Will Telecom's 'Open' Be Natural or Organic?

I've been sharing thoughts on telecom's most recent fixation on "open" technology for several months, but I admit it isn't entirely clear to me how committed service providers and vendors are to changing their ways when it comes to moving off telecom-specific gear.

At our Big Telecom Event in June, I had a chance to talk with Neela Jacques, executive director of OpenDaylight , and get his opinion on this topic. Jacques was in Chicago for only a day or so. He had spent most of the previous month continent hopping in his role as head of the group creating an open approach to software-defined networking controllers.

He shared with me an analogy he has been generally sharing, so it may sound familiar, but it also struck me as quite apt. The two approaches to adopting "open" technology in telecom can be compared to two different approaches that developed over the last decade or more for selling healthier food. One approach involves products with the word "natural" on the label. The other involves products with "organic" on the label.

"Almost anyone can label their products 'natural,'" Jacques said. "But if you want to label your product 'organic,' you have to be willing to meet a specific set of guidelines that has been adopted by the USDA."

The difference is simple -- "natural" grew up in the commercial world and was used willy-nilly until it became meaningless. "Organic" was a term that food producers who were working without chemicals were willing to sit down and define, even though doing so meant compromising on what might have been the ideal standard, Jacques said.

It is then up to consumers to vote with their dollars on which products they are willing to buy -- pay less, and you likely get "natural" stuff that is not necessarily any healthier than the regular fare. Much of it comes loaded with chemicals. Pay more, and you get something that has earned the right to be called "organic" -- and you know exactly what you are getting for that price.

In the same way, "open" can become diluted if vendors use it as a label but don't adhere to truly open standards. There are many ways to avoid being truly open, even when it comes to application programming interfaces (APIs), one of the most common tools of the open realm, Jacques told me.

In some cases, vendors can open an API to the world but then change it, even subtly, without working with others on the change, calling it an improvement. A so-called open API can be published but remain entirely controlled by a single vendor. Or an API can be only partially open; it is essentially private, even if it is shared among developers that meet some approval criterion.

OpenDaylight is taking a truly open approach. Many companies contributed code to create its open-source controller, and that controller can now be embedded in any participating vendor's product. But any changes made to the code -- i.e., improvements -- must be shared and offered back to the entire OD community. (See OpenDaylight Unveils Open-Source SDN Controller.)

That's what gives vendors pause. A company that has what it perceives as a market advantage is loath to lose that by engaging in a collaborative process that requires sharing of its advantage, especially if they can look "open" by incorporating some elements of openness.

"We have right now a situation where companies are acting slightly open but screaming that they are very open," he said.

If service providers vote with their dollars -- as consumers can at the grocery store -- what they wind up with may look very natural but not very organic.

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

Carol Wilson 7/16/2014 | 7:36:14 PM
Re: Verizon Karl,

Certainly there has been more lip service paid to being "open" than real openess among the carriers - for many of the same reasons their vendors don't want to be truly open, because they see it messing up their business plans. 
Carol Wilson 7/16/2014 | 7:33:22 PM
Re: Making the Business Case is More Important brookseven,

Sorry for the delay in response, but you make an excellent point that is actually closer to what I should have said when I said operators vote with their money. They do, in fact, have to embrace a new way of working with suppliers that works to the advantage of both partners. I don't know that we've seen that yet. 

Food for thought, and another article. 
KBode 7/16/2014 | 6:51:08 PM
Verizon Good food for thought, Carol. Verizon is the first to come to mind when it comes to empty rhetoric on this front -- the company breathlessly insisting they love open devices and networks since 2007 if not before, yet they're one of the worst carriers anywhere when it comes to actually letting consumers use the services and software of their choice. Whether it was their war on third party GPS apps or their more-recent attack on Google Wallet....


TomNolle 7/15/2014 | 2:02:29 PM
Re: Making the Business Case is More Important Certainly the potential is there, Mitch, but NFV's loftier goals also demand loftier thinking at the implementation level.  In the end, I think NFV could create "service models" that would frame SDN services beyond simple Etherhet and IP, though, and it's hard to see how that could happen without NFV.
brookseven 7/15/2014 | 1:21:57 PM
Re: Making the Business Case is More Important Hi Carol,

Open as opposed to proprietary.  Cisco CLI is proprietary and yet it is highly duplicated and reused.  There is plenty of Open Standards that go nowhere.

Standards become important when they are deployed broadly.  APIs the same.  Open Source the same.

I think the fundamental problem in Telecom is the time to adopt and change.  The IT domain absorbe new technology at a much higher rate.  On top of that, there is a massive number of customers.  This means that even if you don't land one, there are 100s or 1000s more that might.  In the telecom world, there are what 3 carriers in the telco side that matter.  If you add in wireless and cable, that number climbs to 12 maybe?  Globally maybe 50?

This means that the fundamental structure the telecom market has taken is really challenged to fund and execute change.  Let's just use the margin model.  In general, a supplier will NOT have a higher margin than their customers.  If they do, over time competition will come in and drive supplier margin down to at or below the customer margin.

Okay, how does this relate to the topic?  You have to make an assumption as a supplier that you have to relentlessly cut R&D expenses.  This is because you are going after a limited market against many competitors.  The only way you win is to spend less, since ALL markets will commoditize at the start (This is a really bad market structure to enter by the way)  You have to get the Operators to understand that this is the position they have created.  Open Source and Open Standards can help lower the cost of R&D.  So, I think efforts like OpenNFV or anything else need to be positioned to lower the oost of development, integration and deployment.  If they don't then essentially they become yet another burden.


Mitch Wagner 7/15/2014 | 1:20:09 PM
Furthering the metaphor

You can take the metaphor further: In many cases, organic food is no healthier than factory-farmed. A fresh apple is a fresh apple. And organic growing doesn't scale to feed 7 billion hungry people. 

My point is that open is not automatically better just because it's open. 

On the danger of tricks vendors play with open standards: Microsoft in its prime was famous for "embrace and extend" -- take an open standard and add extensions to make it effectively proprietary. 

Mitch Wagner 7/15/2014 | 1:19:11 PM
Re: Making the Business Case is More Important I think that's one reason NFV might be an easier sell than SDN. With NFV, the business value is more straightforward: Get products out to customers faster and with less hassle. 

With SDN, it's all about managing the network, something the CFO doesn't really care about. He's paying network managers to do that. 
TomNolle 7/15/2014 | 10:09:37 AM
Re: Making the Business Case is More Important IMHO, software projects have to start with business goals, move to technology models, to architectures, and then to a component/object model set for implementation.  To me, it's clear that operators and enterprises both believe that next-gen networks will have to be justified based on agility and operations efficiency, so I'd start with those goals and then drill down to how to achieve them.  I think that use cases test this approach against real situations.  For the OPN specifically the challenge will be to avoid "implicit vendor lockin" that arises because the main supporters of these open-source communities are the vendors who want to lock you in!
Carol Wilson 7/15/2014 | 9:52:52 AM
Re: Making the Business Case is More Important Good point, Tom. What do you think the 'open' communities, like the new Open NFV effort, can do differently or better? Should they be developing the business case or new business models?
TomNolle 7/15/2014 | 9:07:43 AM
Making the Business Case is More Important Operators tell me that the big problem with "open" approaches is that they're still bogged down in lower layers of technology and so they haven't yet addressed (and maybe never will address) the business case.  Vendors like Cisco have driven their SDN strategy from the top down, so they start with the business/application connection.  If you have to pick between an SDN story that you can get past the CFO but is less open, or a fully open one you'll never get approved, you make the only choice you can.
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