Why Should Data Center Operators Care About Open Source?
Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, speaking at the 2014 OpenStack summit in Paris.

Why Should Data Center Operators Care About Open Source?

Open tech community leaders make the case for open source in the data center

Software developers obviously love open source. They get to collaborate, build on top of work already done by others instead of constantly building from scratch, and add features they need to existing solutions. Innovation often happens faster in open source communities than it does behind closed doors of corporate development departments.

While software runs in data centers, data center managers’ job doesn’t usually extend much beyond making sure there is enough IT, power, and cooling capacity to support the application workloads and making sure the systems are configured and secured properly. But it isn’t going to stay this way forever.

As software development tools evolve, and as businesses increasingly look to software as the main way to grow their value, more and more software is going to continue coming down the pipeline, and it’s going to come more and more frequently, requiring unprecedented levels of agility on data center managers’ part.

This is why DevOps (shorthand for development and operations) is such a hot space. DevOps is about maintaining a constant feedback loop between developers and infrastructure operators to ensure new software that’s being written can be deployed quickly and efficiently, and that it can scale. IT automation and software-driven data center management in general are a big part of the DevOps philosophy and its great enablers, and a lot of important innovation in this space happens in open source communities.

Data Center Manager of the Future is a Software Developer

The data center manager of the future is an expert in both operations and software development. Software-enabled IT automation is what makes services at global scale possible, and enterprises that want to grow value through technology have to have a good grasp of the technologies that make this kind of infrastructure work.

Google, which pioneered much of today’s thinking around operating services at global scale, doesn’t have sys admins. It has what it calls site reliability engineers, who are essentially software developers responsible for automating the infrastructure to support Google services they are assigned to support, Geng Li, CTO of enterprise infrastructure at Google, said while sitting on a panel at a recent industry event in San Francisco.

Data center managers should stay abreast of what is happening in the open source communities created around software for data centers and participate in those communities, Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, said, while sitting on a different panel at the DCD Internet conference in late July. The panel’s theme was the role of open source in the data center world.

“I think open source is on the right side of history,” Zemlin said. The overall trend is toward collaborative development, and open source efforts lead this trend, because there is simply too much software that needs to be written for any single organization to write it on its own, he explained. It needs to be written because business leaders look at IT as a key growth driver.

“The reality is that in order for business value to be driven out of IT, we need to get developers extremely productive and get rapid time to production,” he said, adding that this is something every CEO he talks to wants nowadays.

Fighting Vendor Lock-In With Open Source

Open source is also a way to fight the ever-dreaded vendor lock-in. By open sourcing its server designs through the Open Compute Project, Facebook opened doors to numerous hardware suppliers who are not the typical go-to data center vendors to compete with those go-to vendors for the same deals.

Now that there are several compute, storage, and network hardware designs available publicly through OCP, there’s also a lot of work happening in the area of software, specifically network management.

There are multiple open source efforts to drive standardization of network management software, and the incumbent networking technology vendors have joined some of them, demonstrating that not only do they see them as threatening to their market dominance but that they see their progress as inevitable. Vendors usually participate in open development efforts to be able to influence their direction and to ensure compatibility of whatever technology that comes out of them with their own products.

One big example is Linux Foundation’s OpenDaylight, an initiative that has created an open source SDN controller. All major network vendors, including Cisco, HP, Dell, Juniper, Arista, and Huawei, are the initiative’s sponsors. Nella Jacques, OpenDaylight’s executive director, said such standardization efforts exemplify the trend of standardization as a process moving from standards organizations with their constant in-fighting to collaborative projects.

But to participate in open source efforts and take advantage of them, the user needs to work harder than they may be used to. Open source organizations don’t have salespeople that look for end users. It’s up to the user to do the leg work. “It takes more work to consume it,” Jacques said. “It takes more work to understand it.”

The good part, however, is that there isn’t a salesperson or a product manager between the user and the creator of the technology, he added. Open source projects provide direct lines of communication between users and developers.

Freedom From the “Box Industry”

Another major open SDN effort is the Open Networking Foundation, backed by a group of large network users, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Verizon, NTT, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Telekom.

ONF’s biggest accomplishment so far is the creation of OpenFlow, a standard that enables separation of the controller plane from the forwarding plane in network switches and running it on a regular x86 server. The two functions have traditionally come locked in proprietary vendor boxes, with the vendor in effect dictating design and management of the user’s networking environment.

SDN enables the transition from the “box-based” networking ecosystem to a compute- and software-based one, ONF Executive Director Dan Pitt said. It serves “to free the network operator from the box industry,” he said.

The Price You Pay

And that’s essentially what’s at the core of open source – shifting control over the direction of technology from vendors to users. Don’t want the box? Use open source and build your own or have somebody do it for you. Of course it’s never that simple. Salesforce, for example, in transitioning to a web-scale-style infrastructure, found that far from everything it needs is available through open source communities. The company’s engineers are building a lot of the tools they need to make the transition in-house and hoping to open source some of them eventually.

But that’s the trade-off. Like with all other things in life, taking more control means taking on more responsibility and a lot more work.

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