Reaction: Nerd Knobs and Open Source in Network Software

This is an interesting take on where we are in the data networking world—

Tech is commoditizing, meaning that vendors in the space are losing feature differentiation. That happens for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which is that you run out of useful features. Other reasons include the difficulty in making less-obvious features matter to buyers, lack of insight by vendors into what’s useful to start off with, and difficulty in getting media access for any story that’s not a promise of total revolution. Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, it’s getting harder for network vendors to promote features they offer as the reasons to buy their stuff. What’s left, obviously, is price. —Tom Nolle @CIMI

There are things here I agree with, and things I don’t agree with.

Tech is commoditizing. I’ve talked about this before; I think networking is commoditizing at the device level, and the days of appliance based networking are behind us. But are networks themselves a commodity? Not any more than any other system.

We are running out of useful features, so vendors are losing feature differentiation. This one is going to take a little longer… When I first started in network engineering, the world was multiprotocol, and we had a lot of different transports. For instance, we took cases on IPX, VIP, Appletalk, NetBios, and many other protocols. These all ran on top of Ethernet, T1, Frame, ATM, FDDI, RPR, Token Ring, ARCnet, various sorts of serial links … The list always felt a little too long, to me. Today we have IPv4, IPv6, and MPLS on top of Ethernet, pretty much. All transports are framed as Ethernet, and all upper layer protocol use some form of IP. MPLS sits in the middle as the most common “transport enhancer.” The first thing to note is that the space across which useful features can be created is considerably smaller than it used to be.

To some degree, the second space in which useful features can be developed is in supporting specific application requirements. For instance, it was a big deal getting voice to run on IP. Today, we throw bandwidth and some light QoS at the problem, and call it done. We still have a lot of Ethernet over IP right now, but I suspect this will eventually “go away,” as well. At least I hope so. If we could get a few key vendors to stop pushing mobility as a feature only available across a single flooding domain, it would simplify everyone’s lives.

Hint hint.

To put this another way, features are sold into complexity, and the network has become radically simpler in the areas where appliance based vendors have always sold features.

At the same time, anyone who reads/listens to/interacts with anything I have said in the last few years knows I do not think networks are becoming simpler. To the contrary, I think networks are becoming more complex. To solve hard problems in a way that interacts with environmental instability well, you need complexity. If one part of the network is becoming simpler, and we still want to solve these kinds of problems, we must be shifting the complexity to another part of the network.

And we are.

Look at eVPNs, for instance, and you will see where one sort of shift is happening—from the transport to the control plane. We are throwing a lot of complexity into BGP to solve a set of problems that, honestly, should not exist in the first place—stretching broadcast domains to solve a mobility problem. Another kind of shift is what we see happening at the hyperscalers. Contrary to popular belief, you should care about what the hyperscalers are doing, because what they are doing will be commonplace in a network near you soon enough. It used to be odd to see a data center fabric with 100,000 hosts. I can name a few dozen companies that are at this scale today, and the number is only growing.

Worse, many of those companies are trying to manage this kind of scale without taking advantage of the lessons learned at the content providers—because the folks in those organizations read all the time about the millions of servers in the hyperscale world, and how “the solutions hyperscalers use don’t apply to you.”

Let’s recount some history. Ethernet only was a thing only the hyperscalers of the day (the IX’s) did many years ago, and would never apply to everyone. Spine and leaf fabrics were something the hyperscalers of the day did many years ago, and would never apply to everyone. High speed fiber links were a thing only the large scale providers of the day did, and would never apply to everyone. 10g to the server was something only the hyperscalers of the day did, and would never apply to everyone. MPLS was something only the hyperscalers of the day did, and would never apply to you. Shall I continue? One of the side effects of there are no providers, there are no enterprises; there are problems, and there are solutions is just this: whatever tool works, use it. Ignore all the folks saying “you can’t use that tool, because you’re not a part of the select club that is supposed to use it.”

But this does point us in another direction of complexity, the definition of new features, and the differentiation process.

Scale and manageability are the features that sell right now.

We have gone from a world where you can sell features, because everyone assumed spending money on the network, to a world in which you must prove the network is worth spending money on. Which means treating routers and switches as cattle, and figuring out how to understand what the network is doing and why, are the important places to look. Basic operation might be “done,” but figuring out how to build a good network that runs well, and showing value, is far from done, and probably will not ever be done.

In the end, I agree with the original article—open source is going to drive commoditization at the device level.

I will go farther, and say open source is going to force us to rethink the rush to new features, to rethink the entire security space, and to rethink the way we handle code quality. Operators are going to be forced to take more of all of these things into their own hands, or to outsource it through much stronger vertical integration than we’ve seen in the past.

The network world is definitely changing; the collision with open source is one more element in what is likely to come in the future, and it will drive commoditization at some level. At the same time, this very commoditization is going to leave a much more interesting set of problems in its wake, and a more interesting industry to live in.

Are you ready?

1 Comment

  1. Jeff T on 20 August 2018 at 1:33 pm


    Surprisingly I completely agree with you 🙂
    We all know – complexity doesn’t “just” disappear, it moves, if the place it has moved to happens to be outside of our domain, we call this simplification… (RFC1925)