AT&T’s Donovan defends operator’s embrace of open source software

AUSTIN—AT&T’s John Donovan said that the operator’s move toward open source software will allow it to more quickly develop new products and react to changing market conditions.

“It really doesn’t have a downside,” Donovan said of the proliferation of open source software in the telecom industry. He explained that operators can either choose to simply obtain open source solutions for free through open source groups, or they can opt to participate in open source communities by designing and building solutions.

AT&T itself has employed the latter strategy through its ECOMP platform. The carrier developed the platform as a kind of operating system for its move to software-defined networking (SDN), and last year the operator delivered that platform to the open source Linux Foundation, thus freeing it for others to use. Since then, the Linux Foundation has merged its own open source networking project, dubbed Open-O, with ECOMP to form the new ONAP offering. Already, operator Orange is evaluating the ONAP platform for use in its own network.

Because ONAP is available through the Linux Foundation, Donovan said that AT&T “is not trying to sell you something that’s free.”

Donovan explained that, to develop ECOMP and AT&T’s open source efforts, the carrier had to step back from the telecom industry’s general, standards-based approach to network development, which he said often involves “hot tub parties for every decision.” Instead, he said, AT&T decided to work on its platform largely by itself. As a result, Donovan said AT&T evolved from a “professional shopper” of infrastructure products from vendors, to an integrator, to, eventually, a software architect.

Here at the Big Communications Event show, Donovan said AT&T will continue along the open source path. He reiterated comments he made earlier this year that AT&T now uses open source software in 10% of its operations, up from 5% last year. He said the operator plans to use open source software in fully 50% of its in-production code by 2020.

Donovan’s comments on open source are noteworthy considering some in the telecom industry are becoming increasingly wary of the use of open source software and communities. Some vendors and carriers have expressed frustration at the use of open source software in an industry that has traditionally relied on interoperable systems jointly developed inside industry-approved standards organizations.

“I don’t think there is a lot of organizational courage in our industry,” Donovan said, noting that few telecom operators and vendors have been willing to conduct wide-scale deployments of open source software. He said telecom players should take a Silicon Valley approach to product development by, in part, being willing to work alone and to take the risk of being wrong.