The edge defines experience, but can’t be done without open source – ONF

For years the industry has been focusing on the core network, but the tides are beginning to turn, with the edge taking centre stage. While this is a promising development, the economics are simply not supporting the ambition.

“Edge processing is vital,” said Timon Sloane, VP of Marketing & Ecosystem at ONF. “When we started talking about this it was a novel idea, but the industry is just catching on now. The subscriber edge is where experience is created.”

This focus on the edge of the network is a huge opportunity, but also presents a massive problem. The core network is easy. It is one place, easy to manage, but the edge consists of thousands of sites which are usually located within three miles of the customer. Most of the time these sites are windowless, concrete bunkers, with little or no lighting, representing 80% of operator CAPEX. Upgrading these sites is critical to the performance of the network, but is a time consuming and expensive job.

For Sloane and ONF, open source technology is the only way forward.

“Open source is not about free software,” said Sloane. “It is about a community, about not going off an trying to build it ourselves, but building it in a common way”

This is where the concept of economics comes into play. For the edge to work, and work effectively, the disaggregation of hardware and software is critical, as this will fuel the development of open source communities. On the hardware side, the idea of standardized equipment will allow operators to spend more freely on software which can build on and improve the experience for customers. Open source projects can be responsible for the foundation, while closed source technologies from vendors can be built on top.

The idea of disaggregation is of course scary to vendors, but it is needed. As it stands many solutions have proprietary software solutions embedded into the hardware, creating vendor lock-in situations, which limit the operators ability to spend efficiently, or create more customised environments to gain an advantage on competitors. Reversing this balance of power is a critical objective of the ONF, which it believes is central to the success of the telecoms industry.

The current vendor lock-in situation is a worrying one, as the progress of new technologies such as augmented reality or autonomous vehicles is dependent on the efficiency of the network edge. These applications need to run on the edge, as relying on the core would only create latency and a poor experience, and of course these sites need to be build and managed in a completely different way from the core.

Edge processing is different from the core. The sum of the edge is much more vast, where you need to interface with the customer, process information in real-time, deal with roaming, while simultaneously interacting with machine learning applications on the core. Ensuring these conditions can be effectively met is going to be a complex and expensive task.

For this edge-defined world to be a reality, Sloane believes open source is the only way forward. It standardises CAPEX for the commonalities in the network, allowing operators to focus on the last 20% which defines the experience and creates the advantage for an operator. There is resistance from the vendor community, as you would expect, but the nay-sayers, those who used to say disaggregation is not possible, are quietening down. The conversation is moving away from if open source is a viable opportunity, and towards when it can become a reality.

ONF caterpillar metamorphoses into open source butterfly

The Open Network Foundation has proudly announced the completion of its restructuring into an open source-centric organization following the integration of ON.Lab.

This process took almost a year but if it has been done properly then fair enough as business is littered with the debris of botched M&A. Having pupated for nine months the ONF gave its beautiful new wings their first flutter this summer with the announcement that DT is joining the party as a partner.

Despite the name, the resulting butterfly is largely driven by what was ON.Lab, with its focus on SDN and specifically projects such as ON.Lab creation CORD (Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter). The chances are that a lot of the work done by ONF was already of the open source variety, so this announcement seems to be a statement of intent as much as anything else.

“We are at the forefront of a massive transformation of the networking ecosystem,” said Guru Parulkar, executive director of ONF. “Recognizing that open source is transforming our industry at an unprecedented pace, we set out to optimize the ONF to embrace and further drive this revolution. We’re very pleased to have now completed our metamorphosis. We are also humbled by the success and impact our projects are having worldwide, and excited to embrace the work ahead.”

Roz Roseboro, of peerless analyst house Heavy Reading, reckons CORD is the future. “CORD, unlike many other projects that only address parts of the puzzle, offers a holistically-designed, fully-integrated, end-to-end solution ready for deployment. It’s a way for service providers to prove that this whole new architecture and process can work.

“Heavy Reading forecasts that the majority of CSPs will use CORD by 2020 to at least some degree, and nearly 40% of all end-customers (residential, wireless and enterprise, collectively) will have service provided by COs or their equivalents using CORD by mid-2021. We expect CORD will enable service providers to more effectively compete with web-scale operators while speeding network automation and innovation.”

The ONF has also taken this opportunity to make a few other organizational announcements. Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T LABS and CTO, has been elected as chair of the ONF Board, AT&T having been a founding member of ON.Lab. In addition, Turk Telekom is also joining the partner as a partner member and lastly there have been more membership layers added to reflect the ONF’s renewed focus on embracing the open source community.