The march toward open source is rapidly turning into an all-out race, with research projects and applications extending to new industry sectors, including communication providers. What started out in the software realm has moved into the hardware space, bringing with it significant changes for providers and vendors alike. Most recently, the Open Compute Project (OCP) and its spin-offs, including the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), have not only reinforced this shift toward open source, but have accelerated the trend.
The open source approach is about more than just lower costs. Improvements in innovation, reliability, security and flexibility are giving providers greater control of their development roadmap. Importantly, the current roster of projects indicates a strong relationship between the shift to open source and the trend toward virtualization. These projects and initiatives set the stage for communications providers to create new differentiated services and to deploy them quickly.
The list of cloud-related open source projects and organizations launched in recent years specifically focused on communication provider requirements is long and growing. Some of these projects focus on Software Defined Networking, such as ONOS, ODL, and OpenContrail. Other projects concentrate on operations, management and cloud orchestration, such as OpenStack or the Open Container Initiative. While certain projects look at the service layer (e.g. XOS), others attempt to bring together multiple groups through reference implementations (OPNFV or CORD). With new organizations vying to move the industry to a new paradigm (Cloud Native Computing Foundation), more open source projects and organizations are expected to develop.
Communication providers are now exerting influence into development priorities that are important to them, including scalability, real-time performance and high availability. Before the current broad scope of open source projects, an open source component typically would comprise a small part of a product or appliance that a vendor would sell, such as a base station built on a Linux operating system. Today, however, open source components are becoming dominant in network architecture, including the operating system, middleware, control plane, management plane, and the compute and networking hardware on which communication services are built.
Performance is driving much of this change, since communications applications no longer require state-of-the-art hardware. The real-time and large-scale functions of the past required optimized applications running on customized hardware for that specific application. However, white-box solutions are now capable of handling communications applications with a sufficient level of performance. Communication providers now can change their focus from trying to get the best performing, highest capacity appliance for a single application toward fast-paced, large-scale implementation of high-quality and reliable white-box solutions for differentiated applications.
Before communication providers’ current focus on open source, OEMs were at the center of innovation with global players developing new products and providing the same platforms to multiple communications providers around the world. While development costs could be spread out among carriers, the development cycle was long and it restricted opportunities for differentiation, which required custom development, a process that added a year or more to the timeline.
By adopting the new open source model and implementing the processes, communications providers will experience the benefits of lower costs, faster development, better efficiencies, and differentiated offerings, along with greater levels of control. With network softwarization happening through technologies such as Containers, NFV, or MAAS, the most successful communications providers will embrace three changes at once: open-source model, softwarization and DevOps.
There are three key considerations for communication providers to ensure they’re positioned to leverage the move toward open source architecture. First, providers need to stay much closer to the development of features in open-source forums and directly drive the direction of software developers. A tight feedback loop needs to be in place to encompass the requirements of end-users, as well as the differentiated features from software vendors or features that are developed in-house on top of open source solutions. The DevOps model can play a key role in achieving this adaptive feedback loop with software quickly put in service, tried in a production environment, adjusted, and improved. A virtualized infrastructure will provide the flexible environment to enable DevOps and ensure new features can be put in service at a fast pace.
Second, in order to reach this level of efficiency, communication providers will need to be able to self-perform a large number of the upstream functions that OEMs previously handled. They will need to get involved in the software development process, control the release cycle and integrate the new software in an increasingly complex and dynamic network. They will need to shift some of their focus away from influencing OEMs through standard development and instead focus on driving innovations by creating running code in open-source forums and integrating them into their operation.
Finally, some communications providers will go further by building their own software development organization, including an integration team, documentation group, a solid QA process and a support organization. Others will look for outside help from system integrators or an OEM to perform these functions.
Though the task may seem large, the benefits received will be equally large. Communications providers should look to the successes achieved in other industries as guiding examples for transitioning to this new world. Additionally, providers will not need to make the transition alone. The right partner with Devops, Telecom, and OS experience can be a key factor for success.
Paul-Andre Raymond is Vice President of Technology at Nexius, a wireless services and software solutions company.
Filed Under: Infrastructure