Despite its many purported advantages, to date, OpenWiFi has failed to expand beyond a limited range of deployments. As we close out 2023 and OpenWiFi approaches its third anniversary, it’s time to critically reassess the value proposition of OpenWiFi, and to reevaluate whether the initiative can truly deliver upon its disruptive potential.
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Taking Stock of OpenWiFi
The open-source OpenWiFi platform aims to disrupt the status quo in the enterprise WLAN market by offering organizations a low-cost, vendor-neutral, and easy to manage alternative to the traditional proprietary enterprise Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) solutions. Since its introduction by the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) in 2021, the initiative has made significant progress—a range of Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs)/Original Device Manufacturers (ODMs) are on board, real-world deployments have occurred in the hospitality and retail industry, and the community has endeavored to constantly advance the technology, recently with the launch of OpenLAN, which extends the open-source project to the fixed switching side of the network. Yet adoption has been slow, and many continue to question OpenWiFi’s feasibility. As we close out 2023 and OpenWiFi approaches its third anniversary, it’s time to take a step back and take stock of the current state of OpenWiFi. This ABI Insight critically reassesses OpenWiFi with the goal of providing further clarity on which of its many promises it will actually be capable of delivering upon, to gain foresight on what we can realistically expect over the coming year, and to offer recommendations for how the industry should respond to this new initiative.
What Exactly Is OpenWiFi Offering and Why Are So Few Interested?
The disaggregated architecture of the OpenWiFi software stack consists of two core elements: enterprise-grade WLAN Access Point (AP) firmware and an open-source cloud controller Software Development Kit (SDK). WLAN AP ODMs relying on the widely used OpenWrt Operating System (OS) can leverage the community-developed features of OpenWiFi to produce vendor-neutral white-box enterprise APs. As of the end of 2023, there is a wide range of participating enterprise WLAN ODMs, with a notable cluster forming in Taiwan, alongside strong participation from Indian-based vendors. WLAN AP ODMs that have publicly announced their involvement include Cambridge Industries Group (CIG) Actiontec, CyberTAN, Edge-Core, Indio, Inventum, IO by HFCL, Lindsay Broadband, Lite-On, and Wallystech. Some of those names, such as Edge-Core and IO by HCFL, are also producing OpenWiFi supporting WLAN cloud controllers, although there are many additional companies like NetExperience and Inventum that have released OpenWiFi WLAN cloud controllers, but not the APs. As for OpenLAN, adoption for this open-source initiative has been notably slower than for OpenWiFi, with only a select few vendors having announced so far. Edge-Core was the first to do so in 2Q 2023, with NetExperience following soon after. Deployments of these open-source solutions, although few in number, have been undertaken by several large Managed Service Providers (MSPs), notably Boingo and Indio Networks.
The fact that numerous vendors have opted to participate in the OpenWiFi initiative begs the question why. The primary reasons are the following:
- Reduced Research & Development (R&D) Costs: Using a community-developed software stack means that ODMs do not have to invest resources into developing the networking fundamentals themselves.
- Lower Barrier to Entry: Alongside easing the financial burden for development, an open-source approach also reduces the technical expertise required to develop WLAN hardware, enabling more vendors to participate in the ecosystem.
- Ability to Focus on Innovation Over Fundamentals: ODMs can focus on building on top of the OpenWiFi foundation, as opposed to getting bogged down in building the network foundation itself.
- Opportunity to Demonstrate Wi-Fi Thought Leadership: Contributing to the development of OpenWiFi can enable vendors to reinforce their credentials as ecosystem innovators and to guide the industry for their benefit.
- Interoperability within the Ecosystem: Vendors unable to fulfill the needs of complex networks alone are able to deploy their hardware in a complementary fashion alongside that of other vendors, expanding their addressable market.
- Enhance Company Value Proposition: Vendors can leverage the advantages of OpenWiFi to raise the value proposition of their solutions.
This last point is based on a belief that the attributes of OpenWiFi are attractive for enterprises. Of course, the extent to which OpenWiFi will be of benefit for organizations depends on their unique requirements. The major benefits are outlined below:
- Avoid Vendor Lock-in: Disaggregated architectures allow for vendor-neutral networking, enabling customers to deploy multi-vendor solutions, or swap vendors based on price, performance, or even their ability to fulfill orders.
- Reduced Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) & Operational Expenditure (OPEX): Open source means a lower barrier for vendor entry and no vendor lock-in, resulting in heightened marketplace competition and lower prices. Reduced R&D expenses will further drive down costs.
- Management Simplicity: OpenWiFi has been designed from the ground up with a focus on simplicity, and is not burdened by obscure legacy features or poorly integrated acquired features.
- New Tools for the Toolbox: Particularly relevant for MSPs, OpenWiFi expands the range of available options, with OpenWiFi being especially attractive for deployments with basic requirements and a high-cost sensitivity.
Yet despite the many advantages outlined above, to date, OpenWiFi deployments have been restricted to a limited range of hospitality and retail outlets with only elementary connectivity requirements. The reasons for this are, of course, myriad. Loyalty to existing infrastructure partners and strong resistance to the initiative from incumbent vendors, both factors that don’t reflect inherent flaws of OpenWiFi, are partly to blame. The lack of open-source switching, a disconnect between the wireless and wired domains that previously inhibited OpenWiFi’s adoption, has also now been addressed. However, several inherent challenges still face OpenWiFi, which ABI Research believes impedes adoption, including the following:
- Basic Functionality Only: At present, OpenWiFi is only capable of addressing the most rudimentary of network demands, and because the open-source approach lacks the competitive pressure to drive innovation, OpenWiFi is unlikely to advance to the leading edge of WLAN.
- Unclear Where the Buck Stops: Proprietary WLAN vendors typically are responsible for the reliability of their equipment and have direct lines of support available for customers. In contrast, the community approach of OpenWiFi means that no overall body is responsible for troubleshooting and customer support.
- Ecosystem Lacks Maturity: OpenWiFi is a relatively new initiative with the support of just a handful of Tier Two ODMs, so it is not surprising that many enterprises are hesitant to migrate from familiar, tried and tested vendors toward a new and unknown alternative. The low rate of adoption across the industry further adds to enterprises’ caution.
Providing the Fledgling OpenWiFi with the Stimulation It Needs
On its current course OpenWiFi is set to fall short of its ambitious goals. Although the cost-efficiency, simplicity, and interoperability of the technology stack have a lot of value to offer enterprises, these attributes in isolation are not sufficient to drive widespread adoption. For OpenWiFi to finally move beyond the conceptual phase, individual vendors must take ownership of the technology and create innovative service models to execute go-to-market and assuage the concerns businesses have towards open-source architectures. In order to achieve these aims, ABI Research recommends that participants in the OpenWiFi initiative consider the following strategies:
- Add Proprietary Features on top of the OpenWiFi Foundation: The basic functionality offered by OpenWiFi is only suitable for simple, homogenous networks with non-mission critical applications. To address a broader customer base and serve complex networking requirements, whilst still harnessing the benefits of OpenWiFi, WLAN infrastructure vendors using OpenWrt should adopt the OpenWiFi foundation, and then add additional proprietary features on top to optimize their models for target markets.
- MSPs Act as OpenWiFi Service Level Agreement (SLA) Guarantors: Despite OpenWiFi’s clear benefits, the lack of an overarching governing body for OpenWiFi acts as a major deterrent for enterprises concerned with the open-source standard’s reliability and troubleshooting mechanism. The reality is that it will always be impossible to exert ownership over open-source initiatives, but if MSPs were to assume the role of guarantors for OpenWiFi networking SLAs, this responsibility would pass from the end customer to the MSP, a step that would greatly facilitate adoption. A pioneer in this space is the OpenWiFi as-a-Service solution Shasta Cloud, which provides end-to-end management of the network for the customer. This includes everything from hardware procurement and implementation, through to operation, maintenance, and troubleshooting.
- Stimulate the Maturing of the Ecosystem: Organizations are unsure on OpenWiFi because it is an untested technology, and therefore it is imperative that ecosystem participants intensify their collaboration to boost confidence in the technology. Fortunately, there are a range of methods at their disposal to achieve this. These include:
- Expanding the number of participants – Persuading additional companies to produce even just one OpenWiFi enabled model will still help assure the industry of the continual expansion of the initiative.
- Conducting industry trials: Cooperate with industry associations to run technology trials showcasing and proving OpenWiFi’s potential in real world environments.