AT&T Makes Case for Open Source Sharing

Unlike software vendors, network operators can't directly monetize their open source work, but it's still vital they contribute code, says AT&T.

April 16, 2015

4 Min Read
AT&T Makes Case for Open Source Sharing

Even though communications service providers don't have a model to directly monetize open source-based software, it's still important that they not only participate in the process, but contribute to it, AT&T Labs vice president Chris Rice says.

In a blog post this week and in an interview with Light Reading, Rice says there are several reasons being an active contributor is beneficial. But he admits with a laugh that AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) doesn't have the same methods to make money on open source as software vendors, who can release a "free" version of their open source software for customers but then sell upgrades or back-end support.

Yet, AT&T continues to make open source contributions, as it did this week by releasing an XACML (eXtensible Access Control Mark-up Language) 3.0 policy engine into an Apache Incubator. In his blog, Rice lists many other contributions.

"We are not licensing this, we are just giving it away," Rice notes. "There are a number of reasons we do that. Number one is it allows us to jumpstart an ecosystem. There might be technology we have and if we release this in open source, it grows the number of people who can bring something back to us now that they have this way of doing it, almost like a reference design."

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Another benefit is that it allows AT&T to bring in folks that are like-minded to fill gaps and thus lets the company create a more complete solution. And there's the general payoff -- if AT&T contributes, it can encourage other folks to do so as well, and the community itself grows.

Having more people, including more service providers, directly involved in the open source projects also contributes to their quality and scalability, and that's particularly important in telecom, where reliability is a major factor.

"Open source projects that have large communities behind them typically scale well because you get a lot of interest, a lot of work, a lot of sub-projects, so there's a lot of people looking at it, a lot of eyeballs," Rice notes. "It almost is a natural hardener for code." Telecom operators who get engaged as part of an open source community have the best opportunity to drive the community in the direction that meets their needs. "In other words, that's another reason why you want to be a participant and not just a net consumer," Rice says.

In addition to learning that lesson, telecom operators have to recognize that open source work "is almost never done," he adds. "Look how long Linux has been around but there are still different releases. Understanding that model and how to leverage that model in our world is something we need to get better at."

Open source plays a bigger role in communications and enterprise networks than it has in the past, and where AT&T contributes, it wants to stimulate other contributions and a wider discussion. But the company also has a long history of contributions to open software, as Rice notes in his blog, dating back to Unix software and 'C' language, among other things.

Choosing what to share
The critical decision apparently isn't whether or not to contribute but what to contribute -- and what to hold back as a potential competitive differentiator. Rice admits there can be uncertainty.

"Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it's not," he says. "I generally put things in three buckets: Number one is clearly something that should go into open source, because it's an enabler, in general, and would provide no differentiation. Other things are more fundamental to what we do, providing differentiation in the marketplace, and we keep those things as something we retain. Really, it's the things that fit in the middle that are harder."

For one thing, what makes something a competitive differentiator changes over time, Rice notes. But because "it's easy to let a genie out of the bottle and hard to stuff him back in," when there's doubt, there is no sharing.

"We hold those back for a period of time, and sometimes if I wait six months, I'll see that something isn't the competitive issue that I thought it was," he says.

Others involved in the open source process, including AT&T's own Margaret Chiosi, the first president of OPNFV, have noted that telecom and Silicon Valley software developers don't always share lingo or a similar way of working. AT&T has found collaborating with smaller software firms, as they did with Cask in order to build Tigon, a stream processing framework for big data analytics applications. (See OPNFV Does Telecom/Open Source 'Mind Meld'.)

"We didn't have any culture issues," he says. "We learned from them and they learned from us and at the end, we were both smarter."

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

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