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Lock-In: Undesirable. Avoidable.

Sep 20, 2013

The value of standards development for open SDN, and why ONF will never support deliberate vendor lock-in strategies.

I recently read a contributed article by Michael Bushong, vice president of marketing at Plexxi, published on TechTarget’s SearchSDN. In this piece, Bushong approaches the subject of Software-Defined Networking (SDN) vendor lock-in from the perspective that lock-in is neither good nor bad. While points within this article are certainly valid and something that the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) should keep in mind, ONF strongly champions the open SDN movement for the benefit of end users and cannot accept vendor lock-in as a neutral inevitability.

In his article, Bushong writes, “The protocols that have become staples in virtually every network on the planet emerged over decades, not months. The question is whether or not that glacial pace will be fast enough to keep up with the demand behind SDN.” He goes on to state that “a new way can’t come without people forging their own road, but in doing so, they will naturally create varying degrees of lock-in.”

These are very interesting points. However, when we consider who lock-in benefits, it is not the end users. In this argument, the motivation supporting this networking innovation – the end users’ “demand behind SDN” – takes a backseat to the corporate interests of those “forging their own road” as they “naturally create varying degrees of lock-in.” In short, accepting vendor lock-in to more quickly meet the demand for SDN does not benefit end users in the long run. It benefits vendors.

To move SDN forward with the needs of end users in mind, we need to have an open discussion about the pitfalls of lock-in and the benefits of open SDN. Lock-in implies lack of choice, and it typically results in less innovation and higher prices. It is natural for vendors to offer non-standard solutions before standards stabilize, but deliberate vendor strategies to create lock-in impede the demand for and completion of standards. Vendor lock-in creates the same problems that Bushong believes it will help avoid.

Bushong does give a nod to ONF’s efforts as a standards organization, and we greatly appreciate this acknowledgement. We are working hard to support the open SDN movement, bringing together more than 100 member companies to establish standards and encourage interoperability. Our OpenFlow® Conformance Testing Program gives vendors the opportunity to ensure that their products comply with industry standards. ONF PlugFests allow vendors to test their solutions’ interoperability with other products. All of these activities serve end users by protecting their interests, and they benefit vendors by making their products attractive to end users who want to avoid lock-in. Frankly, we argue that the entire premise of open interfaces reduces the likelihood of vendor lock-in. The very nature of SDN built on an OpenFlow® substrate fosters creative, customer-specific solutions implemented in software that are readily modified and improved, avoiding vendor lock-in.

Bushong’s article is good in the sense that it creates an ongoing dialogue about SDN and allows end users, organizations such as ONF, and even vendors to contribute to the discussion. This is exactly the kind of involvement and open dialogue needed to fully cultivate the SDN movement.

In conclusion, as the SDN movement progresses, we can turn our focus to addressing the demands of end users, or we can focus on the interests of vendors. ONF has chosen the former. We do not see any merit in vendor lock-in, which should be viewed as always undesirable and usually avoidable.

– Dan Pitt, Executive Director