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27 June 2016

Nokia is traditional telecoms’ fifth column, embracing open source disruption

One of the most important trends in the current reinvention of the mobile network is the introduction of open source to infrastructure hardware. Open source processes have been creeping into this formerly tightly closed world in software (from Android to carrier Linux) and in devices, but the network equipment itself remained the preserve of proprietary vendors and formal standards bodies. Now that is changing. From small innovators like Lime Microsystems (see separate item), to entrenched guardians of the old ways, like Nokia, suppliers are finding new ways to work with open source.

This could finally spark the revolution in the cost of mobile data delivery, which has been so often discussed and so little delivered. New architectures, standardized interfaces, the relentless erosion of prices – all these have contributed, but not actually shaken up the market leaders or the established development and procurement methods. Open source could help to push more radical change, as it did in enterprise IT hardware.

There have been moves in this direction for years. Even Qualcomm, which has built its empire on tightly guarded ownership of patents and technologies, has a unit dedicated to relations with the open source community, with the aim of extending its influence in the mobile internet. The best example of this group’s work is the open sourcing of AllJoyn in the AllSeen Alliance.

But two developments have accelerated the mobile network industry’s acceptance of open methods. One is Facebook’s Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP), and the other is the rise of virtualization and software-defined networking (SDN) in mobile networks. And if revolutions need support from within the establishment to prevail, Nokia is that fifth column, as it looks for ways to grasp leadership in the new generation of nteworks and carriers from Ericsson, Huawei and Cisco.

Nokia was the earliest and most forward-looking of the major OEMs in moving towards a network which was largely software-driven. Its Liquid Radio introduction paved the way for a dynamic, programmable network running on basic hardware – Liquid Apps and Airscale Radio have developed the theme. The Finnish company is also conspicuous both in TIP and in the open source NFV/SDN efforts and will certainly help to commend their approaches to traditional MNOs.

Nokia and Intel – increasingly its most strategic ally –  were the founding members of Facebook TIP, announced at Mobile World Congress this year, along with four operators (Deutsche Telekom, SK Telecom, EE and Globe). The project’s aim is to bring the norms of hyperscale data center infrastructure to telecoms networks, and accelerate the process of scaling up telecoms infrastructure to meet rising data demands. This will only happen if brand new economics and supply chains are brought into play, argues Facebook.

TIP mirrors Facebook’s existing infrastructure initiatives, Open Compute Project, which centers on open sourcing of equipment, and OCP Telco (the latter focused on data center networking rather than carriers). These have been securing significant support – even IBM said last week that it would offer an OpenCompute server, based on its Power processors, if it saw the demand.

Facebook has saved more than $2bn in the past three years through its open source computing and networking processes, claims CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “So now we’re trying to roll it out to telcos too, so we can make it more efficient to deliver infrastructure for building the Internet and take out the costs for operator partners,” he said at MWC. “If that goes well, maybe some of that savings will get passed to consumers in terms of cheaper data plans.”

Nokia and Intel are contributing an initial set of reference designs for access, backhaul, core and management platforms, and the operators will define requirements and trial deployments. All the work will be open sourced for use by the wider industry, which will “result in significant gains in cost and operational efficiency for both rural and urban deployments,” according to Facebook’s global head of engineering, Jay Parikh.

Perhaps the most significant outcome from TIP, at least in its early days, will be Nokia’s promise to publish an open specification for the operability interface within the RAN run time environment, which is traditionally vendor specific. That will enable operators to mix and match multivendor radio products and help third parties to deploy cells more easily. Later in the year, Nokia will open a base station hardware platform, giving its collaborators access to reference designs and hardware specification.

Unlike the OCP, the primary objective of TIP is not to save Facebook’s own costs of scaling-up, but to accelerate the roll-out of mobile internet services and enable lower cost access, both of which will help expand the Facebook community. The social media giant does have its own mobile network projects, Terragraph and Aries, which it will contribute to TIP, but it is unlikely to want to be a network operator on a grand scale. Like Google, it wants to show how things could be done differently, encouraging change in the wider ecosystem which will then benefit its own businesses.

But that does not mean Facebook (and Google) are not interested in driving technologies as well as processes. An interesting aspect of TIP is the role it might play in the evolution of 5G. At its launch, Parikh said: “As the effort progresses, TIP members will work together to accelerate development of technologies like 5G that will pave the way for better connectivity and richer services.” As it works on new technologies to support its vision of an open, unbundled, mix-and-match network, TIP could become an alternative to official standards bodies like 3GPP, with just as much political in-fighting, but lower barriers to entry and, potentially, faster decisions.

Logically, it would be a strong vehicle for the IT giants to assert their influence over future directions, since 3GPP remains the bastion of the traditional mobile players. Open source has been a way for major powerhouses to preserve their power in the enterprise space, with IBM the shining example, and it will be the same in telecoms. Intel is already in TIP and Cisco and HPE would be foolish not to join, creating a quasi-standards body in their own image to dilute some of 3GPP’s impact, rather as Intel hoped to do, in the run-up to 4G, with the WiMAX Forum. That failed, but in 5G, there are far more companies, powerful in the data center business, which are determined to dominate carrier networks too, as those morph into IT platforms.

Nokia is also casting aside its natural reservations about open source in the virtualization field. By its nature, this turns the network into software and changes the role of the vendor. Such a big transition may encourage operators and their suppliers to take another plunge too, towards open platforms. And with the hardware being commoditized, it would make sense for that to be included in the open source trend too.

SDN and NFV (Network Functions Virtualization) have been drivers of open source acceptance in some areas of telecoms, as well as giving operators the chance to work with new suppliers and insist on multivendor interoperability at last (as seen in AT&T’s Domain 2.0 roster, a mixture of old and new providers). Initiatives like Metaswitch’s Project Calico, which placed its virtualized IMS code into open source and integrated with Openstack, go back several years.

The turning point came with OPNFV (Open Platform for NFV), which was formed in 2014 to create an open source reference platform, containing both hardware and software, to validate the performance and interoperability of components based on ETSI NFV specs, and to attract inputs from the open source community. While the initial OPNFV effort was complementary to ETSI, the two organizations are more divided over the issue of MANO (management and optimization) of NFV networks, both trying to unify the fragmented platform around their own systems (ETSI’s Open Source MANO and OPNFV’s Open-O).

Now Nokia is making its Intel Xeon-based AirFrame data center hardware platform available for a new OPNFV Lab to use in testing. This would have been inconceivable in the run-up to 4G – a vendor whose whole success relied on proprietary, carefully guarded technologies, allowing one of its crown jewels to be used by a collaborative open source community.

Nokia says the Lab will be an important testbed for NFV developers to accelerate the introduction of commercial open source products and services. It is not the first such facility – the Linux Foundation’s OPFV Pharos project is creating a federation of distributed testing labs – but it is the most symbolic of the new nteworks world. HPE, another major force in this community, has one too, but of course, the IT giant is well accustomed to dealing with open source, and has a strong interest in finding new routes into the tough mobile networks sector.

Morgan Richomme, NFV network architect for innovative services at Orange Labs, said: “NFV interoperability testing is very challenging, so the more labs we have, the better it will be collectively for the industry.” Earlier this month, AT&T added Nokia to its list of 5G lab partners along with Intel and Ericsson.