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SONiC – The networking industry’s open secret

Rajesh Kumar Sundararajan
15 December 2022

“Open” is a popular word in today’s data networking marketplace, with operators relentlessly pushing for open networking, Open RAN, Open FTTH, and Open BNG among other things.

It challenges some of the established traditional models in the industry, and at least on the face of it, enables new players to enter with competitive products and services.

Subsequent to SDN (Software-Defined Networking) and virtualization, two major events have changed the market’s dynamics irreversibly: the OCP (Open Compute Project) and SONiC, the open-source NOS (Network Operating System).

Consumer driven innovation

Even as little as a decade and a half ago – or three generations at today’s speed – innovations in networking were driven primarily by the R&D organizations of large equipment manufacturers. Consumers, like enterprises and network operators, could describe problems and challenges, and then it was up to the R&D houses to come up with the solutions, including defining and writing the specifications for any standards towards the same.

Much has changed now. The OCP, the ONF (Open Networking Foundation), and now SONiC have been conceptualized. Projects are being driven by consumers of networking products, among them data centre operators such as Microsoft and Meta (previously Facebook), and telecom network operators such as Axiata, Deutsche Telecom, Telefonica, and Verizon. The cornerstones of this evolution have been the appearance of the “white box” and open source – the former changing lengthy hardware R&D cycles and the latter addressing software R&D cycles.

Open-source NOS in a continuum

SONiC is not the first open-source NOS. Others appeared much earlier for different market segments or device categories, including openWRT, pfSense, and prplWRT. These addressed devices at the customer’s premises, such as their residence or enterprise. Software such as DENT, SONiC, and STRATUM, on the other hand, attempt to do the same for the operator part of the network. Granted, there are still large parts of the network which are still closed or proprietary, such as the BSS and OSS at one end and the switch ASIC with its drivers at the other – the P4 programming language attempts to address the latter, albeit partially. Still, these represent significant evolutions in the march towards open networking.

Not yet a walk in the park

Even with all these options, the use of open source such as SONiC is not yet as easy as “download, install and go”. Anyone who has tried to make a build of the source code by themselves will tell you stories of the many weeks spent finding that missing script or that incorrect environment variable. The same goes for testing. How do you really place your network in the hands of these several million lines of software code, stitched together with multiple languages such as C++, Java, and Python? How can you be confident that this has been tested sufficiently for your network’s use cases or for your device’s deployment possibilities? How do you make it work for a new platform? How do you make it work with your own management or monitoring system? These questions become all the more challenging when dealing with highly complex hardware platforms.

Enabling your adoption

The response to these challenges has been the appearance of support and services offerings to cater to the above. These require significant experience not just of the software but also of the underlying hardware platforms, and the ecosystem of vendors that have developed and supplied them.

Independent organizations with the necessary domain experience – of the networking device, and the network in which it must function, including management, operations and business support systems, coupled with reliable hardware and software skills bolstered by industrialized engineering processes – can help you tackle these problems and succeed in this highly competitive marketplace of data networking.


Rajesh Kumar Sundararajan

Consultant, Capgemini Engineering
Rajesh has 25 years of experience in the datacom and telecom industry spanning engineering, marketing, quality control, product management, and business development. He is always connected to the technology and has been involved in projects in IP, routing, MPLS, Ethernet, network access, network aggregation, transport networking, industrial networking, data-center networking, network virtualization, and SDN technologies.