I've been sharing thoughts on telecom's most recent fixation on "open" technology for several months, but I admit it isn't entirely clear to me how committed service providers and vendors are to changing their ways when it comes to moving off telecom-specific gear.
At our Big Telecom Event in June, I had a chance to talk with Neela Jacques, executive director of OpenDaylight , and get his opinion on this topic. Jacques was in Chicago for only a day or so. He had spent most of the previous month continent hopping in his role as head of the group creating an open approach to software-defined networking controllers.
He shared with me an analogy he has been generally sharing, so it may sound familiar, but it also struck me as quite apt. The two approaches to adopting "open" technology in telecom can be compared to two different approaches that developed over the last decade or more for selling healthier food. One approach involves products with the word "natural" on the label. The other involves products with "organic" on the label.
"Almost anyone can label their products 'natural,'" Jacques said. "But if you want to label your product 'organic,' you have to be willing to meet a specific set of guidelines that has been adopted by the USDA."
The difference is simple -- "natural" grew up in the commercial world and was used willy-nilly until it became meaningless. "Organic" was a term that food producers who were working without chemicals were willing to sit down and define, even though doing so meant compromising on what might have been the ideal standard, Jacques said.
It is then up to consumers to vote with their dollars on which products they are willing to buy -- pay less, and you likely get "natural" stuff that is not necessarily any healthier than the regular fare. Much of it comes loaded with chemicals. Pay more, and you get something that has earned the right to be called "organic" -- and you know exactly what you are getting for that price.
In the same way, "open" can become diluted if vendors use it as a label but don't adhere to truly open standards. There are many ways to avoid being truly open, even when it comes to application programming interfaces (APIs), one of the most common tools of the open realm, Jacques told me.
In some cases, vendors can open an API to the world but then change it, even subtly, without working with others on the change, calling it an improvement. A so-called open API can be published but remain entirely controlled by a single vendor. Or an API can be only partially open; it is essentially private, even if it is shared among developers that meet some approval criterion.
OpenDaylight is taking a truly open approach. Many companies contributed code to create its open-source controller, and that controller can now be embedded in any participating vendor's product. But any changes made to the code -- i.e., improvements -- must be shared and offered back to the entire OD community. (See OpenDaylight Unveils Open-Source SDN Controller.)
That's what gives vendors pause. A company that has what it perceives as a market advantage is loath to lose that by engaging in a collaborative process that requires sharing of its advantage, especially if they can look "open" by incorporating some elements of openness.
"We have right now a situation where companies are acting slightly open but screaming that they are very open," he said.
If service providers vote with their dollars -- as consumers can at the grocery store -- what they wind up with may look very natural but not very organic.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading