SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Open Networking Summit (ONS) — Last night, having digested some of the first keynote of the Open Networking Summit (along with some decent lamb kebabs and a Heineken), I spent time looking for a better story line than the picture that has been painted of an idealistic generation of collaborative, open-source companies fighting for the benefit of humanity.
Such as: How will this new batch of open-source networking technology offerings make money? That was the scuttlebutt on the cocktail party floor after the keynote celebration, as several attendees privately commented that open-source socialism sounds dandy, until their Software Defined Networking (SDN) startup is going for a Series D.
The keynote panel here described the situation a some sort of technology utopia, touting the benefits of open-source communities vs. the hard-nosed driven capitalist agenda of proprietary money-grubbers.
“Something open is in the air,” declared Guru Parulkar, chair of the Open Networking Summits. “There is openness everywhere.”
The panel chimed in, with appreciation. Najam Ahmad, Director of Technical Operations for (very profitable) Facebook (FB), gave and overview of the immense growth in Facebook’s OpenCompute initiative. But Facebook’s business is predicated on making data center as cheap as possible, not making money from open switches.
Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon outlined the benefits of community software development. The Open Networking Foundation’s (ONF) Dan Pitt told us how service-provider customers are yearning to be free of proprietary operating systems. And Jim Zemlin, Executive Director of the Linux Foundation, told use how the world is emulating the success of the world’s largest open-source software programs.
“You have to find a better way to build software than hiring a bunch of people and locking them in a room with pizza and beer,” said Zemlin.
Yes, indeed, the open revolution is real, as open-source software projects eat everything. There is no doubt that open-source is a theme coursing through nearly even technology market extant.
But there’s only one problem: We all need to get paid — in cash, if not pizza and beer. And once we’ve moved beyond the idealism of free code, reality sets in.
Investment markets, in the long run, are going to demand hard-nosed, capitalistic, companies that are working to capture market share and then ring-fence it with their own proprietary business model. This is how Apple, Cisco, Microsoft, and Oracle became the largest tech companies in the world.
And that’s how markets work: Suck customers in. And then figure out how to make money from them. Technology is never a charity operation.
I asked the panel about Apple’s uber-intergrated and proprietary models, as a counter-balance to the open hoopla, and I got some wishy-washy answers. Apple is an outlier, they seemed to say. Open source is the way.
It’s true that Google has done a great job spreading open-source Android, but just as Facebook with OpenCompute, Google is not in the business of making money from operating systems. Google’s agenda with Android is to create more data-hungry mobile consumers to drive cash into its advertising pile. I don’t think the company is ready to open-source AdWords.
After years of hype about free and open alternatives, Microsoft Office is still a viable, profit-driven operation that has yet to be ousted from the mainstream of enterprise software. And last I checked, Cisco still makes fat profit margins from its dominance in the networking franchise, despie critiques that it’s moving too slowly into the software-defined world. Is it really ready to toss its IOS to the whims of open-source scrums?
I’m not saying SDN isn’t a new and viable technology movement — it is. Nothing is going to stop it, as separating applications, operating systems, and networking hardware is already a trend to big to stop.
But there will be many challenges for the the open-source movement, particularly for the startups. OpenFlow controllers sound great, until everybody and their grandma has an OpenSource controller. Big Switch found that out, the hard way, forcing it to change direction.
We all see the promise of liberating routers from the clutches of duopolies, but market forces aren’t quite that compliant. You can’t make it happen overnight, especially when the legacy players are still making so much money.
That’s why 2014 will be the year of the SDN reality check. Give us religion, but then get us the contracts to underwrite the church. Because charity work can only go so far.