With open arms

The benefits of open source are well known – software that is largely free of charge, constantly updated and prevents vendor lock-in. How trusting are Middle East organisations to open source when it comes to one of the most important parts of an IT strategy – the network?open

On the face of it, Open Source software (OSS) in the network seems an open and shut case in the Middle East. At least for now. While the benefits of Open Source are widely known, and have been recognised by many businesses in the Middle East, some aspects of the data centre may be perceived as asking too much at this stage.

On the face of it, the economic outlook in the Middle East will be a driver for the uptake of open source as a whole. CIOs who are under pressure to achieve more with less are sure to find Open Source’s lower costs – and in many cases, no up-front costs at all – attractive. Huge technology organisations around the world, including Facebook, Amazon and Google are all advocates of OSS, so it’s benefits are well endorsed.

Networks, however, are slightly a different ball game. The main reason behind this is that using OSS for the network as a whole is a relatively new venture. While it may make sense to employ OSS for non-core enterprise applications, using OSS on the network could well be perceived as asking for trouble by business senior management figures.

Faisal Malik, CTO, Huawei, Enterprise, Middle East believes that software-defined networking – a prime suspect for OSS use – is on the cusp of widespread adoption in the region, largely due to its range of business benefits. “SDN is rapidly gaining interest among customers in the GCC region because of its ability in addressing business and technical challenges,” he says. “Customers today have a better understanding of SDN-driven benefits, such as low cost of infrastructure, optimum utilisation of resources, scalability and flexibility.”

He goes on to add, however, that shortcomings in the quality of IT infrastructure could hinder uptake. “Traditional networks in the region lack adaptability to SDN technology,” he says. “This issue remains unsolved because of challenges such as limited programmability, non-programmable ASIC data plane on mainstream switches. Furthermore low packet forwarding performance of server CPUs, with only 1/10 of ASIC’s forwarding performance is an issue, while the coexistence of SDN with current networks needs to be carefully managed.”

Anoop Sharda, Director, Technology and Managed Services, Buzinessware, agrees that SDN is the ideal option of OSS on the network. “One of the fastest growing segments within open software is SDN, which simplifies IT network configuration and management by decoupling control from the physical network infrastructure,” he says. “The use of OSS SDN provides freedom as organisations are not beholden to any vendor’s roadmap, vision and timeline. OSS SDN also provides the option to choose from millions of OSS projects depending upon your requirement, and also provides source code which a company can modify to suite their own requirement. OSS SDN also provides transparency in terms of security due to the scrutiny it receives from all its users.”

The reality in the GCC, however, is that organisations who have ventured into software-defined networking – the most transformative type of OSS available in terms of networks – are in the minority.

Dr Jassim Haji, Gulf Air’s director of IT, who has recently undertaken a large-scale OSS project encompassing a trio of the company’s applications, believes using OSS for a network is currently a step too far for GCC CIOS. “I think the use of Open Source for networks is currently too big a risk for a lot of IT decision-makers in this region,” he says. “I’ve considered OSS for a few areas of our core business, but the network is not something I’d consider fit for it just yet. A lot of CIOs are reluctant to experiment and take unknown risk.”

Security is one of the biggest risks in this regard. While the Open Source community frequently issues security patches for its users, the technology deployed remains only one aspect of its use. Having the right staff on board to mitigate risk is necessary. What’s more, the huge cost savings offered by OSS will inevitably create suspicion that greater security risks are inherent. Justifying the decision to opt for OSS may land a number of CIOs in hot water with other senior management figures when it comes to finger-pointing in the event of a data breach.

Dr Haji goes on to add, however, that he wholeheartedly recommends Open Source software and that it has provided fantastic benefits to Gulf Air. “My experience with OSS has been fantastic,” he says. “The investment has substantially reduced certain costs.” He goes on to add, however, that it took a while to get to grips with analytics software used to derive value from Arabic content, and for the company’s learning management system. “The customisation and integration took months, as did the process of understanding the applications.”

Sharda agrees that the majority of enterprises across the region are not as inclined towards using OSS compared to their international counterparts. “The GCC market has been more of vendor-defined market,” he says. “This means there is a preference to opt for known brands to implement networking and other critical infrastructure, compared to depending upon open source technologies.”

There are inevitably a number of soft factors that also play their part in this inclination. With an increasing number of OSS networking startups emanating from the US, who are yet to make any sort of impact in this region, businesses in this part of the world are likely to either be unaware of their services, or, worse still, untrusting of them. While the open source community at large has a much more established reputation, there is likely a much greater deal of perceived risk towards smaller providers.

However, Sharda believes that OSS SDN has the power to be an important part of a technology strategy for organisations of all size. “It doesn’t need a fully developed infrastructure,” he says. “It can start from as small as few computers to large enterprise. The important thing here is the desire of the team to implement and keep exploring various technologies available within OSS SDN.”

This brings us on to another issue, one that is a major hurdle for the GCC to overcome in its adoption of OSS networks. While the desire may be in the process of being stoked – which is all well and good – the reality facing the region for now is that there is a lack of Open Source talent on offer. For the time being, at least, this will be a growing pain that Middle East will have to face. However, this will inevitably change as more CIOs buy into the notion of joining the international Open Source community, and seek to recruit talent from outside the region.

The selection process of OSS can be taxing, too. While traditional off-the-shelf products can shorten the process of software selection, with customisations available for separate verticals, the same cannot be said for OSS.

“One of the main complexities is to define which OSS SDN project is good for your organisation,” he says. “Due to various options available in the OSS community, sometimes not all projects can meet your requirement, which makes it difficult to pick the right project. Another complexity is with the implementation of projects. Due to the nature of the SDN framework, IT engineers need to have a thorough knowledge before implementing such projects, as the implementation becomes the sole responsibility of the in-house team and not of any vendor.”

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