systems proprietary makes agencies vulnerable because it fits them with fewer defenders. While networks across the board are subject to the same set of vulnerabilities, using open source makes it possible for a far greater number of “good guys” to run to the rescue in the event of an attack.

“The more people that can look at something, the less likely it is that a security vulnerability is hiding in it, and the more likely it is to be designed securely and well,” Dixon says. Using open standards also bolsters security by allowing agencies to select best-of-breed technologies from a competitive marketplace.

And getting started is easier than you think. “A sizeable amount of gear already supports open standards,” Dixon says.

But federal agencies should ask vendors as many qualifying questions as they can to ensure that the standards being delivered are in fact open. Knowing if solutions are based in open standards and open source, whether they can interoperate or utilize proprietary extensions, and how that interoperability was tested is important for any agency official transitioning to the New IP.

Brocade has a commercially supported distribution of the open source OpenDaylight SDN controller to form its SDN controller, which its engineers worked on upstream — that is, in the open. And the semantics are important here, Dixon says. Brocade’s SDN doesn’t just “work with” OpenDaylight code; it is OpenDaylight code. When engineers at Brocade and elsewhere work on the software, their enhancements become contributions from which everyone benefits.

Openness, it follows, supports a collaborative ethos among developers.

“It’s the community that backs the open source,” Dixon says. “Customers, users, developers and anybody who wants to can come together and all be a part of the discussion about how to build it, what to fix and what’s important.”

Open source and open standards are two critical elements to the New IP that can save government from the financial and security vulnerabilities of networking with proprietary devices and features.  The success of open source and open standards is the success of collaboration, and agencies moving to the New IP will also gain speed of innovation, user centricity and access to whichever solutions work best for them.

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