Jarich: Open vs. Closed. Fast vs. Slow. -- Why are operators giving up on vendor-led innovation?

peter jarich

Peter Jarich

The week before last, I was scheduled to make a visit to the Open Networking Summit (ONS) in Santa Clara.  I didn't make it; I was called into our corporate HQ in London and, in my spare time, ran around town looking for pigeons wearing pollution-tracking vests.  No, I didn't run across any.

In any case, it wasn't too difficult to follow ONS from afar and, in the process, get some added perspective into how telecom service providers are innovating. 

Last year, AT&T's John Donovan used his ONS keynote to introduce the concept of CORD – Central Office Re-architected as Datacenter.  The concept was straightforward; leveraging a critical service provider asset (the central office), in line with SDN and NFV principals, to support new service delivery models.  More importantly, it was compelling enough that, a year later at ONS 2016, Donovan was back and significant CORD expansions and updates were rolled out.  There were Mobile-CORD and Enterprise-CORD demonstrations along with the announcement of a CORD reference implementation to accelerate trial deployments and service innovation.  But, the fun didn't stop there.  Alongside all the CORD news, AT&T introduced us to a new acronym: ECOMP – Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy.  While CORD was initiated as a project of the ONOS Partnership, ECOMP is an AT&T initiative.  Specifically, "an infrastructure delivery platform and a scalable, comprehensive network cloud service. It provides automation of many service delivery, service assurance, performance management, fault management and SDN tasks."  Or, dumbing it down a bit, Donovan positioned ECOMP as, "the engine that powers our software-centric network."

By all accounts, it was a big week for carrier-led network innovation even if the ECOMP news raised a myriad of questions.  Why did AT&T, for example, need to develop the solution on their own?  Isn't this what their network suppliers are supposed to be doing?  While AT&T might be "amenable to releasing ECOMP into open source" why not start there? 

Via a whitepaper and blog post by Chris Rice (VP, Advanced Technologies and Architecture), AT&T tried to answer these questions.  I'd suggest, however, that much of this was answered several weeks ago at Mobile World Congress. 

While there was no shortage of big themes coming out of MWC16, one we called out in a recent blog post was the formation of "open" partnerships focused on diverse technologies.  Partnerships like…

·        5G Open Trial Specification Alliance: operator-led initiative including (SK Telecom, Verizon, KT) developing, "an aligned 5G trial specification" for gauging 5G test results.

·        Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP): Facebook-driven initiative – including Intel, Nokia, and various carriers – hoping to "re-imagine" the way in which telecom networking kit is developed, including access, backhaul, core/management components.

·        Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF): extension of the Open Interconnect Consortium to include members of the AllSeen Alliance. Goal is to unify IoT standards in support of interoperability and seamless device connectivity.

·        Open Source MANO (OSM): community of 23 service providers focused on delivering an open-source NFV MANO stack with a scope including resource and service orchestration.

What's the key message behind these efforts?  Besides signaling that operators can work together around common technology interests, the number of ambitious efforts we saw kicked off at MWC signal an interest in moving the market faster than it's moving on its own – faster than vendors are managing to move it.  To be fair, there's no denying that efforts like ECOMP or open sourcing MANO don't benefit, directly, from vendor input, recommendations and R&D.  It's also true that vendors have their hands full with no shortage of tech efforts they must attend to.  Yet, without being an apologist for vendors, we need to acknowledge that these carrier-led innovation moves serve two purposes: telegraphing their technology demands while conveying a dissatisfaction with the pace at which vendors are delivering the tools operators think they need to compete successfully. 

And this is where a comparison to what AT&T was up to last week comes in.

ECOMP might be the work of one service provider.  It may not be an open project (yet).  But, just like the projects we saw announced or expanded at Mobile World Congress this year, it points to yet another service provider taking network innovation into its own hands.  Combined with those projects, we see the goal of driving innovation in ways that vendors aren't – or aren't doing fast enough.  Ultimately, we get a clear signal of network innovations that service providers want, but aren't getting from their vendor partners.

I was recently asked why I thought Nokia had joined Facebook's Telecom Infrastructure project.  Beyond an alignment with their strategic focus on partnering, I posited that it was about responding to the trend I just outlined above; paying attention to the demands of service providers – traditional telecom operators as well as a new generation of providers.  Perhaps more importantly, it's about making it clear that they're paying attention to these demands and getting in early in attempt to shape the direction of (at least one of) these efforts. 

As telecom networks increasingly embrace commodity IT hardware and IT operations, this type of understanding will be critical for any vendor looking to deliver differentiated products, create solutions alongside customers, and remain competitive. 

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.