I want to start by saying that I currently use OpenConfig as part of my day job at Google and that Google is a significant contributor to OpenConfig. However, the opinions expressed in this blog are my own and not attributed to my employer in anyway way.
I have the most experience with OpenConfig, so I’ll start by giving a brief description of it. OpenConfig is a standard set of APIs that all you to configure and monitor network equipment in a vendor-neutral way. Sounds cool, right? But what does this mean in terms of network ownership and operations? And how does this compare to OpenWifi?
OpenWifi seems to have been the hot new thing. Drew Lentz has been on the road at several conferences evangelizing this technology. Until last week, when Meta appears to have gutted its connectivity team. So let’s look at these two solutions and see what is what.
The reality is that when you move towards OpenConfig, you own the configuration orchestration and monitoring tooling. Meaning you will likely invest in some source of truth/intent system, time-series database, and alerting engine. However, vendors still build and maintain their cloud systems and AP firmware and provide support for these systems. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the cost structure since you are still paying for subscriptions/licenses for those systems.
So why would you want to look at OpenConfig? Vendor independence is excellent, especially given the supply-chain challenges of the last several years. Direct access to modern streaming telemetry is another great driver. And it’s not an all-or-nothing choice. You can continue to use your existing vendor configuration system while starting to build out your telemetry.
What’s not so great about OpenConfig? More vendors mean more problems. Every solution has issues, and you still have to deal with those for every vendor. And it doesn’t come out of the box with it all working. So you have to build the configuration and telemetry pipelines.
For OpenWifi, you are deploying your own cloud Wi-Fi controller, typically in Docker or Kubernetes. Additionally, you deploy running APs and open-source images that talk to the cloud controller. This SDK includes some integrated dashboards with some integrated monitoring. This deployment model can significantly impact cost, as you aren’t paying for traditional enterprise networking equipment and services and are instead buying white-box APs and running a cloud controller.
Why would you want to look at OpenWifi? Companies like Comcast. They build and manage hundreds of thousands of cable modems, maintain firmware for those devices, and host scores of cloud applications like Kubernetes. From their point of view, they’ve already invested in the things needed to handle the entire stack. Cost is an essential driving factor at that scale.
What’s not great about OpenWifi? You own it all. Problems with AP firmware? Either it’s on you, or you’re at the mercy of someone else to fix the open-source. Reporting… same. Controller… same. In addition, you have to maintain the infrastructure to run the controller. It’s also a complete do-over. You very likely won’t be able to use your existing enterprise APs, management systems, etc.
OpenWifi is an exciting project if you’re a Mobile Network Operator (MNO), Service Provider, Managed Service Provider, or company where the price is the name of the game. Given the changes at Meta, I fear for this project’s long-term health. Who will pick this up, and what will be the future? Will it thrive within TIP? Will it spin out to something like the WBA? Or will it get gobbled up and become the next Vyatta?
OpenConfig is more about abstracting the configuration and monitoring of networking gear into a standard interface, not replacing the networking gear. Because it complements networking vendors, the existing network ecosystem is more likely to embrace it than OpenWifi’s approach of replacing vendors with ODMs.
Each of these technologies has its place and is not necessarily mutually exclusive; for example, it would be possible to have an OpenWifi system managed via OpenConfig. Will that happen? Maybe. But someone would have to want that enough to build that.
For enterprise folks, I think OpenWifi has the allure of something you can go deploy to start, and will have the terrifying realization that you’re going to have to deal with AP firmware, cloud infrastructure, certificate authorities and Kubernetes. On the other hand, OpenConfig has tools like gNMIc and gNOIc that allow you to start deploying config with a few CLI commands. For existing network operators, being able to ease into OpenConfig is going to be the key, and for large MNOs and SPs, OpenConfig has the upside of dramatically reduced costs.