Last week I attended the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) Summit 2019 in Amsterdam, where I met with dozens of operators, vendors, sub-system suppliers and integrators involved in the TIP ecosystem. This is an organization we have followed closely at Heavy Reading, and Light Reading, since its creation in early 2016.
TIP's mission is encapsulated -- brilliantly, in my opinion -- in the slogan "We Build Together." The idea is to take concepts from the open compute and cloud worlds and apply them to telecom networks in order to reduce costs, lower barriers to entry for innovative technology and accelerate the adoption of open network architectures. This should produce better services for customers and, crucially, make service available to under-connected or unconnected people.
In practice, this means TIP is focused on the disaggregation of network elements (and domains), and then re-aggregation into new architectures. By making this an ecosystem endeavor, the vast R&D investment required to participate in telecom is shared across multiple parties. In combination with disaggregation, this means specialist, best-of-breed innovators can be incorporated into telco networks. In this way, the telecom ecosystem itself becomes more diverse, adaptable and resilient.
To make this happen, TIP is doing a lot of the right things. "We Build Together" is more than a mission statement; it is actually what the organization and its members are doing. Example activities discussed at the summit include:
- Community Labs where companies can test software against reference designs and interfaces. There are now 12 labs in total. Three of these labs are CI/CD (continuous integration/continuous delivery) labs -- one at Telefónica in Madrid and two at Facebook facilities in Menlo Park and Los Angeles.
- Interoperability plugfests. For information on the two events planned for 2020, check out these details.
- Certifications to indicate adherence to various reference designs and blueprints. See details about the TIP badges.
- White box reference designs. Hardware platforms based on off-the-shelf technology are vital to attract new entrants and smaller and midsized vendors. I also believe this model will prove beneficial to large integrated vendors in time.
- Project groups that appear to be genuinely collaborative working groups. These sometimes result in operator-sponsored field trials.
One good example, from a mobile network point of view, of how the ecosystem "builds together" is the Distributed Cell Site Gateway (DCSG) project. On display at the event were four different hardware platforms (currently all using Broadcom switch silicon -- server-based designs are coming), running network software stacks from five different vendors. Timed to coincide with the summit, Telefónica announced it would deploy DCSG technology to support its 4G/5G network in Germany. (Interesting side note: These solutions are close to the AT&T white box cell site gateway solution being deployed across the US.)
Other examples include projects focused on optical transport, Layer 2/3 networking, disaggregated microwave, Open RAN, 5G NR, and more. Progress in each of these areas was presented at the TIP Summit and new projects and work phases launched. TIP has an ambitious program.
So far, this column has been positive on TIP and its mission. This is because evidence shows it can contribute to industry progress and I believe the organization is putting forward a coherent and viable roadmap. It's also the case that I've been exposed to the "true believers" for the best part of a week and have, no doubt, absorbed some Kool-Aid by osmosis. Even with the intention to be resolutely independent, as an analyst it is hard to attend these types of events and not be influenced by impressive people who believe in their mission and are working hard on it.
Not so positive
So, what isn't good about TIP? What isn't working? And what could better?
A concern I had ahead of the event was that momentum behind TIP was starting to dissipate. This turned out to be largely unfounded -- the event had an energetic and positive atmosphere, with lots of companies present and showing their commitment. Some of this is the "best foot forward" effect, however, and we still need to see contribution from many other quarters before TIP can reach "escape velocity."
The telecom services market is vast in scale and scope. To really move the industry, greater participation from all parts of the ecosystem is needed from vendors, sub-systems and components developers, to investors and operators. In other words, TIP needs to encourage its friends to get more involved.
The TIP has diagnosed problems in telecoms networking in large part correctly. And it has identified what looks to be a good solution -- disaggregation, and then re-aggregation in open architectures.
Where I think the TIP community is mistaken -- and doesn't yet realize it -- is in under-appreciating just how good the existing telecom network ecosystem really is. Proponents of open networking often miss this point.
In my coverage area -- mobile networks -- the progress made by vendors and operators in deploying and operating advanced network services is astoundingly good. And it is astoundingly good at scale. For all you can identify problems (there are many), the global mobile network platform is amazing, awe-inspiring, and still making fantastic advances. You can pick your statistics, but billions of customers served and a trillion dollars in annual revenues doesn't happen in a malfunctioning industry. If you look at the state-of-the art in RF and modems, at the latest generation of radio basestation equipment, at advances in transport and networking, and so on, you'd have to have to be wearing blinkers not to recognize progress and brilliance.
It's understandable that a group trying to change and advance the industry must position itself against what currently exists. TIP positions itself as an antidote to network ossification, a remedy to the impasse of architecture lock-in, and a new way to manage vendor/operator relationships. It's like a startup challenging the status quo: You have to think, and act, differently to incumbents to get anywhere at all. And you need focus to make your efforts count. This is all fair and good. Disruption from within, or without, has its place. But this also breeds a defensive, "us against the world" mentality. TIP is not, however, a startup company.
The scale of telecom is so large, and its importance to society so significant, that open networking initiatives such as the Telecom Infra Project, and others, simply have to bring the incumbents on board and make them willing partners in the mission.
I believe TIP could benefit greatly from taking (ironically) a more open approach, by showing that it appreciates the work of incumbents, by displaying greater recognition that it stands on the shoulders of networking giants. This would show that while it is confident, it is not arrogant, and that while it is visionary, it is not blind to the progress of others.
More to the point, by appealing to the status quo and bringing them with it, TIP could have a bigger impact and make its ideas really count.
— Gabriel Brown, Principal Analyst, Mobile Networks and 5G, Heavy Reading