Open source software built the Internet, but for years was distrusted by large enterprises. That’s obviously changed with Linux servers, LAMP stacks and Hadoop cluster now common in enterprise data centers. But despite a history of strident debates, open source versus proprietary is no longer an either-or decision. Indeed, the distinction between the two is nuanced and hard to identify as vendors leverage freely available code, fund open source projects and embrace open APIs within proprietary products. As I write in this Network Computing cover story, the era of public cloud services and software-defined infrastructure means that philosophical debates over OpenStack versus vCloud or OpenDaylight versus Cisco ACI miss the point. For IT, ideological purity is neither possible nor desirable. When it comes to technology decisions it’s business, not dogma.
Contention between open source groups freely releasing code and commercial vendors capitalizing on proprietary products started the minute software became a profit-generating industry. The latest battleground is enterprise data centers where the fights focus on cloud stacks, software-controlled networks, and big data systems. The lines are far from clear-cut since established IT vendors incorporate open source code, APIs, and standards in their products. On the flip side, startup companies are happy to commercialize public open source projects if they see demand for a polished version of rough, complex, not easily configured open source code. IT must take a pragmatic approach to software and vendor selection. Indeed, InformationWeek survey data shows that few IT organizations have black-and-white policies, with only 14% of respondents stating that they can’t or won’t use open source software.
The open source/proprietary distinction spans every corner of the data center and the full NWC digital issue analyzes survey questions focused on the software alternatives in three emergent and important areas of IT infrastructure: cloud stacks, SDN and network automation, and big data systems. There’s plenty of innovation on both sides of the software development divide and for IT it means a pragmatic approach to software and vendor selection, focusing on requirements, features and results, not the development process and philosophy, is most important. The question isn’t OpenStack versus VMware vCloud or OpenDaylight versus Cisco ACI, but how each can contribute to meeting your IT goals.
Open source proponents, like Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst argue that it’s a much more efficient software development model that leads to better, faster and cheaper code and that open source’s distributed, collaborative nature fosters greater innovation. Says Whitehurst, “If you look at where most new applications are getting built, and therefore where so much of the innovation around languages, frameworks and management paradigms are happening, it’s around an open infrastructure.”
Most of those leading large enterprises based on proprietary software acknowledge the importance of open source in today’s software ecosystem, but would agree with VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger that proprietary systems can build added features without the design-by-committee infighting that sometimes reduces open source projects to the lowest common denominator. In an exclusive interview after his 2014 Interop keynote, Gelsinger says VMware embraces openness through support of open, standard APIs. “We’re embracing APIs at multiple levels of our products and saying we will increasingly support these open interfaces into our products. And you’ll see us make more announcements on that as we go forward.”
As networking increasingly becomes defined by software, not hardware, the line between open source and proprietary systems is perhaps the . Not only have established vendors like Cisco begun using merchant switching silicon available to anyone (Lippis Report has an excellent review), but they are supporting various open standards like open vSwitch and VXLAN while simultaneously building proprietary alternatives to OpenFlow (OpFlex) and OpenDaylight (ACI).
Ultimately, the debate about open source versus proprietary software is academic. For enterprise IT, open source purity is neither possible nor desirable. Instead, demand interoperable, flexible products resistant to lock-in that use standard or published APIs and data formats. The focus should be on results not process.