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Over the past few decades, open source software has made significant strides in enterprises. IT leadership has come to embrace a wide array of open source options, such as server and desktop operating systems, web browsers, and IoT devices.
Enterprise open source generally lives up to the hype that surrounds it. However, one area of open source that is often hyped but continuously fails to gain traction is enterprise networking. Let's look at the benefits and drawbacks of open source networking platforms and why enterprises continue to stick with commercial alternatives.
Benefits of open source networking
The large number of open source networking projects combined with powerful nonprofit foundations and a lively developer community would suggest it's only a matter of time before these platforms begin to gain support in enterprises. After all, open source software is usually cheap, non-proprietary and quick to adapt to change.
Open source networking also provides enormous levels of flexibility when it comes to the hardware on which you choose to run software. This gives network administrators the ability to right-size their deployment using commercialized open source appliances or purchased white box networking hardware with software they install themselves.
From a development standpoint, the open source networking community is considered a trailblazer in terms of creating new features, architectures and functions. This is especially true in an area like software-defined networking (SDN). Many end-to-end SDNs in production operate using open source networking software, such as OpenDaylight. Additionally, the transparent nature of source code arguably makes open source software more secure and quicker to patch.
Drawbacks of open source networking
As for the open source drawbacks, one challenge is procuring and keeping network administrators that have experience working with an open source-driven network. Far more network administrators have expertise with commercial networking products from vendors like Cisco, Juniper and Extreme Networks. While network admins can be trained on open source networking platforms, they will still have to contend with a learning curve.
Once admins become proficient working with open source platforms, they become a rare and sought-after commodity for other organizations looking to fill open source networking admin roles. Thus, the ability to maintain these resources becomes more of a challenge on its own. Both the time spent in training and the risk of losing the rare technical skills required to support an open source network can translate into hidden costs. Those added costs may negate the total cost of ownership when compared with commercial alternatives.
Ongoing technical support of an open source platform is another major concern for IT leadership. For decades, enterprise IT departments have tasked commercial vendors with providing around-the-clock network support that includes advanced troubleshooting, root cause analysis and rapid hardware replacement.
While third-party support for open source networking platforms is available, many IT leaders are leery of the quality they'll receive. In many ways, that leeriness is justifiable. After all, the reliability and functionality of all business-critical technologies rely fully on the health of the underlying network.
Lastly, if you're a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME), you may notice open source networking software -- and the developer community -- tends to focus on creating new tools and features that are only beneficial for the largest networks. This is likely because large enterprises and service providers were early adopters of these products. Thus, the community has unwittingly created a divide that may discourage SMEs from considering open networking platforms.
Why open source networking won't fully take off
In my opinion, open source networking will likely never become mainstream in the enterprise -- other than in a few niche markets. Besides the drawbacks listed previously, commercial vendors have been quick to address many of the drawbacks associated with their products that drove the early benefits of open source.
A perfect example is the gradual dilution of proprietary technologies and interoperability with third-party software. Commercial networking vendors once notorious for locking customers in with closed firmware and proprietary protocols have largely abandoned those tactics.
Additionally, commercial vendors now give customers a robust set of APIs with which teams can create integrations between the networking software and third-party applications. This shows that commercial vendors won't simply give up market share to open source alternatives. Instead, these companies are showing their willingness to adapt to keep their customer base. That said, we owe a debt of gratitude to the open source networking community for forcing commercial vendors to make these changes.