Debunking Myths: All Network Operating Systems are NOT Created Equal


With the network no longer a commodity but a strategic partner in digital transformation, network operating systems (NOSs) have become indispensable. They play a foundational role in enabling the seamless operation, security, and efficiency of enterprise networks, enabling them to be more agile, adaptable, and capable of supporting new services, processes, and models.

However, a trending misconception in the realm of networking is the notion that all NOSs are essentially the same, offering similar features, performance, and capabilities. This myth stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the diverse requirements of different network types and the specialized functionalities that various NOSs are designed to provide.

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In this blog, we’ll explore why this perception is flawed.

Diverse Network Requirements

Networks vary significantly in scale, complexity, and purpose. As a result, the choice of a NOS depends on various factors, including the network architecture (peer-to-peer versus client-server), the scale of the network, and specific requirements such as security, resource management, and user administration.

For example, a data center network, designed to manage high volumes of traffic and ensure reliable data storage and access, has vastly different requirements from a small office network, which may prioritize ease of use and minimal setup. Similarly, core networks, which form the backbone of the internet, demand high performance and robustness, in contrast with edge networks that require low latency and are often tailored for specific IoT applications.

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Moreover, different NOSs offer varying levels of customization and scalability, catering to organizations’ specific needs. For example, some use cases, such as peering, require a NOS to support the full internet routing table (also known as the full border gateway protocol, or BGP, table) of over 1 million entries—including rapidly relearning the table and rerouting traffic in the event of a link or node failure—to ensure comprehensive connectivity and optimal routing decisions across the global internet based on various metrics such as the shortest path, least number of autonomous system (AS) hops, or other policy-based decisions. This can lead to improved performance and lower latency for end users but isn’t essential for a data center network with only a few segments.

Another factor is the need for the NOS to support different services based on the use case. Fixed edge networks must be able to support multiple services, such as quality of service (QoS) for maintaining the performance of latency-sensitive applications such as VoIP, video conferencing, and streaming services, internet protocol television (IPTV) for multicast streaming of high-quality video content with minimal latency, and carrier-grade network address translation (CGNAT) for ISPs to optimize existing IPv4 infrastructure and delay the investment required for IPv6 deployment. While QoS and IPTV need to be carried through to the aggregation network, CGNAT only needs to be done once at the edge, affecting the choice of NOS for each use case.

Features and Optimizations Vary by Type of Network

To meet these varied requirements, each NOS is developed with specific features and optimizations. For example, a NOS designed for data center operations might focus on virtualization capabilities and high-speed data processing, while a NOS for edge computing would prioritize low-latency data processing and lightweight deployment.

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Data Center Networks

  • Function: Data center networks are designed to house and provide connectivity for servers and storage systems that host applications and data.
  • NOS features: NOSs for data centers are optimized for high-density server environments, virtualization, and storage networking. They often include features for data center bridging, overlay networks, and support for software-defined networking (SDN).

Core Networks

  • Function: Core networks serve as the high-capacity backbone for data transmission across different regions or between different network layers.
  • NOS features: Core network NOSs are designed for high throughput and reliability, with advanced routing protocols, high-speed packet forwarding, and support for large-scale network topologies.

Aggregation Networks

  • Function: Aggregation networks collect traffic from access networks before it is sent to the core network, managing traffic from multiple sources.
  • NOS features: NOSs for aggregation networks typically include capabilities for traffic management, QoS, and support for medium to high data throughput.

Peering Networks

  • Function: Peering networks facilitate the exchange of traffic between different ISPs or large networks, often to reduce transit costs and improve performance.
  • NOS features: NOSs in peering networks often have features for BGP routing, traffic filtering, and security controls to manage the exchange of routes and data with other networks.

Access Networks

  • Function: Access networks connect end-user devices to the network, serving as the entry point for users to access network services.
  • NOS features: Access network NOSs are designed for managing a large number of end-user connections, providing features like DHCP, DNS, and user authentication.

Fixed-Edge Networks

  • Function: Fixed-edge networks are designed to deliver content and services with minimal latency by being closer to the end users.
  • NOS features: Fixed-edge network NOSs may include features for local data processing, IoT support, and integration with edge computing platforms optimized for low latency.

Mobile-Edge Networks

  • Function: Mobile-edge networks are part of the mobile telecommunications infrastructure, designed to bring computing resources closer to mobile users and devices.
  • NOS features: Mobile-edge NOSs are optimized for the mobile environment, supporting features like mobile backhaul, real-time analytics, and seamless integration with mobile network functions.

Cloud Networks

  • Function: Cloud networks provide scalable and flexible networking capabilities for cloud services, supporting a wide range of applications and services.
  • NOS features: Cloud network NOSs are built for virtualized environments, offering features that support multitenancy, cloud orchestration, and dynamic resource allocation.

Tailored NOS Features

Since each type of network has distinct requirements and challenges, the NOS deployed must be specifically tailored to meet those needs. For example, a data center NOS must handle the high-density and virtualization demands of modern data centers, while a core network NOS focuses on high-speed, reliable data transport. Aggregation and peering network NOSs manage traffic flows and routing exchanges, respectively. Access network NOSs ensure connectivity for end users, and edge network NOSs (both fixed and mobile) are optimized for delivering services with low latency. Cloud network NOSs are designed to operate in virtualized cloud environments, providing the flexibility and scalability required for cloud services.

Security needs and compliance requirements can also dictate the choice of NOS. Certain environments may require specialized security features or compliance with specific standards, influencing the selection of a NOS that can adequately meet these demands. In addition, open source NOSs allow users to modify and adapt the software to unique requirements, which is particularly beneficial for specialized or evolving network environments.

Choosing the Right NOS for Your Business

The misbelief that all NOS are created equal overlooks the nuanced and diverse landscape of network technologies and requirements. Understanding the specific features, capabilities, and optimizations of different NOSs is crucial for selecting the right system to support an organization’s unique network infrastructure and objectives.

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GigaOm has just released the 2024 NOS Radar reports across three market segments—mobile network operators and network service providers (MNOs and NSPs), communication service providers and managed service providers (CSPs and MSPs), and large enterprises and small-to-medium businesses (SMBs)—based on technical features and business criteria tailored to each market segment. While many of the solutions appear on each Radar, choosing the right NOS for the network is not as simple as picking one of the Leaders or Challengers. Just because one NOS is positioned as a Leader doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right for you. Even adjacent NOSs may focus on entirely different networks.

By debunking the myth that all NOSs are created equal, organizations can make informed decisions that enhance their network’s performance, security, and efficiency.

Next Steps

To learn more, take a look at GigaOm’s NOS Key Criteria and Radar reports. These reports provide a comprehensive overview of the market, outline the criteria you’ll want to consider in a purchase decision, and evaluate how a number of vendors perform against those decision criteria.

If you’re not yet a GigaOm subscriber, you can access the research using a free trial.

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