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Telcos Pay Lip Service to Open Source

Carol Wilson

NICE, France -- TM Forum Live! -- Telecom service providers may acknowledge the value of open source technology, particularly as they adopt virtualization, but they are not entirely ready to embrace it warmly, a panel discussion here revealed.

Five large service providers -- AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), Orange (NYSE: FTE), Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), and Telecom Italia SpA (NYSE: TI) -- were represented on a single panel as part of a pre-conference NFV workshop, and while they agreed on a lot, open source technology didn't get a consensus vote.

At a time when multiple groups are developing open source approaches to key technologies such as SDN, the telecom operators' willingness to adopt the work of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) and OpenDaylight could indicate the pace at which change will happen. The recent decision by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) NFV Industry Specifications Group to propose an open platform for NFV also reflects shifting attitudes.

But the candid comments by the operator panelists show there is no universal view when it comes to open source.

Jenny Huang, OSS/BSS standards strategist at AT&T, struck the practical view, noting that telecom operators have traditionally equated open source with instability and the inability to scale, but that is changing with the move to cloud-based technologies, which the hosting company can control. Huang credits open source groups with pushing virtualization capabilities forward and enabling the operators to keep vendors moving at a faster pace than they might otherwise have done.

Sprint's Fred Feisullin, senior network architect in the CTO's office, took the "radical" stance, pointing to how open source technologies are enabling over-the-top competitors such as Vine and Instagram to bring services to market quickly.

"Service providers need to become comfortable with open source -- there is too much value that is not being mined," he said. "We have to be more mature in our development of software."

To that end, he said, Sprint is hiring Ph.D. candidates as summer workers to develop software in what he called "the next workforce." Open source software is likely to be embedded in whatever lies down the road, Feisullin noted, even if the ultimate services aren't totally open source based.

Massimo Banzi, senior technical project manager at Telecom Italia, was much more circumspect, pointing to licensing and management problems that invariably crop up where use of open source software in commercial products is concerned.

His comments highlighted the willingness -- or lack of same -- of service providers to make their own contributions to the ongoing development of open source software in the way other participants do. Feisullin urged operators to join in by contributing to the open source community any extensions of the software that aren't core to the company's intellectual property.

But even Banzi admitted there are open source components that are well known and strong and are embedded in his company's solutions.

Nektarios Georgalas, director at the BT-Intel Co-Lab, views open source software as important for enabling faster-to-market delivery of new capabilities and the testing of new ideas more quickly.

"I think a hybrid approach ultimately wins out -- with both free open source software, and paid support of some functions as well," he said. "If we are able to build a business case with 70% cost savings using open source, why not use it?"

Ultimately, it will be a commercial decision, agreed Tayeb Ben Meriem, senior manager at Orange (NYSE: FTE): "We need to assess the system ability of open source with regard to commercial deployment, " he said.

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

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User Rank: Light Sabre
6/3/2014 | 5:45:01 PM
Re: No Real Surprises
High career cost for sure, and I find that ironic considering we all know better by now.  First, people tend not to get burned twice.  Secondly, there's people like Steve Jobs who did fail... but he came back quite well, didn't he?

It'd be a little different if we looked for one big failure as a sign of learning and only took multiple, similar failures as a sign of poor judgement.
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
6/3/2014 | 5:37:58 PM
Re: No Real Surprises
There's a high career cost to failing implementing pioneer technology. Maybe higher than the benefit of succeeding. 
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/3/2014 | 4:47:43 PM
Re: No Real Surprises
@FakeMitchWagner:  It's still not all that different.  In my experience, companies that try Open Source and fail become examples and make others leary.  Making the switch isn't cheap if it doesn't work, so once burned twice scarred.  

It's still a matter of a lack of positive examples.  I'm pretty sure if a company was able to implement open source in a way that worked for them, the rest would want to know exactly what their situation was and how they implemented it.  I feel that way about most technology, actually -- it never catches on until someone does something amazing with it.
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
6/3/2014 | 3:50:06 PM
Re: No Real Surprises
smkinoshita - The issue of licensing and management are different from what you describe. These aren't companies with a knee-jerk rejection of open source. These are companies that tried it and found it didn't work for them. 

User Rank: Light Sabre
6/3/2014 | 2:21:56 PM
No Real Surprises
Sounds like similar conversations that were going on all across various businesses several years ago.  Whether it was for replacing Microsoft Office or entire networks, the points were the same -- Open Source was economical but nobody had experience using it in a business environment, so everyone was very cautious.

Same conversations still carrying on today.  It's just in more industustries now.
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