Response: Open Source Open Standards Open Loop

Dave Ward recently wrote a blog post evaluating some thoughts around Open Standards and Open Source. It’s a great read, I encourage you to spend some time reading it and digesting it. There are many good points in there, I’ll highlight a few below with my own comments around his ideas here.

About three years ago, at IETF 91, I gave a presentation on the state of SDOs like the IETF and Open Source networking communities and the industry trend of innovators (vendors, operators, entrepreneurs, developers) regardless of affiliation coming together to form developer communities in the open. At that time, I reflected on whether an SDO like the IETF would remain relevant in a rapidly expanding environment of Open Source Software (OSS) projects. I made outrageous claims that were proven only with emphatic assertion about the relationship between Open Standards and Open Source. Summarized; developers in the open communities are setting the pace and trajectory of the industry and not the publication of paper standards. Honestly, it was at the beginning of the era. Networking related open source communities had just formed and established themselves. The early days of software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) had finally moved to post-hype phase and protocol and product work were well underway.

Similar to Dave, I also wondered about the relationship between standards organizations and open source. Four years ago, I thought that in the future open source organizations would eclipse SDOs. This obviously has not happened, and in fact SDOs are moving in the direction of OSS projects.

My real bottom line here is that innovators can’t go faster than their customers and customers can’t go faster than their own understanding of the technology and integration, deployment and operational considerations. And, we need to reduce the fracturing of the industry because, in this interim period, a technology landscape has evolved that is littered with “Stacks”, “Controllers”, and “Virtual Fubars”.

This point really hit home with me. The OSS landscape is littered with many projects, many of which were developed in a vacuum, and many of which require integration with other projects to produce a solution for a customer. OSS projects are now realizing this, and you’re seeing them try to coalesce things together, such as with new overarching projects such as the LF Networking Fund. Trying to produce harmonized solutions from all the piece is the future of meaningful OSS work.

On the “foundation” side it has turned into a situation where every new community forming felt they needed their own foundation, misunderstanding the function of a board and application of money raised. Many new communities we formed were cost-free, no (mega) boards and some had 503c’s (foundations) some focused not only on code, but on code guarantees of performance and scale (spending foundation dues on infrastructure and test platforms). Back in 2012 when I started in OpenSource developer community building and focusing on contribution of code; I was completely and utterly green. Several years later, I can claim a lot of scars and experience, met and learned from a lot of very smart people; and that code is the answer and that a healthy community is built and not launched. The exercise reified the earlier understanding from many years as a developer and standards person, the best standards come from running code.

Foundation overload. I think many of us in open source have felt this for the past few years. Every piece of code doesn’t need a board, a TSC, and a heavyweight process. Perhaps the heavyweight process does make sense when integrating all the pieces, though.

In looking at our current state, I am convinced that APIs, platforms and frameworks WILL be the future standards front for software driven network architectures. The same standardization reasoning applies to these higher-level concepts as did to our original protocol specification efforts – consistent system design, interoperability, and choice. And, the “Collaborative Loop” I described at IETF 91 (Figure 1) requires (minimally) tooling built to have standards and dependencies in a RCS that is open and accepts contributions.

This is 100% correct. The networking industry, both in terms of open source as well as proprietary, is moving in this direction at a rapid pace.

The “normative reference” discussion (in sum, a standard needs to be able to refer to an open source development effort) remains unresolved at this point, primarily because of fundamental differences in orientation of the parties around documentation. For an OSS community, code is quite often the documentation. The quality and type of what an SDO may consider documentation is community dependent. It is also unclear how projects will be picked as being viable for a reference in a standard, how to measure health and longevity of prospective communities and what aspects of the projects are to be referenced (entire project, subproject, schemas, specific implementations, code versions, libraries, …, ???).

This alludes to how do OSS and SDO organizations work together. Over the past four years, I’ve seen this attempted a few times. It’s clearly where things needs to land, but how best to get there without crushing the things which make OSS and SDO organizations independently successful and meaningful? It’s a difficult question I should answer in a future blog post.

At the same time, we need to remain balanced and accept our roles as technologists – that what we are creating has a very specific role in a larger ecosystem. What gets me excited as an engineer is getting my technology out there and being used in multiple new and different ways.

This is what makes all engineers I know get up and work hard everyday. Ensuring this level of excitement is what moves things forward by leaps and bounds, and pushes the entire industry forward to the future.