Why open source will rule the data center

According to Michael Bushong of networking startup Plexxi, three commonly occurring conditions ensure that open source software will steadily widen its data center footprint

Rare is the infrastructure that lacks open source software, but as we watch such new technologies as SDN move into our data centers, open source seems increasingly likely to penetrate every corner -- not just servers and applications, but networking, storage, and more.

Michael Bushong, vice president of marketing at SDN vendor Plexxi, sees the dominance of open source as inevitable. In this week's New Tech Forum, he walks us through his reasoning that open source will spread throughout IT. -- Paul Venezia

Open source as the future of IT

Open is playing an increasingly vital role in IT infrastructure. The current, dominant position of open source in server-side computing is well understood, and networking is now edging its way toward open source with the OpenDaylight movement. But is open source a natural evolutionary path for all IT disciplines, or do certain characteristics make some areas more attractive for open source than others?

When we think about networking as an industry, for example, we tend to compare its progress to the evolutionary track taken by the compute world. The assumption is that the networking industry will unfold in much the same way that the server industry did, marching past similar milestones. But this view of the world assumes that evolution follows a two-dimensional track, and industries are either parked somewhere along the continuum or they're moving toward a predetermined end.

But what if evolution doesn't follow some set schedule or even a singular path? If we assume that technological evolution is not predetermined, then what conditions drive an industry toward open source?

To address these questions, let's start by examining the three major drivers for broad open source adoption:

Single platform

When lots of applications run on a single platform, that platform is primed for open source. For most platform plays, value and differentiation are not in the platform, but rather reside in what runs on top of the platform. It makes sense that, to the extent possible, vendors developing on a platform should leverage a common body of work. Re-creating foundational elements not unique is duplicative work that ultimately costs the end-user. Additionally, a common platform helps ensure that all applications on top of the platform can run in what ends up looking like a fairly ubiquitous execution environment. This is largely what drove the migration of compute toward Linux.

Contrary to popular belief, a platform that's open source and ubiquitous can also be lucrative. Companies like Red Hat have been successful at leveraging a broad installed base to generate solid revenue streams. That uniformity of the platform Red Hat supports helps ensure that its customer base is as large as possible. Even small deviations in the underlying platform would fracture Red Hat's customer base into smaller sets.

Single point of control

When a single point of control for a large number of infrastructure elements exists, that point of control lends itself well to open source. The value in a point of control lies either in managing very specific workflows (as with most single-vendor management platforms) or in broadly orchestrating workflows across disparate elements in heterogeneous environments (as with SDN controllers). The former tends toward tightly integrated management/execution solutions, while the latter provides a fertile breeding ground for open source.

By adopting an open source framework as a nexus of control, the community helps ensure that individual players do not end up with monopolistic control that can then be used to unduly influence decisions further down the technology stack. In essence, open source creates a very natural counterbalance to what would otherwise be competitive efforts to create "sticky" solutions.

Nascent technology

Innovation is always important, but in a technology's formative stages, that innovation may not be focused in a particular direction. When the outcome is uncertain, the number of potential paths approaches infinity. During these times, the best thing for nascent technology is unbridled support. Open source allows the widest aperture for new ideas to come into the space, which makes it ideally suited for nascent technology spaces where iterative experimentation is necessary.

Open source does not preclude companies from creating protected innovations. Certainly, open source projects can be extended in commercial and even proprietary ways, depending on which open source license is in effect. But ultimately, open source ensures that access to the most important base concepts and foundational elements is uniform and open.

Driving the future

With these drivers in mind, it's relatively straightforward to see why open source plays a large role in certain areas of IT. On the server side, the proliferation of applications and the desire for those applications to be portable was enough to ensure the emergence of an open source compute platform like Linux. Once performance was good enough, differentiation was always going to move to the applications, which made unique platform capabilities unnecessary for the lion's share of apps. Where performance or specialty capabilities remain important, there is still a small market for special operating environments.

As we look to networking, open source seems like a foregone conclusion as well. The push toward SDN makes the controller space especially receptive to open source. The desire to have a common control platform capable of near-ubiquitous deployment -- and with control hooks into a large number of heterogeneous elements -- is likely enough to guarantee a significant role for open source in networking. This is a large part of why projects like OpenDaylight hold such promise. The viability of proprietary, stand-alone control platforms in the face of a push toward orchestration and automation is questionable at best, except in the case of niche workflows.

Storage would seem to be the next logical vertical to be impacted by open source. With a trend toward federated storage clusters, there will be a need for a central control mechanism, not unlike that of SDN. A single point of control spanning heterogeneous architectures is ideally suited for open source efforts.

The point here is not that open source is a necessary, evolutionary step, but rather that open source becomes a key ingredient as conditions in a technology space favor the value that open source brings. Where there is commonality in platform or control, open source will thrive. Where specialization is critical, open source is less relevant. As companies look at their own open source participation, they should examine natural points of convergence. The conditions more than the projects are likely to determine the success of open source across the various technology areas of IT.

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