The internet of things (IoT) is pushing the enterprise network edge to new boundaries. With data soon to be streaming back and forth between legions of user devices across the globe, the edge will blow right past the cloud and even the micro data centers that will foster this widespread connectivity and extend all the way into our homes, businesses and even our bodies.

This is causing many telecom providers to think long and hard about the need for openness on their IoT networks. Open formats have long been desirable, albeit sometimes problematic, additions to data center and cloud architectures, but the sheer diversity of IoT endpoints makes it imperative that an open layer of connectivity will be a minimum requirement if the technology hopes to live up to its promises.

For providers like Verizon, this will require open platforms on both the device layer and the virtual network infrastructure that connects them. The company recently adopted OpenStack for its universal customer premises equipment (uCPE) lineup, offering end users and service providers a means to integrate multiple hardware and software options into a cohesive IoT architecture. The package is available through the company’s Virtual Network Services program and includes features like service chaining and enterprise orchestration to enable near real-time performance over software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) architectures.

NFV, in fact, appears to be gaining support among service providers looking to deploy IoT services and a range of other offerings as well, according to the Open NFV consortium. A recent survey of 100 leading operators showed that nearly all (98%) are accelerating their plans for open source NFV services, citing its value in fostering open hardware platforms, streamlining workload management and optimizing applications for improved efficiency.

For Verizon, NFV is emerging as a crucial component to the uCPE platform, employing technologies like the recently upgraded Ensemble Connector to support virtual networking on white-box hardware. The new Ensemble offers features like zero touch provisioning, embedded OpenStack controllers and LTE wireless support to enable fast deployment and easy set-up. In addition, it allows a full NVF infrastructure to be encapsulated into a single Intel Atom core, reducing hardware footprints, and allows a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) to be hosted as a virtual network function on an off-the-shelf server rather than a dedicated appliance.

Still, proprietary technologies are not easy to give up, particularly at organizations that have an in-grained risk-averse culture in which the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has taken hold as a cultural mantra. But ADVA Optical Networking’s Prayson Pate argues that the need for programmability is emerging as a critical element as networking architectures become increasingly abstracted from underlying hardware.

While it is true that dedicated appliances like routers, firewalls and network interface devices may be easier to deploy, they are also harder to swap out when their lack of flexibility starts to impede operations. Some may also believe that simply adding an embedded process imparts an open design, but this is still a proprietary solution compared to a uCPE.

And, of course, there will also be situations in which application-specific hardware is warranted, such as when features like low-latency forwarding, precision timing and encryption are necessary. But this will only arise in highly defined environments, so it is important to always select the right platform for each application.

Like the internet before it, the IoT only works if devices have free and unfettered access to data across a multiplicity of systems and architectures. Open platforms are the only practical way to accomplish this, unless we resolve ourselves to giving one company the right to control the entire internet of things.