(Photo: From left, Najam Ahmad (Facebook), Matthew Liste (Goldman Sachs), J.R. Rivers (Cumulus), Martin Casado (VMware), and Dave Maltz (Microsoft) at Open Compute Project Summit.)
The networking initiative inside the Open Compute Project is only getting started, but it’s inspiring some high hopes for driving change in the networking industry.
That was evident during an OCP Summit panel late Wednesday that included a couple of the iconic figures pushing for such changes: Martin Casado, chief architect of networking at VMware, and J.R. Rivers, CEO of Cumulus Networks.
The key is to educate the user base: Show them what’s possible and hope that they’ll draw the right conclusions. The rise of software-defined networking (SDN) has helped, as web-scale companies such as Google and Facebook have detailed their experiences in rethinking the way they build networks. “Before, the proof points didn’t exist. They were hidden. It’s all there now,” Casado said.
That might sound naive, but you could argue that the user base just hasn’t been shown what’s possible.
Rivers brought up a great example: the price of optics for routers and switches. Some users he’s spoken to have avoided upgrading to 40 Gb/s, citing high prices — but that’s the price charged by Cisco and other equipment vendors. (Rivers didn’t name any vendors, but Cisco is particularly infamous for its optical markups, a story uncovered by Andrew Schmitt, now an analyst at Infonetics, several years ago.)
That perception changes, Rivers said, when they’re shown the alternative — in this case, buying directly from Cisco’s suppliers, or even buying from resellers (something I wrote about two years ago).
Rivers, whose company is banking on an eventual opening-up of networking markets, thinks networking customers will similarly start to question why they’re buying networking hardware from specific vendors. “On the OCP side, one of the benefits here is that the true technology providers can step up. … Customers should start asking for that.”
The Most Inflexible Piece
Open-source networking wouldn’t only be about costs. Networking is missing the simplification of the PC market, where it didn’t matter if you used an Intel or AMD chip.
To that end, Matthew Liste, managing director of core platform engineering for Goldman Sachs, mentioned the need for a “common abstraction layer,” a way to execute some command, such as creation of a VLAN, in one common way regardless of what platforms are involved.
It’s a valid point. But subtly, it plays into a different theme in the tech industry, one Casado had brought up earlier: “Probably the most inflexible thing in the industry are people’s brains.”
Rivers pointed out the connection: Liste’s common abstraction layer is based on a world where multiple vendors provide APIs to a customer like Goldman Sachs. But there’s a lateral alternative: “If you could just get that hardware and put any software on it, you wouldn’t need the [normalization] you just talked about,” Rivers said. (To be fair, I think Liste knew this but just didn’t word his example that way.)
So, breaking the mold of thinking is going to be the central challenge for the OCP networking initiative. So much of the effort in networking — really, in most endeavors touched by technology — goes toward making things feel the way they did before, Casado pointed out. But that veils the possibilities that might bloom if nourished by a different way of thinking.
Maybe it could happen. Casado said he’s become more optimistic about the networking industry recently. “I really believe the industry’s going to do the right thing. I really believe all the forces are there, and all the market forces and Darwin are going to come together,” he said.