Very few organizations use IT equipment supplied by a single vendor. Where heterogeneous IT environments exist, interoperability is key to achieving maximum value from existing investments. Open networking is the most cost effective way to ensure interoperability between devices on a network.

Unless your organization was formed very recently, chances are that your organization’s IT has evolved over time. Even small hardware upgrades are disruptive to an organization’s operations, making network-wide “lift and shift” upgrades nearly unheard of.

While loyalty to a single vendor can persist through regular organic growth and upgrade cycles, organizations regularly undergo mergers and acquisitions (M&As). M&As almost always introduce some level of heterogeneity into a network, meaning that any organization of modest size is almost guaranteed to have to integrate IT from multiple vendors.

While every new type of device from every different vendor imposes operational management overhead, the impact of heterogeneous IT isn’t universal across device types. The level of automation within an organization for different device classes, as well as the ubiquity and ease of use of management abstraction layers, both play a role in determining the impact of heterogeneity.

The Impact of Standards

Consider, for a moment, the average x86 server. Each server vendor offers a different Lights Out Management (LOM) system to perform low-level tasks on the server, such as installing a hypervisor, microvisor, or operating system.

For IT operations teams that have yet to embrace automation, the different LOM systems are an irritation, but not a significant challenge. For those that have embraced automation, heterogeneity among server vendors has traditionally been a one-time investment to incorporate the new vendor’s LOM, and even that’s changing with the introduction of the Redfish API, and subsequent standardization of LOM automation interfaces.

Similarly, the rise of hypervisors abstracted the details of hardware away from workloads. X86 virtualization not only enabled significant workload consolidation, it dramatically reduced the management overhead per workload. So much so that it would be nearly impossible to operate modern enterprise IT without it. Enterprises just have too much IT to do things the old fashioned way.

The past decade has told a similar tale for the storage industry: Standardization and abstraction drove commoditization. In turn, vendors were forced to invest in ease of use in order to remain relevant. Competition can do amazing things, and in the tech industry the most important result of competition is the adoption of standards.

Standards, Automation, and Openness

The adoption of IT automation in networking lags behind compute, storage, cloud, and so forth. This isn’t to say that network automation isn’t possible, but in many cases it’s still significantly more difficult.

The adoption of network automation has lagged in part because the dominant network vendors have been slow to embrace it. Decades of using proprietary standards to drive lock-in makes for a hard habit to kick; however, vendors no longer have a choice but to standardize and interoperate.

No one networking vendor dominates enough of the market, and it’s likely that no one vendor ever will. Different companies will use different networking vendors. As stated earlier, M&A activity will result in heterogeneous networks, and organizations have no choice but to make them work.

Like all other aspects of IT, networking has grown more complicated as organizations scale. IT automation in other parts of the organization has allowed those teams to respond quickly to change, and this has increased the rate of change with which networking teams have to deal.

Without automation, networking teams simply cannot keep up with the rest of IT. The result is either network administrator burnout, other IT teams working around networking, or—more frequently—some combination of both.

Automation of networks is difficult, if not impossible, without open standards to allow networking devices to interoperate, so networking vendors have been forced—however reluctantly—to learn to play ball.

Choosing the Platform for Your Future

It’s important not to conflate basic implementation of open standards with open networking, or openness more generally. Networking vendors that aren’t truly open networking vendors view the “natural state” of a network as consisting entirely of their products. To these vendors, interoperability is a means to an end. That end is nothing more than giving customers a path to “sunset” networking equipment from other vendors.

Cumulus Networks has a more inclusive view of the datacenter. Diversity is inevitable. Open networking means more than open standards. It means allowing customers to choose between multiple hardware vendors. It means using a network operating system based on Linux, and other open source technologies.

Open networking isn’t about creating lock-in. It’s not about treating the inevitable network heterogeneity of M&A activity as an aberration. Open networking is about building a sustainable platform for IT automation that acknowledges and embraces heterogeneity.

The IT automation crafted today will still be used by your organization’s infrastructure teams for at least the next decade. The pace of change isn’t going to slow, and time is running out to address the elephant in the room.

Automation is a necessity for IT operations to be sustainable in the long term, and building IT automation without open networking is like building a house without a foundation. The alternative—monoculture—is simply unsustainable.