The new era of hyper-scale cloud networking and over-the-top (OTT) applications has fueled tremendous growth and innovation across the communications industry, presenting an insurmountable challenge for the communications standardization status quo. In this software-driven era of communications, operators no longer have years to wait for standards ratification. Unable to stand still, they have been forced to bring proprietary advances to market–either self-developed or from their suppliers. But proprietary approaches create major challenges of their own: single vendor lock-in and the inability to scale across vendors and domains.
Enter the new era of "open," driven by open source development across both software and hardware. The open source model has moved from IT to communications to help operators bring their products and services to market faster than ever before while also achieving critical interoperability and scalability.
Challenging the Standards Status Quo
Standards bodies have provided the traditional path toward interoperability among systems and avoidance of vendor lock-in in telecom networks. Until the emergence of the cloud era, they remained the best available means for operators to achieve their network goals. However, the standards specification model began to break down in the cloud era for three main reasons:
- Cloud and OTT require more flexibility in applications and networks.
- The mismatch between standards pace and innovation pace.
- Historical standards do not always ensure efficient interoperability.
As an alternative, open source has risen as a means of achieving global connectivity, openness, and efficiency much faster than the traditional standards process. The rise of open source within communications coincides with the migration from hardware-centric architectures to new software-centric architectures–notably, software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV).
Key benefits that network operators can take advantage of in adopting open source development models include:
- Faster time to market
- Faster time to interoperability
- Creation of a community of idea sharing
- Reduced costs of development
- Software and hardware component modularity.
What to Look for in Open Network Approaches
There are several key aspects that service providers should look for when evaluating an open network solution:
- Compatibility of SDN offerings with the installed base of equipment: While there are some greenfield SDN deployments, the reality for the vast majority of network operators globally is that integration and coexistence with existing networks and systems are essential for wide-scale adoption. In this context, the best suppliers will present a hybrid and phased approach from the previous method of operations to the future method, in which the legacy and new SDN-based systems will coexist with a level of compatibility between them.
- Standardization: Much of the discussion in open source development to date has focused on software. However, hardware has a critical role to play in the phased migration from legacy to new. Specifically, modular hardware architectures enable hardware components to be swapped out in steps, over time, as the operators' hardware and software requirements change. This evolution includes moving from proprietary hardware blades initially to generic hardware blades later for certain functions.
- Integration of SDN hardware and software components: Integration of SDN hardware and software components is essential. Several leading operators use a building blocks or "Legos" analogy to describe the appeal of SDN and NFV – meaning that operators can take individual hardware and software building blocks to create services that fit their needs and those of their customers. For this model to work, however, the building blocks must be able to fit together without complex additions of scripts and code. Standardization (including open source development) is the key to successful integration on a large scale.
These three challenges are interrelated and must be resolved for wide-scale adoption to occur. The good news is that progress has been made on all of these fronts.
Open for Business
Hyper-scale cloud networking and OTT applications have placed a tremendous strain on the old model of communications operation and standardization. Open source development presents a promising new path for operators, one that combines the key interoperability benefits of traditional standards bodies with the speed and scale of cloud.
Successful operators will engage in open source development, migrate to open systems, and choose hardware and software suppliers that are truly committed to these principles.
Steve Pelosi is vice president of the Optical Business Unit at Fujitsu Network Communications. He drives the technical product strategy and direction for the Fujitsu optical networking portfolio. During his career at Fujitsu, Steve has held leadership positions in network operations, software, optical transmission, and wireless.