Light Reading

6 Degrees of Separation: SPs Define 'Open'

Carol Wilson

With the potential impact of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) now influencing decision-making processes at every major carrier in the world, never has it been more important for communications network operators to get to grips with the term "open" and what it means for every aspect of their operations and culture.

There's probably no other important concept in telecom networking that is so often cited, yet just as often misunderstood, as that of being open.

Openness is often called out as a primary goal of virtualization, as telecom network operators try to move away from proprietary, purpose-built systems (which lock them into specific vendors) and towards more flexible open hardware that lets them mix and match best-of-breed technologies.

There are a number of initiatives based on openness -- OpenStack, OpenFlow, and OpenDaylight, to name a few.

But is there one definition of open for communications network operators? To find out, we asked several major service providers to share their definitions of open, particularly as it relates to SDN and NFV.

Six operators responded. While the answers have some similarities, each is actually quite different. Clearly, "open" is in the eye of the beholder.

One reason for that, as noted by Diego Lopez, senior technology expert at Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF)'s research division, Telefónica I+D, is that the term open is overused, especially in discussing virtualization. "It seems like you'll have to add the 'open' prefix to whatever you do," he says.

The operator responses clearly show that openness retains its importance, however. The answers, which came via email, showed thoughtfulness, even though some were short and to the point and others much more detailed.

Some of the differences can be attributed to the individual who fielded our email. For example, we queried John Considine, the CTO of Verizon Terremark, the cloud organization, while choosing to ask research executives or virtualization specialists from other carriers. Only one company, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), declined to provide a response, although you can get some idea of its view of openness from comments made by Margaret Chiosi, distinguished network architect, in October of 2013. (See ESDN: AT&T Calls for SDN APIs Now.)

The executives who responded are (in alphabetical order):

The responses highlighted a number of key themes, which are explored in the following pages of this feature:

  • Interoperability
  • Practical functionality
  • Interchangeability
  • Not all industry initiatives are made equal

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Sabre
2/11/2014 | 7:24:04 PM
Open is what it usually means... a wider pool of developers
Software tools that are "open" have multiple benefits over their proprietary counterparts (eg. more eyes watching for security flaws and bugs, more developers to contribute niche functionality, etc). Carriers will adopt "open" standards and software when the benefits outweigh switching costs or when there's a competitive advantage to doing so.

The debates over "open vs closed" software are largely pointless now, and the winner is pragmatic implementation -- open tools will be adopted when the situation calls for it, and sometimes open tools are forked to become proprietary and closed (as licenses may allow).

As organizations like the Open Compute Project expand to hardware and networking, nearly every aspect of the IT and telecom industry will be subject to the "open" trend -- which can only be a good thing for innovation as more developers have access to building new tools and functionality.

The problem may become how to deal with multiple open standards.
User Rank: Blogger
2/1/2014 | 11:10:17 AM
Probably will hear more about this coming out of the OpenDaylight Summit next week. Will OpenDaylight progress give more SPs more reason to act on their definitions of openness, whatever they might be.
sam masud
sam masud,
User Rank: Light Sabre
1/29/2014 | 10:44:20 AM
Re: No OpenFlow fan
Hi James,

I guess I was kind of using a shorthand when I said you were not impressed with OpenFlow--nor did I mean to imply that you were opposed to OpenFlow. I did read the full piece on SDNCentral and appreciate the fact that you were saying that there other ways to get to open and SDN.

BTW, I think I should point out that I recently wrote a blog where I referenced what you said on SDNCentral on this same issue. You'll find that blog at:


Thanks for taking the time to respond to my earlier comment here on LR.




User Rank: Light Beer
1/28/2014 | 6:32:31 PM
Re: No OpenFlow fan
Hi Sam,

It's not that I am not impressed.  What I was trying to communicate in the blog post was mostly related to the idea that there are many ways to solve this "thing" we call 'Open' & 'SDN'.  I'm actually impressed that we have made it this far without more fragmentation.  Given where we are in the lifecycle and evolution, its a bit interesting to predict a long-term position for any of this today.  However, the focus remains the same.  We need to understand the "can" and "can not" aspects, try to predict the future of those items, and where to use them appropriately.



sam masud
sam masud,
User Rank: Light Sabre
1/27/2014 | 2:20:44 PM
No OpenFlow fan
Thought you might find it interesting that one of the respondents, James Feger, VP of CenturyLink, apparently is not impressed by OpenFlow. Here's the link:
User Rank: Blogger
1/26/2014 | 12:26:44 PM
Interop standards
It's interesting to see people at a high level from carriers offer a definition of open interoperability with "standards" being one of the first words out of their mouths. I know it's obviously not an anti-standards statement, but still seems like an acknowledgment of a broader definition.
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