There is a "huge uptick" in telecom network operator interest in the open source process, not only to advance specific efforts that benefit their drive to build the New IP, but also to build their own internal open source competencies, and learn how to operate in new ways, says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation. But telecom operators are facing some unique challenges in this area as well.
Zemlin has had a front-row seat to the movement of telecom service providers towards the open source process, as the Linux Foundation is home base for multiple open source efforts involving telecom giants, including OpenDaylight , the Open Platform for NFV Project Inc. (OPNFV) and now the Open Container Initiative (OCI). And he's witnessed both the growing interest in open source and the struggles telecom operators have in trying to reshape themselves as more agile competitors in the Web 2.0 realm.
"We see a huge increase in interest in a variety of projects," he tells The New IP in an interview regarding one specific initiative, OCI, which counts AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) among its earliest participants. "What we also see is that operators would like to participate more broadly in the Linux Foundation itself to understand how to build an open source competency within their organization." (See Containers a Critical Piece of Telecom's Future.)
That involves understanding open source licensing and managing R&D processes that happen outside their own organizations, he notes. Because open source groups develop industry consensus on a common approach using sharing of actual software code, it requires a different kind of participation.
"They have tended to be very good at that in standards bodies and will continue to be good at that in that context," Zemlin says. "And they are now embracing a kind of development and across-industry collaboration [that happens] in open source projects."
The biggest challenge for operators in making the shift from the traditional standards processes with which they are familiar and the open source process is tackling a new role of competing at the higher levels of the software stack, something they haven't done as much in the past.
"They have been, traditionally in terms of technology usage, more consumers," he says. "They procure technology from specific vendors and then they integrate that into their networks. So they are good at procurement, integration, BSS/OSS -- the core components of an operator's network infrastructure."
Telecom operators have not traditionally had to develop their own higher-level software, Zemlin says, as companies such as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) have been doing for some time. As the telecom industry in general faces competition from the Web 2.0 giants in delivering value-added and high-revenue services over their new IP networks, they also need that expertise.
"And that represents a big challenge, in terms of how to develop their processes to operate in the open source community," Zemlin says.
Some operators are doing well with this, he says, singling out companies such as AT&T, Orange (NYSE: FTE), NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) and China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL) as among those successfully making the shift.
In AT&T's case, Zemlin comments, the company has come a long way in two years, and he attributes that to the company leadership including people such as Margaret Chiosi, a distinguished network architect at AT&T Labs, as one example. Chiosi chairs the OPNFV and has been involved in OpenDaylight as well. She and other AT&T executives have also actively discussed AT&T's commitment to open source in public forums and encouragement broader participation. (See OpenDaylight Goes Big on SDN, NFV & Cloud, Open Source Needs Butts More Than Bucks, AT&T Makes Case for Open Source Sharing, OPNFV Does Telecom/Open Source 'Mind Meld' and ESDN: AT&T Calls for SDN APIs Now.)
Zemlin points to the process of getting OPNFV off the ground as a good example of both the challenges operators face and their determination to embrace open source. Chiosi was among those pushing for an open source reference implementation to tackle issues around managing and orchestration network functions virtualization (NFV) that were beyond the scope of the NFV founding organization within European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) .
That process started two years ago, but OPNFV wasn't formally launched until about a year ago, he says.
"It took us a year to work with operators to help them understand the IP [intellectual property] framework and the collaboration models, plus it took them time to hire engineers and identify software developers within their organization that could participate," Zemlin comments. "Over that year, I have seen them getting much better at this process."
Telecom operators still face a significant "people problem" that isn't unique to them, and that is the need to identify, hire or train more software developers, particularly at the high end, where the competition for talent is very tough.
The Linux Foundation runs a series of courses on its websites aimed at helping address the talent crunch, but Zemlin admits that at the highest levels, "the very key architects, the code poets of open source and software in general, it is super competitive."
"That's not just an operator problem," he says. "It comes down to an out-and-out competition for talent challenge, and it's at a fever pitch, largely driven by Silicon Valley and firms like Google and Amazon."
That talent crunch does pose a serious hurdle, however, for the telecom operators that aren't up to the pace of the industry leaders in this realm. Zemlin says he sees many that still have a long way to go in their understanding of open source and the basic concepts around it. Even among those companies, there is an understanding that this is the direction in which they need to be going.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading