October 9, 2009, 6:23 am
It's interesting what the same thing means to different people. We see it time and again in the Linux world, of course, as the myriad approaches to Linux have created different distros, desktop environments, applications... put something as malleable as Linux and open source software in front of a bunch of really talented people, and you get some really fantastic output.
I'm sure that's what Cisco had in mind then they kicked off the "Think Inside the Box" content last fall. The company invited application developers to create Linux-based applications for the Cisco Application Extension Platform (AXP). The winner of the contest, announced this week, received US$50,000 and a chance to work on this cutting-edge routing technology. But given the big turnout for the contest, I'm sure Cisco's counting themselves among the winners, too.
Here's the short version of AXP: Cisco makes routers and network devices. AXP is an open module that is hosted on Cisco's Integrated Services Router (ISR) and leverages Cisco's Internetwork Operating System (IOS). External applications coded for the ISRs are actually written for AXP, which is a module that runs Linux certified by the Linux Standard Base and contains open APIs into which developers can tap.
Even shorter: developers can build and run apps out in the network itself, rather than on the "traditional" client or server.
For the past couple of months, I was one of the seven finalist judges who went over the entrants and chose the top three entries from a narrowed-down field of 10. And I mean narrowed: over 900 entrants submitted their ideas to the contest, which offered a US$100,000 prize purse. I felt a little bit like the odd man out on the distinguished panel: I had a distinct lack of "VP" of anything in my title and wasn't an analyst. Still, Cisco had made the parameters to entrants crystal clear, so the criteria was straightforward.
Easier said than done. The common theme among the entries was not only to build a cool app, but find a strong business use for an ISR-based tool. The finalists all met this bar easily, so it became a matter of degrees to see which ones rose to the top. I am pleased to say that after the final round of judging (held while I was at LinuxCon), my top three were the same as the final winners.
Bernhard Beckmann's Team BugsBernie from Germany won US$20,000 for their Integrated Surveillance System application. Basically, their app turns an IP phone into a silent microphone/monitor that tracks noise levels in the room. If their is too loud a noise (based on a configurable decibel level), a notification is sent where ever you want: a security company, the actual owner of the room, whomever. Oh, and try to pull the cord out of the phone, and the alarm goes off, too.
The Indian team Team Enhancers raked in US$30,000 for their Local Advertising Mesh Network Platform, which they abbreviated as LAMP, which for a Linux editor is wrong on a couple of levels. Grammar aside, Rajesh Kotagiri's team impressed me because of all of the applicants they had the fastest direct-revenue path: essentially, it uses AXP as an ad server, sending out ads to any LCD display connected to the network. In their proposal, Kotagiri indicated that retail stores would be a great first market to deploy this app.
The top winner was Spain's Team MADnetwork, led by David Perez. I have to give Team MADnetwork props for most creative video demo: to simulate the control of multiple building facilities (such as HVAC; lighting; plumbing; and presence, fire, flooding and smoke detectors), Perez and his team filmed a Rube-Goldberg-looking device with a fan, a sunlamp, a set of window blinds... well, you get the idea. But their idea was totally pro: remotely control different building systems within AXP, reducing the need for multiple control systems. By centralizing remote office system (like branches), companies will save enormous amounts of money, lower energy costs, and (my personal favorite) help save the planet.
Given the strengths of these finalists, I would say Cisco definitely got their money's worth. And, like the creativity within the contest, people outside the contest are viewing its impact in different ways. Matt Asay sees it as Cisco's debut as a major Linux software vendor. I won't dispute that, but for me, the importance of this contest is that it demonstrates how commercial software vendors of any stripe are going to need to work if we truly are moving towards the cloud.
To me, AXP and the ISR platform is analogous to the broader notion of cloud computing, in that clouds are also (for now) vendor-controlled, and developing applications for them means you have to go through the vendor not only for access but sometimes for the tools. It's hard to hack code on a phone or router, unless it's open, and it's hard to build on a cloud, because many of us don't have a multi-rack datacenter upon which to build and test apps.
Cisco has led by example here by opening their code to the development community. They have kickstarted innovation onto a completely new platform that would have otherwise gone untouched by developers outside the Cisco ecosystem.
All vendors need to take note of what Cisco has done here. I don't mean contests and prizes--open source is not a game show. But it is an opportunity for real innovation. If vendors in the cloud or any other new platform want that innovation on platforms that are not easily accessed, then opening hardware, development environments, emulators, and code is what it will really take to get innovation going.
Congrats to the Cisco winners and finalists. You did good, and hopefully you're the start of something bigger in the commercial software arena: the drive to more open development and innovation.