There’s been a lot of drama in 2018 concerning the Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE and their ability to do business in the United States. The fate of these companies seems inextricably tied to larger geo-political events.
ZTE has been banned for seven years from buying components from U.S. companies for its products. And members of the U.S. Congress have attacked Huawei’s ability to do business in the country, claiming the vendor’s equipment poses a national security risk.
But what does all this mean for open source networking?
Developers from companies all over the world collaborate on open source software within the Linux Foundation. For example, the Open Networking Automation Platform (ONAP) claims that 60 percent of the world’s mobile subscribers are represented by its carrier members. The carrier members of the Linux Foundation Networking Fund (LFN), of which ONAP is a part, include AT&T, Verizon, China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom.
Arpit Joshipura, the executive director of LFN, said the ZTE ban was specific to activities covered by Export Administration Regulations (EAR). And he said open source software development is not subject to EAR.
“These geo-political winds don’t impact the collaborative work done in our open source communities,” said Joshipura. “Open source software, collaboration on open source code, attending telephonic or in person meetings, and providing membership funds are all activities which are not subject to the EAR and therefore should have no impact on our communities.”
Neela Jacques, an independent consultant and the former executive director of the OpenDaylight Project, sees both positives and negatives in how the political turmoil might affect open source networking.
On the positive side, open source is an alternative to purchasing software from vendors. “If you’re considering buying or licensing technology from someone in the U.S. versus building it yourself, the actions from the U.S. government could lead you to say, ‘let’s build it ourselves,’” said Jacques.
ZTE, for example, could still use software from open source groups. “Anyone can take the software our communities build and put it into a product, service, or solution,” said Joshipura. “But that’s the commercial activity outside our scope.”
Taking Without Giving Back
“We may in fact see Chinese companies increasingly going with open source,” said Jacques. However, this could turn into a negative. If relations between the United States and China get worse, that could cause Chinese companies to take from open source and not give back.
“One of the things we all struggle with in open source is making sure the consumer of the open source also contributes back,” said Jacques. “We’ve got more people using and leveraging the software than actually contributing code. Tencent, Alibaba, and China Mobile are all leveraging OpenDaylight, but we haven’t seen a lot of direct contributions. However, they have told their vendors, ‘we expect you to give back.’”
But there’s another negative factor, too. If vendors such as Huawei and ZTE are financially damaged by the actions of the U.S. government, they may not have the resources to contribute to open source projects.
At the end of the day, open source projects function on trust and community. And groups like the Linux Foundation are in the business of creating governance systems that foster open collaboration. “Hopefully there’s enough good will built up to survive the actions of governments during these times,” said Jacques.