A report from MWC 2016: What’s up with open source and telco service provider networks?

According to the overview of Mobile World Congress 2016, the event in Barcelona will provide “in-depth coverage of the current and future mobile industry, highlighting specific areas of growth as well as the latest technological developments, next generation services and growth strategies.” Sure enough, there are several thought-provoking sessions that make one take pause and consider the impact that technology has on next-generation services—especially when it comes to service provider networks. And in that vein, the televised debate on the merits and challenges of deploying open source across telco service provider (SP) networks held at Ocana, Placa Reial in Barcelona is particularly interesting. This debate has a panel of three distinguished experts from three different enterprises: AT&T, Telefonica and Red Hat. Since I am not at the conference, I’ve reached out to one of my colleagues, Ian Hood, Global Chief Architect for our service provider partners at Red Hat. Ian was all geared up to attend the conference but he did take some time to engage in a close-to-happy hour conversation across the pond before departure. So I’ve asked: “OK, bud! What’s up with open source and telco service provider networks?”

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Here’s what I learned from our conversation. There are two key factors that drive open source adoption across the landscape of telco service providers:

  • The prevailing mindsets of the service providers
  • The complexities of making this transition on each architectural plane

Three Prevailing Mindsets

Culture has a lot to do with driving change across enterprise businesses in general, and this is true for the service provider community as well. The prevailing mindset of telecommunications service providers can be broadly profiled as outlined below:

  • Conservative. This mindset represents those that are taking comfort from the stability of their traditional, proprietary, hardware-centric environment. As the rapidly evolving market forces mandate faster agility with increased network traffic volumes, these service providers may be severely challenged to keep up with the rising demand.
  • Assertive. The assertive service provider of today was conservative yesterday. This group appreciates that they are late to the game but do tread new ground, illustrated by the cautious adoption of open source by some of these providers [can’t imply that they all have done so unless we have data to back it up]across their SP network infrastructures.
  • Aggressive. Say hello to the avant-garde mindset representing those service providers who take pride in being the torch bearers of adopting the next “cool” technology.

“That’s great, Ian!” I said.  “We just profiled the landscape of service providers. But what about the architectural planes that characterize the Service Provider network?”

Three Architectural Planes

Architecturally, the SP network infrastructure spans three planes as defined below:

  • Management. Setup, provision and configure network elements and services.
  • Control. Signal state of calls and network connections while automating recovery from faults.
  • Data. Actual end-user data or traffic that flows through the networks regardless of how end customers connect.

Ian asserts that the transition to open source is really triggered by a slow but steady shift from hardware to software. “Hardware can be open sourced too,” Ian told me. This market force of steadily graduating to a more software-defined world is easier to apply to the Management Control Planes than the Data plane but much work is in progress to solve some of those ongoing technology and business challenges. There is also an overriding concern about rocking the foundation of these massive and rapidly growing networks when you start thinking about changing the Data plane.

There you have it—a 3×3 combination of forces between the prevailing enterprise mindset and technological feasibility that’s impacting open source adoption in the telco industry. By the way, I asked Ian about the key drivers for the service providers in the highly competitive marketplace, and guess how many he identified. Yep, three.

  • Make Money
  • Save Money
  • Go faster while providing three delivery characteristics to their customers: reliability, availability, and serviceability.

But, wait a minute. To be consistent with our sets of three, we need a third perspective, but this article only has two. Voila – an interview with Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, live from the Mobile World Congress (listen in, Whitehurst starts talking about telcos at about 2 minutes in). According to Whitehurst, telcos have traditionally worked in a very proprietary environment. And while the data in this industry has been growing asymptotically, revenues have been growing linearly for the telco companies, forcing them to get out of their models and be more open to innovate. Red Hat can help bring innovation to telcos in the form of OpenStack, which is increasingly popular for building next-generation infrastructures in a very software-defined and collaborative manner.

So there you have it. A third perspective from Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst! But hey, we’d like one more: yours! Are there other prevailing forces that impact the adoption of open source across the telco service providers? Or is there a fourth mindset that better characterizes some of the other service providers. Please let us know in the comments section below.

Follow Nadhan on Twitter @NadhanEG and LinkedIn and follow Ian on Twitter @IHood_Ian

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