What happens when next-generation networking, cash prizes and the open-source ethos converge? Answer: The Innovative Application Awards program, which is now accepting proposals from developers seeking to build open-source software that takes advantage of OpenFlow and Software Defined Networking (SDN) features. And there's big cash behind this endeavor to encourage investment in big-bandwidth networks, with winning proposals receiving up to $10,000 in funding.

The contest, which opened on May 8, is sponsored by Juniper Networks, Ciena, Brocade and Internet2. Its stated goal is "to encourage the development of next generation, open source applications that are of general interest to the [research and education] community and take advantage of SDN-enabled capabilities within new, disruptive network switches and controllers."

What that means in plainer terms is a focus on open-source code, especially that associated with the research and education niches, that will help drive innovation within next-generation networking platforms like the Internet2 Network. Internet2 bills itself as the "first open, national-scale 100G network that employs SDN and OpenFlow standards."

Innovation like this is important for several reasons. First, it promises to help promote networking infrastructure that offers magnitudes more power than the connections available in most parts of the United States today -- where broadband Internet speed, as the New York Times noted recently, has improved barely at all since the Web first went mainstream. Alongside the commercially oriented efforts of companies like Google to push the country toward much faster connections that will make new types of services possible, contests like the Innovative Applications Awards will hasten the day when movies can be downloaded in seconds and waiting for content to load will be a thing of the past.

At the same time, the efforts of the organizations behind the contest are crucial for protecting the open nature of next-generation networking. By fostering open-source innovation, they will guide developers away from the types of proprietary restrictions that arguably hindered the growth of the Internet for much of its history.

And finally, the awards are important for offering younger or independent developers, especially students, a role to play in the future of networking. A $10,000 prize may not be enough to attract serious attention from many commercial programmers, but beyond helping (as the program notes) to "pay your tuition this semester or buy a lot of pizza," it will also orient the next generation of programmers toward the open-source goals of the alliance behind the program. That's a strategy that in many ways resembles Rackspace's investment in training for OpenStack, which is helping to entrench open-source expertise within the cloud.

The contest is accepting proposals until June 7, and expects to notify successful applicants by June 14. Full details are available online.