Last week I had the pleasure of being a panelist at Intel’s Network Builders event. The topic of the panel was “Building an ecosystem around open platforms for NFV”. But the discussion covered more than the ecosystem aspect and went further to analyze what it means to be open, why it is important for NFV and SDN, the role of standards and open-source solutions and what the industry should do to promote a multi-vendor and open ecosystem. Here are some of observations based on the discussions and audience questions:
- An open platform is a system, which is based on open standards such as published and fully documented external APIs that allow using the system or software to function in other ways than the original programmer intended, without requiring modification of the source code. Using these APIs, a third party could integrate with the platform to add functionality. An open platform does not mean it is open source. An open platform can consist of software components or modules that are either commercial or open source or both. One of the many advantages of open source is that open source often becomes de facto standard! Initiatives such as OpenStack on the cloud management side and Open DayLight on the open source SDN controller side will likely play a key role in SDN and NFV. Having said that, simply using or including these components in a commercial solution does not suggest that the end product is open or interoperable.
- A truly open system that operators should deploy should take a layered approach that consists of hierarchical and multiple controllers relying on open source components such as OpenStack or OpenDayLight via direct API calls instead of wrapping these open source components within proprietary code. Essentially, these open source components should be decoupled from the proprietary code so that they can be updated frequently as the open source community delivers new releases.
- There are degrees of openness. If I were to put a checklist to assess a vendor, it would look something like this:
- Standards compliance - does the product conform to relevant industry standards?
- Platform independence - is the technology stack portable across different platforms?
- Open API - is the API that will be used open in the sense that it can be freely implemented by anyone? This is critical for interoperability, vendor independence and the success of NFV becoming mainstream.
- Record of good behavior - does the vendor have a good track record that of demonstrated multi-vendor interoperability and collaboration?
- Operators are understandably overwhelmed with the amount of choice they are facing as solutions targeting SDN and NFV applications from various traditional vendors as well as a slew of newcomers have proliferated the landscape. Many operators are cautious and do not want to jump into NFV as they worry that they may pick the wrong solution that is not interoperable, leading to another vendor lock-in but this time in the virtualized world. However, the operators have the power to insist on the openness compliance that I just articulated. The fear of being cut-off from the supply chain will force many vendors to embrace and use open-source components that become standards and open APIs for plug-n-play interoperability with other vendors that the field of IT has enjoyed for years. This interoperability means that regardless of the initial set of vendors they choose, operators can easily replace some of the parts with alternatives should they decide their initial solution or vendors do not completely satisfy their needs, thus lowering the barriers to operationalizing NFV.
Properly implemented SDN helps operators quickly provision services and better manage their networks whereas NFV helps control OpEx costs and quickly roll out new services, thereby creating new avenues for revenue. So what does the industry need to do to promote the creation and use of open platforms and accelerate the adoption of SDN and NFV? Many innovative vendors are providing solutions and are working with 3rd party consortiums such as ETSI and various open source communities to ensure interoperable, comparable and plug-n-play architectures.
I am in the opinion many non-traditional vendors are actively working toward this goal. As we rapidly transition from an archaic, proprietary hardware based networking world to a new world that promises IT-like infrastructure it is important to not let the traditional TEMs hijack the path that promises interoperability between ISVs, VNFs, virtualization and hardware platforms. We are not there yet, but we will be soon and operators should insist on having open, standards based solutions to accelerate the inevitable. The operators are key to this successful transformation and should signal back to the vendor community that an open and multi vendor architecture is the preferred method by voting with their wallets.