Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Standards approach or Open Source?

[...] Over the last few years, wireless networks have started to adopt enterprise technologies and trends. One of these trends is the open source collaborative model, where, instead of creating a set of documents to standardize a technology and leave vendors to implement their interpretation, a collective of vendors, operators and independent developers create source code that can be augmented by all participants.

Originally started with the Linux operating system, the open source development model allows anyone to contribute, use, and modify source code that has been released by the community for free.

The idea is that a meritocratic model emerges, where feature development and overall technology direction are the result of the community’s interest. Developer and companies gain influence by contributing, in the form of source code, blueprints, documentation, code review and bug fixes.

This model has proven beneficial in many case for the creation of large software environments ranging from operating system (Linux), HTTP servers (Apache) or big data (Hadoop) that have been adapted by many vendors and operators for their benefit.

The model provides the capacity for the creation and adoption of new technologies without having necessarily a large in-house developer group in a cost effective manner.
On the other hand, many companies find that the best-effort collaborative environment is not necessarily the most efficient model when the group of contributors come from very different background and business verticals.

While generic server operating system, database technology or HTTP servers have progressed rapidly and efficiently from the open source model, it is mostly due to the fact that these are building block elements designed to do only a fairly limited set of things.

SDN and NFV are fairly early in their development for mobile networks but one can already see that the level of complexity and specificity of the mobile environment does not lend itself easily to the adoption of generic IT technology without heavy customization.

In 2016, open source has become a very trendy buzzword in wireless but the reality shows that the ecosystem is still trying to understand and harness the model for its purposes. Wireless network operators have been used to collaborating in fairly rigid and orthodox environments such as ETSI and 3GPP. These standardization bodies have been derided lately as slow and creating sets of documentations that were ineffective but they have been responsible for the roll out of 4 generations of wireless networks and the interoperability of billions of devices, in hundreds of networks with thousands of vendors.

Open source is seen by many as a means to accelerate technology invention with its rapid iteration process and its low documentation footprint. Additionally, it produces actual code, that is pre tested and integrated, leaving little space for ambiguity as to its intent or performance. It creates a very handy level playing field to start building new products and services.

The problem, though is that many operators and vendors still treat open source in wireless as they did the standards, expecting a handful of contributing companies to do the heavy lifting of the strategy, design and coding and placing change requests and reviews after the fact. This strategy is unlikely to succeed, though. The companies and developers involved in open source coding are in for their benefit. Of course they are glad to contribute to a greater ecosystem by creating a common denominator layer of functional capabilities, but they are busy in parallel augmenting the mainline code with their customization and enhancements to market their products and services.

One of the additional issues with open source in wireless for SDN and NFV is that there is actually very little that is designed specifically for wireless. SDN, OpenStack, VMWare, OpenFlow… are mostly defined for general IT and you are more likely to find an insurance a bank or a media company at OpenStack forums than a wireless operator. The consequence is that while network operators can benefit from implementation of SDN or OpenStack in their wireless networks, the technology has not been designed for telco grade applicability and the chance of it evolving this way are slim without a critical mass of wireless oriented contributors. Huawei, ALU, Ericsson are all very present in these forums and are indeed contributing greatly but I would not rely on them too heavily to introduce the features necessary to ensure vendor agnosticism...

The point here is that being only a customer of open source code is not going to result in the creation of any added value without actual development. Mobile network operators and vendors that are on the fence regarding open source movements need to understand that this is not a spectator sport and active involvement is necessary if they want to derive differentiation over time.

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