(Photo credit: John Fruehe, Moor Insights & Strategy)
Telecoms and cloud service providers are gearing up for two of the largest functional changes in decades: The Internet of Things (IoT) which is happening now and 5G which is on the horizon. Both will require substantial investments in capital and operations for today’s networks to be competitive and thrive in this connected future. No single vendor can deliver the full stack, and proprietary technologies will not keep pace with these future needs. This transformation will be delivered in virtualized (not physical) technologies, open source and multivendor, relying on significant integration work across many in the industry to be successful. Chinese players like China Mobile , Huawei and ZTE are emerging as leaders in this space, through something not traditionally expected from the region: global collaboration.
OPNFV is an initiative from the Linux Foundation that is working on the interoperability and integration of these virtual components, referred to as virtual network functions (VNFs), into a platform called network function virtualization (NFV). This platform enables carriers to move from physical devices and appliances towards virtual functions that are software-based, because hardware-based solutions will never scale to meet demands. The network needs to change, especially in light of technologies like 5G and IoT that require new ways of working.
This year’s OPNFV Summit was held in Beijing, China, a choice that could have limited attendance from outside of China, but the representation, while China strong, did cover the globe. At the event, I hosted a panel with representatives from Orange (France), NTT DoCoMo (Japan), China Telecom and China Mobile. These carriers all brought a diversity of experience, engagement and progress, as they are all in different stages of their transition into the virtual world. Interestingly, the collaboration across these different companies works, because everyone seems to be facing the same challenge: building new networks based on tools that might not exist yet while still running their current business—akin to building an airplane in mid-flight. OPNFV enables them to drive a common set of requirements back to vendors, ensuring they will have the tools and technologies to make this work.
Collaboration between carriers is typically easier because regulation and geographic challenges limit conflict, but for equipment companies, the global market makes it more difficult for them to work with competitors. Yet the working group representation sees competitors like Ericsson and Huawei both working to achieve the same project goals. Inclusion and diversity were strong themes of the event.
These network changes will impact the carriers first, but eventually those technologies will move upstream into traditional enterprises. Carriers and cloud service providers not only have more complicated environments, but they better represent where enterprises are headed as cloud technology, containers and network virtualization are all areas of great interest for enterprises today. Any work that carriers can do in forwarding those technologies will eventually carry over into traditional enterprise environments, which is the opposite of how it worked in the past. Enterprises were faster at moving internet technologies and protocols into their environments, and carriers eventually moved from circuit switching to IP well after it was a business mainstay. The vision of the traditional carrier for many is a stodgy, conservative company delivering a dial tone, but carriers are changing, moving to the front of the technology curve, and much of the work that is being done to propel these businesses is coming from global collaboration with China.
As 5G changes the carrier landscape, we’ll see some key technologies like NFV act as the underpinning for the transition. Open source software—and now even open source hardware—will be critical components. Open source is all about public debate, and unlike previous transitions that were driven more by standards bodies driving consensus, the next generation of communications technology will be driven more by open source organizations like OPNFV, OpenStack, OpenDaylight, DPDK, FD.io, ONOSand ONAP as the underpinnings of 5G will be virtual and very cloud-centric. Collaboration has become the preferred mechanism for driving change, and China is stepping up as a major player in this movement, overcoming many of the language and cultural barriers that stymied sharing in the past