The trajectory of Open Daylight

When the Open Daylight project started, it was clear that the intent on the part of IBM and RedHat was to replicate the success of Linux.

Linux is today a de-facto monopoly on server operating systems. It is monetized by Redhat (and in smaller part by Canonical) and it essentially allowed the traditional I.T. companies such as IBM, Oracle, HP to neutralize Sun microsystems which was in the late 90s, early naughts, the platform of choice for Web application deployment.

Whether the initial target of these companies was Sun or Microsoft, the fact is that, by coming together in support of a open source project that had previously been an hobby of university students they inaugurated the era of corporate open source.

This was followed by a set of successful startup companies that used open source as a way to both create a much deeper engagement with their customers and of marketing their products. By originating and curating an open source project, a startup can achieve a much greater reach than before. The open source product becomes a free trial license, later monetized in
production deployments that typically need support. Open source also provides a way to engage with the consumers of the product by allowing them to become involved, contribute and help define the direction. It has been very effective in examples such as MySQL, Puppet Labs and Docker.

This landscape became more complex with the advent of OpenStack and the OpenStack foundation which not only includes a set of open source projects but also serves as a strong marketing organization. The OpenStack foundation, with its steep membership fees, was a mechanism by which, initially, Rackspace was able to share the costs of its marketing initiatives around its public cloud in its, until now, unsuccessful attempt to compete with Amazon Web Services (AWS).

It also created a group of very strange bedfellows. The companies investing the most on OpenStack are the giants of the I.T. world which, most likely, initially targeted AWS and VMWare as the common adversary. They are however
finding themselves incresingly in a situation where they are most interested in competing with each other in terms of providing private cloud solutions to enterprises, either hosted or on-premisse. This landscape keeps involving and the most interesting question at the moment is how are these companies going to be able to cooperate and compete with each other.

They must cooperate in order to create a bigger ecosystem around private cloud that can match the public cloud ecosystems of AWS, Azure and GCE. They must compete in order to differentiate their offerings. Otherwise we are left with two options for monetization: it is services services and Mirantis will get the cake OR (less likely) installing and operating a private cloud becomes a shrink wrapped product and Redhat wins.
Either way, non-differentiation implies a winner takes all monopoly.

It was at the height of the OpenStack euforia that Open Daylight was conceived. The assumption of its I.T. centric founders was that the networking vendors, which have the domain expertise, would collectively developed the software to be then monetized as part of an OpenStack distribution as software support.

I’d the opportunity to ask one of the people involved in the creation of the project for his thoughts on monetization and i got a clear answer: “we expect network vendors to monetize switches just like server manufacturers monetize NICs, video cards, storage”.

It is not surprising that the most technically savvy of the network vendors have adopted an approach of participating in ODL, in order to be aware of what is going on, but focus their energies on other strategic initiatives.

Network gear is a software business. Switches themselves are mostly manufactured by ODMs using third-party sillicon. Routers, specially service provider routers require much more flexible forwarding engines than switches, typically network processors. But those also are available from Broadcom (although lower capacity and capability than the special purpose sillicon of top vendors).

Being a software business allows network vendors to hit gross margins of 60%+. ODMs have margins that are much much lower. A networking company must have an independent (and differentiated) software strategy. This is a business imperative.

Some vendors, typically the weakest in their engineering resources, have tried to build such
a strategy on top of ODL. Use ODL as a marketing machine since it has a budget at least an order of magnitude higher than one would have for “SDN” in a networking vendor. At first glance this sounds like sensible a sessible strategy: build your own differentiated product wrapped in ODL-marketing aura.

The problem is that it transformed ODL into a frankenstein of multiple vendor projects with very little or not relationship to each other. The several controllers being driven by the multiple vendors participating in ODL are all different. One vendor had recent press where they where describing 3 distinct controllers. Given the lack of commonality between the goals of these different projects it is completely unclear what ODL is at the technical level. Which is not entirely surprising given that the term “SDN” has no technical definition in itself.

At this point ODL becomes a brand, not an open source project. And a tainted one at that. Given that none of the multiple controllers can be seen currently in any qualification testing in either carrier or enterprise one can only conclude that there isn’t a single one that quite works yet. Software engineering projects are built in timeframes that are longer than the hype cycles generated by a large marketing machine. This inevitably leads to disappointment.

That disappointment is growing and will likely snowball.