Vidya Narayana, in a piece at Gigaom, said recently:
So, why did I actually stop contributing to standards definitions? The primary one is the fact that while the pace at which standards are written hasn’t changed in many years, the pace at which the real world adopts software has become orders of magnitude faster. Standards, unfortunately, have become the playground for hashing out conflicts and carrying out silo-ed agendas and as a result, have suffered a drastic degradation.
As someone else recently said to me — “On the wire standards are increasingly irrelevant; open source software is the future.” I think we’re going to find this is a matter of jumping into the fire because the frying pan is uncomfortable. Yes, the world has changed. Merchant silicon and that whole software defined network thing are going to change everything, right? We’re going to go from running OSPF and BGP to running OpenStack, and just “be done with it.” And no, the world doesn’t necessarily belong to just a few major hardware vendors that get to keep the keys to the routing protocols in their back pockets.
So I respect what these folks are saying. The IETF is, like any organization, subject to various shades of brokenness. But let me inject just a little reality here. Open source is great (in fact, I run a lot of open source stuff, just as everyone else does), but let’s not put our blinders on.
Open source doesn’t solve the “on the wire protocol,” problem. In fact, if anything, it could easily make it worse. “Just pick a format, and don’t worry about interoperability! Who do we have to interoperate with, after all?” So there’s never going to be yet another open source project that piggy backs on the one you’re working on for some other purpose? Once we all adopt OpenStack, we’re all done with networking forever, because all future improvements in routing, switching, virtualization, etc., can all be encapsulated and worked on as software? There are no plugins that ever need to written? No new ways of transporting information?
Open source projects also tend to border on the insanely difficult to install and manage, because it’s just so easy to build some new addon without any reference to a larger architecture. Tried to install a large piece of open source recently from scratch (without piggybacking on a reference package built by a grad student someplace)?
To turn on the snark a little, do we really think the community of ultra rich folks who figure they can make money off selling services and content based on open source is so much more open and less likely to have the problems the IETF has than the IETF itself is? If you think so, then I have a news flash for you — we’re all humans on this planet. No matter how much some group or another has moved beyond all that, freeing itself from the greed, desire for control, and all the rest — they haven’t.
The bottom line is this:
The end of the IETF is not nigh. The end of big vendors selling software is not nigh. The end of routing is not nigh. There’s a place for open source — and for open standards, and vendors, and all other sorts of people at the table. Open source without open standards is likely to produce a byzantine world of individual projects that serve one purpose running on their own purpose built protocols — a constantly churning sea of new projects hawking an ever widening array of different versions of the same set of services, each with its own on the wire formats, etc. It’s all good when you have two or three protocols providing a single service, but when you break the thousand protocol barrier, let’s come back and talk about the importance of common data formats, etc. They may not be sexy, but they’re still relevant.
What we need here is balance. Unfortunately, the networking industry tends to get “shiny thing syndrome,” running off after new and “better” stuff every time something new and shiny turns up with any sort of early success. And another part of the networking industry sits around waiting for the new shiny thing to be able to solve world hunger before even thinking about it. But these are human level problems; a new organization can solve them for a short period of time, but reality has to set in at some point.
Maybe I’ve been around this block a few times, so I’m a bit old and jaded. Or maybe not. Either way, let’s not abandon the past before we’re certain the future we think is there, is really there.