When Linux first became a serious challenger for enterprise-class infrastructure, traditional IT vendors had to contend and to rationalize just what exactly this open source thing was. The initial response from many vendors was to attempt to stop it, but it only grew.
And as open source grew, many mostly younger businesses learned to leverage it for great commercial success; however the titans of the previous era have had challenges adapting their business models to embrace open source successfully.
My experience last week at NFV World Congress showed clear indication that both suppliers and users are finding ways to embrace open source and rationalize how, rather than being a threat, open is the solution both to stemming the bleeding from the limitations of legacy business models and to unlock the gateway to new opportunity.
NFV (Network Function Virtualization) represents the move by telecommunications carriers to implement significant innovations in how they operate their networks and deliver new services. It is really more than a simple evolution, there is an energy around NFV that is hard to describe, it really feels more like a rebirth. It is remarkable to see an industry of the size and maturity of telecom come alive with such a youthful energy.
At the very core of the industry's optimism is open source. While there has been no shortage of commercial vendors attempting to put forth vertically integrated solutions, a near-unanimous refrain of the largest carriers have demanded that vendors change and embrace open technologies. Many vendors who had seen open source as a threat to commercial viability are now seeing how they can leverage it to create new opportunities that far exceed the possibilities of the closed paradigms of the past.
While both vendors and carriers have come to appreciate the possibilities of open source, the industry still needs a functional model for the governance of open source that finds a happy medium between vendors and users and delivers the quality and reliability needed in commercial and mission critical applications. From all indications at NFV World Congress, the model leveraged by open source initiatives like OPNFV, OpenStack and OpenDaylight are seen with great promise and while new are already demonstrating great prowess in tackling this challenge.
Both OPNFV and OpenDaylight have directly taken on one of the most divisive and challenging issues with open source - finding the ideal balance between vendors and users. Marc Cohn, the Market Area Director for the Open Networking Foundation provided a great summary of the industry's evolving approach to open models:
As shown on the slide, the industry's approach to open technologies began with open standards, which while incredibly important only get us part of the way there, particularly in light of the internet where everything must be interconnected via standard protocols. It makes little sense to create a human language description of a protocol, only to then have each vendor make their own attempts in isolation at implementing the standard.
Open source adds an important element to this dynamic by providing a working implementation of a solution where the code is visible and testable by all - yet there is absolutely nothing inherent in open source to ensure fairness in control and governance. This has resulted in many open source projects that suffer from favoritism, vendor dominance or a lack of transparency and equality. Cohn addressed this point, noting that "If there is one vendor driving the open source project then it is not open by the ONF's definition."
This is where the new Open Reference Platforms come in - new initiatives like OPNFV and OpenDaylight aim to be different from other open source initiatives and provide a neutral reference platform for the industry. These were created specifically with the intent of not just building software, but also creating a model for optimal alignment between vendor and user interests expressed through software.
First, the Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV) is a new open source Initiative backed by the Linux Foundation that seeks to solve some of the key challenges still common in open source. The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has provided a framework describing the components and interfaces needed in a standards-based NFV deployment, but this architecture only provides an outline, not a functional software stack. While the ETSI model was designed with OpenStack in mind, there is still too much variance in how OpenStack is implemented resulting in wildly varying success among both carriers and vendors in their attempts to implement this model.
OPNFV seeks to meet ETSI's standard NFV framework with a functional implementation leveraging key open source software including OpenStack and OpenDaylight. This is being received by both vendors and carriers as a very positive development - not one that encroaches on their ability to profit but rather one that will hammer out the core functionality of the system encouraging customer investment while freeing vendors to focus on key value-added solutions and services.
OpenDaylight, another new open source initiative backed by the Linux Foundation, also had an extremely strong showing. While OPNFV seeks to bring together open source software that includes server, storage and networking technologies, OpenDaylight is focused on creating an industry-standard controller for software-defined networking. In addition to delivering the networking capabilities for the OPNFV demonstrations at the show, OpenDaylight featured numerous demonstrations of key NFV use cases. Like OPNFV, this initiative seemed equally popular among both vendors and carriers who both need these technologies to reach a mature-enough point for broad adoption.
While I feel somewhat idealistic and perhaps naive in my optimism, NFV really feels different, like it really will accomplish its lofty goals. This is not the result of magic but rather is the culmination of building on the lessons of the past, both from the pain points of legacy models and borrowing from successful open source projects such as Linux that manages to elegantly balance its free and open nature while also being the foundation for more commercial technology successes than any other software in existence.
The simple reality is that every piece of the value chain from vendor to carrier to end-user have all become enamored by the possibilities of new technologies. Historical adoption curves for new technologies are well documented and it is has always been the case that the market grows very slowly until it reaches a point of relative maturity, and once that is reached the market explodes in size and becomes a much more attractive target for commercial investment and produces stable consumption targets for consumers, balanced by competition.
Perhaps more than anything else, the budding NFV movement benefits from timing; it has been a long road for the community to rationalize how to adapt and thrive with open source, and this timing has met elegantly with the birth of NFV, bringing together a perfect storm of willing vendors, eager consumers and elegant new governance models providing optimal checks, balances and a transparent collaborative framework to drive the industry forward.