There was a period of several years where almost every article you'd read about the telecom industry felt like a version of the famous internal Nokia "burning platform" missive: Pay-TV on the decline!; Google and Facebook getting all the revenues!; Net neutrality!; Landline voice revenue gone!; Wireless revenue flattening!
Most of these could be summed up by two statements: Operators were making the wrong big bets on the services they were offering; and their services took too long to roll out and become relevant.
On the network infrastructure front, the industry has responded with SDN/NFV: Make the network more software-driven, more elastic, and less reliant on an ever-growing set of specialized physical boxes that make provisioning complex and brittle. Apply the lessons of the web giants and cloud services companies to try new things, fail faster and experiment more.
Supporting that technical transformation, telecom operators and vendors alike are moving to adopt open source software and participate in the organizations where it is created. Engaging in these projects is a sea-change for the industry, one that is as much cultural as technical.
A few words about what open source means (and what it doesn't) before I go further. People often mistake open source as a business model. They focus on the F in FOSS (free and open source software), and while that's tempting, "free" is an awfully distracting concept.
Open source is, in fact, an R&D model. It's one that acknowledges that working together to solve the hardest foundational problems enables everyone in the ecosystem to put more of their valuable internal resources on interesting and differentiating projects.
When viewed this way, open source really is the next logical step in the way the industry works together, and although it can feel very different, it can be viewed as an evolutionary change rather than a revolutionary one.
Traditionally, we've collaborated externally as an industry. We've always relied on standards bodies to innovate collectively, and we still do. The ETSI NFV Industry Specifications Group (ISG) has done important work conceptualizing an NFV architecture, and it is currently enumerating a number of important requirements and testing needs (some of which are already making it into OPNFV via our Yardstick test project). New standard protocols such as VxLAN, OpenFlow and NSH (Network Services Headers) and existing ones such as YANG, Netconf, BGP, and so on, are crucial to how NFV and SDN will function.
Open source goes one step further and begins to consider the actual implementation of these standards as collaborative work. The premise behind open source is that rather than sending all the vendors off to go build these stacks and components separately -- replicating essentially similar development projects inside every company -- the vendors collaborate on a common platform that is developed, tested, and fixed more quickly.
For example, in OPNFV Arno release, we found a number of difficult bugs close to our release date, caused by several different inter-related issues. It was a stressful few weeks working through them, but imagine replicating that troubleshooting in every single vendor's shop, multiplied by every single operator environment. We compressed months of effort into weeks.
Open source isn't magic -- we didn't compress the work into nanoseconds. On the other hand, the combined effect of months being compressed into weeks over and over and over again… starts to become significant. This gives our industry the ability to move more quickly, to compete more effectively, and to waste fewer resources.
Collaboration at this level requires work. It also requires influencing differently -- developers respond to inspiration far better than dictation, and they're far more likely to trust those who also code. The traditional methods of carrier influence need to evolve to acknowledge this new reality and I've seen examples that give me hope. Blueprints coming out of our Doctor project focused on fault management have already been incorporated into OpenStack Liberty code, and other blueprints from this project are currently making their way toward incorporation as well.
I've spent most of my career working on the problem of effective cross-company collaboration; in addition to standards and open source, I've also done partner marketing and business development. The thing all these roles have had in common is reaching across boundaries to make something bigger and better than I could have on my own. It's often been frustrating, but seeing the discontinuous progress it's enabled has made it worth it.
If you're interested in exploring how open source and industry-level collaboration can make our industry more competitive and more agile, join the conversation at the OPNFV's inaugural summit in Burlingame, Calif., this week. We'd love to have you come help us make open source NFV a reality.
— Heather Kirksey, Director, OPNFV