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2/4/2008
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Will More Networking Vendors Steal a Page From Microsoft?

Juniper is now allowing customers and partners to develop specialized apps on its operating system -- an approach Microsoft used with great success. Are network devices a new frontier for smaller businesses?

Since the dawn of the computer age, vendors have been trying to balance their own interests (which means relying on proprietary protocols) versus those of their customers (who favor open plug-and-play products). This challenge recently moved squarely into the network market.

In its never-ending attempt to entice more companies to use its products, Juniper Networks recently announced an initiative that will allow customers and partners to develop specialized apps on its JUNOS operating system. While stopping short of campaigns in the software market, the new program does make it possible for third parties to develop add-on applications for carrier networks.

Juniper's Partner Solution Development Platform (PSDP) offers a third party a set of resources, including a software development kit with intelligent and secure interfaces to JUNOS's routing and service functions. These tools provide customers and partners with the ability to design, develop, and deploy specialized applications, such as event-optimized routing, customized bandwidth management, advanced security, and extended operations.

No More Waiting
With the PSDP, software suppliers, value-added resellers, and networking customers could develop their own JUNOS applications without having to wait for Juniper's rigid new release updating schedule, which occurs once (and only once) each quarter. If a company needed a change in a timelier manner, it would be able to make the enhancement.

Market differentiation is another possible benefit. Theoretically, independent software vendors could develop homegrown applications that could be marketed to carriers. A startup or an established company could develop a unique application and build up a new business. Value-added resellers could develop niche solutions for vertical markets. Also, carriers could tinker with their routers to get them to run faster than those on competitors' networks. Also, it enables carriers to respond to market changes quickly, something needed in the current, highly fluid telecommunications market place.

While noteworthy in the networking market, the initiative falls a bit short of programs in other market sectors. PSDP is an invitation-only process. Juniper has to give its permission before any project can start, and a Juniper support team needs to watch over every step of the application's development. Tight control is needed to ensure the integrity of the company's routers' functions and to make sure that hackers do not use the new openness to develop rogue applications. Aricent and Avaya were announced as the first two invitees, although other companies have been approved, according to Juniper.

An Opportunity for Smaller Businesses
Small and midsize businesses could benefit from Juniper's initiative. They may find carriers who are better able to support their unique requirements. Also, additional competition in the carrier space could lower service pricing. Juniper views its new approach as a way to differentiate itself from Cisco Systems, which still relies on closed interfaces. It will be interesting to see if the industry behemoth feels compelled to respond to Juniper's initiative or will deem the program nothing of significance.

Theoretically, turning products from standalone devices into ecosystems has proven to be beneficial for vendors. It has been an important key to success of various operating systems. Many point to Microsoft's success in working with third parties as a large part of its success, and third-party support played a significant role in Linux's popularity.

But there are differences between software ecosystems and those for network devices. First, the potential base is much smaller. Microsoft has been reaching millions of endpoints, so there are economic incentives for third parties to support its work. Network equipment operates in a much smaller and more restricted environment. Ten years ago, a few vendors sponsored programs to attract companies that wanted to build applications on top of their network devices. When the public switched network was thriving, a select group of third parties wrote software and add-ons for central office switches. The widespread popularity of IP shifted much of that focus away from those devices to computer platforms, mainly Microsoft's Windows or Unix.

So in launching its new program, Juniper has taken a risk. Whether or not the company will attract enough third parties to make its investment worthwhile is unclear. Soon, small and midsize businesses will find out how similar (or different) software and network products are.

Paul Korzeniowski is a Sudbury, Mass-based freelance writer who has been writing about networking issues for two decades. His work has appeared in Business 2.0, Entrepreneur, Investors Business Daily, Newsweek, and InformationWeek.

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