NFV Is Down but Not Out
Lashings of open source and a sprinkling of startups
Tension between operators and their suppliers is much older than NFV, of course. Operators conceded the innovation ground to vendors before the 1980s, according to Bruno Jacobfeuerborn, the head of the towers subsidiary of Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT). They have perhaps come to regret that in the twenty-first century, as Silicon Valley's "over-the-top" (OTT) companies have bounded past them. What NFV has inadvertently done is to aggravate the relationship, promising an answer to the OTT threat it has failed to deliver so far.
Mounting frustration appears to have driven some telcos toward alternative suppliers and non-proprietary, "open source" technologies. France's Orange (NYSE: FTE), which has also complained about the operational burden of NFV, is nurturing a handful of network startups that could, it reckons, supplant the big suppliers in future. AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Spain's Telefónica are sponsoring huge open source projects, seemingly to address interoperability challenges in network management and orchestration. (See Orange, VCs Commit $113M to Network Startups as 'Black Box' Frustration Mounts and DT Demands Automation, Cloud Tech From Pan-Net Suppliers.)
Backed by Mukesh Ambani, India's wealthiest man, Reliance Jio similarly believes that open source technology and non-traditional vendors are the recipe for success. About one half of its technology footprint is now based on open source technology, up from just 5% when it started out. It now regards itself as a kind of AT&T of India. "We are committing a lot of code into open source," Anish Shah, the operator's IT president, told Light Reading in Nice. "We will create an ecosystem to drive critical things." (See How RJio Built India's Most Automated Network.)
But for the likes of Telus and Globe, which lack the resources of AT&T and even RJio, the use of startups and open source technologies could mean further uncertainty. Gedeon says the capital position of Telus is too small for it to be a "kingmaker," like Orange. "We have to piggyback," he says. The obvious risk here is that a small number of very large operators become the industry's technology powerbrokers, leaving smaller players no more in control of their destinies than they are today.
The emergence of ONAP and OSM, two rival open source platforms for management and network orchestration, highlights the quandary. An AT&T baby adopted by the Linux Foundation, ONAP is a problem child as far as some operators are concerned, with its millions of lines of software code and current immaturity. For Telus, the issue is what AT&T has withheld rather than what it has released, says Gedeon. "I was critical when AT&T took the analytics out," he says. "They held back the stuff that will help me manage the network, which is the secret sauce." That forced Telus to build its own analytics engine. (See ONAP Takes Flak as Telcos Prep for Release 1.)
For Globe, the real worry is whether to back ONAP or the alternative OSM platform, a European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) project that counts Telefónica as its main telco supporter. Incompatibility between the two could make that decision matter if vendors were to swing en masse behind one platform. "It is not clear whether they are complementary or mutually exclusive -- if there is a role for the two in the same architecture," Seet complains. "We want to know how different they are and then get our hands dirty." (See Telefónica Starts Hunt for OSM Integrator Amid Open Source Doubts.)
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