ONAP momentum builds with Vodafone/China Mobile multi-network project

Major operators continue on their mission to wrest control over next generation network platforms away from vendors. The latest example sees Vodafone and China Mobile leading an initiative to automate the development and deployment of applications across multiple carriers’ networks. This builds on Open Network Automation Protocol (ONAP), the open source system for management and orchestration (MANO) originally developed by AT&T and China Mobile.

The latest project reinforces ONAP’s claim to be the dominant orchestration technology for emerging virtualized telco networks. That could be bad news for alternatives, notably ETSI’s Open Source MANO, and for large vendors which remain wedded to the more conventional standards processes, where their power has outweighed that of operators.

One reason for that has been the notorious fragmentation of operator efforts to set standards for networks and software. However, some of the big names have recently been able to set aside some of their politics and their conflicts of interest and work together within an open source environment. Several big names have signed up as active ONAP supporters, including Orange and Bell Canada, and in this new project Vodafone and China Mobile said they hoped others would join their efforts.

The vendors are more prominent in this initiative than many other open, operator-driven projects, especially Huawei. The Chinese giant is working with the two lead telcos to develop a cross-domain, cross-layer virtual private network (CC VPN), as the initial use case for an orchestrator for end-to-end, multi-domain services.

The code will be contributed to ONAP. It consists of a set of APIs, extensions and data models for cross-domain, cloud-based, automated service provisioning. The starting point was to link a Vodafone instance of ONAP to one in China Mobile’s network to support a cross-boundary VPN service. This was done by accessing and orchestrating optical and SD-WAN resources on one another’s networks. Other use cases, orchestrating multiple domains including the 5G RAN, will follow.

Fran Heeran, head of network virtualization, cloud and automation at Vodafone, said the aim is to provide a unified way to manage services across an operator’s diverse networks and operations; and also across multiple operators and territories. He said this would enable a multi-channel experience for users in any location.

“If you try to do that now and there is a break in the cycle due to crossing an organization or jurisdiction you will run into a problem,” Heeran told SDxCentral.

What such initiatives achieve is to prevent vendors imposing proprietary interfaces, or even to avoid the lengthy and expensive processes of interoperability testing, which accompany conventional standards body processes. “I can’t stress enough how important ‘out-of-the-box’ is,” said Heeran. “We don’t want to be assembling everything. We don’t want anything that we then have to spend a lot of time working on, piecing together.”

He indicated that Vodafone had chosen to work on this particular ONAP-based activity because it particularly addresses the operator’s own challenges as a diverse company working in many countries and across many businesses. Vodafone joined ONAP as a platinum member a year ago but has been low key to date in its efforts.

Operators have been very focused in recent years on “orchestration and automation, but only within our own domains,” Heeran told the recent Operations Transformation Forum event in Munich, Germany. “We have all spent a lot of time on our own stacks, on the north-south connections. Now we need to look at how this all works cross-domain. We need automated bridges to provision services. And this hasn’t been looked at closely enough. After all, this is what this industry is all about–cross-network services… east-west links into other regions and other networks.”

Heeran also said that leading open source software projects was not Vodafone’s usual approach, unlike AT&T. He said the UK-headquartered firm is more interested in providing directions to suppliers – to ensure a common approach geared to operators’ requirements – than in developing and running sourcecode itself.

“This is not something that we traditionally do,” he said. “We don’t have thousands of developers working the code. We are traditionally very product oriented and have been clear and open about that. But when you get involved in open source it’s important to understand that we are active and contribute.” This should enable more operators to benefit from Vodafone’s experiences in transitioning to modern cloud infrastructure and software architecture. It has moved from virtual machines to containers, claiming significant operational efficiencies, and Heeran believes the next step will be serverless computing. He said: “Containers are the flavor of today, but serverless is also coming and that will also be part of our cloud plans.”

Meanwhile, Orange used the Open Networking Summit Europe in Amsterdam last week to talk up ONAP too. The SVP of Orange Labs Networks, Emmanuel Delpon, told the audience that ONAP was the right orchestrator for the future, and that the industry needed to get behind it, to avoid destructive fragmentation.

“If we fail to deliver one standard, we will have an industry disaster,” he warned during his keynote address, because of the new order of complexity, in technology and services, of 5G. That complexity will require automation, and Delpon thinks ONAP is the right approach to that.

“We will not have the full benefit of 5G if we don’t have the right orchestration layer,” he said. “We firmly believe ONAP is the right orchestrator for the future and we urge the operator community to join forces to have ONAP as the unique orchestration.”

He also wants the industry to get behind another open source initiative hosted by the Linux Foundation, Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV), which addressed NFV infrastructure (NFVi).

“The issue is that there are today too many configurations and parameters proposed by the ecosystem of vendors,” he said. “There is no one NFVi standard, there is no one standard for orchestration. The observation is that the disaggregation is leading to a fragmented market, which is bad for all.”

He summed up: “If we fail collectively to deliver one standard, I believe we will have an industry disaster. Some actors will arrive a kind of de facto standardization; they will try and bring their standards, and I do not believe all the industry will benefit.” He does believe the 3GPP is the right place to set standards, but that open source projects are necessary to implement such specifications in an open, cloud-native commercial environment.

However, there are critics of ONAP too, particularly those who say it is too complex and cumbersome to deploy. At the Summit, John Zannos of Inocybe Technologies said of ONAP: “It’s a big pile of code; not everything works independently; difficult to implement if you are not a Tier 1 operator; not well supported by VNF providers; poor documentation, and it’s not productized or presented by a vendor backing it.”

The last of these points, as the Linux Foundation itself emphasized in its own contributions to the conference, can also be seen as a great benefit of the open approach – driven by the actual deployers and those who need to monetize the new networks, rather than by vendors. However, given the R&D resources and incumbent position of the large suppliers, it seems likely that any platforms that really achieve universal adoption will have to be supported by both sides of the industry, and make reference both to conventional standards bodies like 3GPP and ETSI, and to open source mechanisms.