Editor’s Corner—AI, open source, white boxes and vendor openness dominated ONS 2018’s headlines

Sean Buckley

The Open Network Summit 2018 may have come and gone, but the trends that emerged during that show will continue to resonate with service providers and their vendor partners throughout 2018 and beyond.

We thought it would be a good time to take a quick look back at the key trends FierceTelecom observed at this emerging technology event.

With the movement to software and virtualization being top of mind for service providers, a core message at the show was to create an environment that incites collaboration and clarity.

Generally speaking, we identified five trends that surfaced during the ONS 2018 show:

Open source realities 

Open source took center stage at ONS 2018 with promises of more flexible architectures and interoperable vendor platforms. However, the reality of open source is that service providers will have to weigh what method best fits their needs. With various open source projects having emerged in recent years, the question is: What’s ready to be deployed in a live service provider network and what isn’t?

At the same time, the other question is could a proprietary solution be a better fit? The reality of open source platforms is that implementation comes with a fairly high financial cost, according to Dan Pitt, SVP of MEF.

“These things require upkeep and maintenance that’s not always free and never easy,” Pitt told FierceTelecom.

Service providers taking charge

Cost is only one equation that service providers need to weigh as they virtualize their networks. A growing group of service providers and industry groups like the Open Network Forum (ONF) have taken matters into their own hands to create open platforms and specifications, citing frustration with the lack of movement by vendors.

Several carriers have joined ONF, including AT&T, China Unicom, Comcast, Google, Deutsche Telekom, NTT Group, Telefonica and Turk Telecom. They recently announced a strategic plan for the ONF to move open source, next-generation SDN solutions into production mode.

These service providers created what they call Reference Designs (RDs) to serve as “gold standards” for combining component projects into common platforms upon which operators will build solutions. Each RD will be championed by a select group of operators and will be designed to serve as a blueprint for the industry.

Guru Parulkar, executive director of ONF and ON.Lab, said that vendors have not really done much to fuel the open platforms service providers want.

“We had hoped as we have gone through the technology disruption incumbent OEMs would step up and lead this transformation into the mainstream, but what has happened is none of the incumbent OEMs have stepped up,” Parulkar told FierceTelecom. “We have taken charge and don’t want to be looking around for OEMs so we will contribute resources and redevelop our supply chain. This is really a defining moment for this industry that operators are stepping up to drive it themselves.”  

Well, Cisco appears to be listening to ONF and the service providers' desires. The routing giant announced during ONS that it will disaggregate its IOS XR operating system. While it did not acknowledge the ONF group or any operators specifically, the move likely came in response to a call from its service provider customers that have expressed a desire to have their vendor partners offer production-ready, open source, next-generation SDN solutions.

Open source releases

Amidst the debates around open source platforms, it’s clear that large companies are keen to drive homegrown platforms into the open source community. AT&T, CenturyLink and Juniper certainly led these efforts at this year’s ONS show.

AT&T was the most aggressive, contributing two of its key elements into open source via the Linux foundation: DANOS and Akraino. Disaggregated Network Operating System (DANOS), which builds off AT&T’s Open Architecture for a Disaggregated Network Operating System (dNOS) concept, separates the operation of the router’s “Network Operating System” software from its underlying hardware (router chassis, routing controller and forwarding line-cards). Leveraging seed code from AT&T, Akraino is focused on developing commercial applications for virtual machines. It is also designed to allow scaling of edge services and can complement ONAP.

But CenturyLink and Juniper also made notable releases into the open source community: CenturyLink has put plans in place to release its NFVi architecture process into open source. A Light Reading report revealed that CenturyLink has taken some service logic out of an ONAP module and repackaged it as part of its NFV orchestration process, which it has dubbed Victor. The telco now plans to release that into open source.

Juniper, meanwhile, has released its Open Contrail platform into open source via the Linux Foundation, a concept now known as Tungsten Fabric. Integrated with many cloud technology stacks, including Kubernetes, Mesos, VMware and OpenStack, Tungsten Fabric provides a single point of control, observability and analytics for networking and security.

Accelerating white boxes

White boxes may still be a nascent concept, but when AT&T makes a bold announcement to the concept, it shows that the idea is gaining momentum. Just as ONS kicked off, the service provider said it would install 60,000 white boxes in its cell towers “over the next several years.”

Andre Feutsch, president of AT&T Labs and CTO for AT&T, said that the adoption of white boxes “means faster hardware upgrades, since anyone can build to these specifications. AT&T has taken a similar approach for its optical network with OpenROADM as well as its FlexWare platform. FlexWare—which is part of the carrier’s Network on Demand platform—allows its enterprise customers to set up multiple virtual network functions, such as a router and a firewall, on a single FlexWare device. 

AT&T is hardly alone in its white box desires. Verizon has devised a similar approach for business services with its universal CPE (uCPE) concept. Leveraging platforms from Adva and other vendors, Verizon’s uCPE solution enables customers to more rapidly scale and provision new services such as security services and private networking services.

What’s different about these uCPE solutions is that unlike an appliance, which is tied to one service, the open software service model leverages servers that could be used at other sites or for other services like IP VPN or firewall.

AI gets love

Artificial Intelligence (AI), a concept that focuses on the study of "intelligent agents or any device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of successfully achieving its goals," gained attention during ONS 2018. As an effort to support service providers and vendors implementing an AI strategy, the Linux Foundation introduced the LF Deep Learning Foundation, an organization focused on open source in AI, machines and deep learning.

Alongside the LF Foundation, the Linux Foundation also introduced the Acumos AI project. Leveraging initial work conducted by AT&T and Tech Mahrinda, Acumos AI is designed to discover and share AI workflows.

Laurie Bigler, AVP of access architecture and analytics wireless network architecture and design for AT&T, said during a panel at ONS 2018 that AI could be a useful tool to better handle and optimize its wireless spectrum with more automated processes for upcoming 5G wireless networks, for example.

“A lot of the tuning we have to do today in our wireless network requires a lot of manual processes,” Bigler said. “With AI and machine learning, we see an opportunity to optimize for antenna tilts and power, which becomes really critical to understand not only dropped calls but also the SLA requirements.”

ONS has certainly set the pace for openness in a service provider segment that has been has been going through what is arguably a dramatic evolution. The themes laid out at this show will likely continue to evolve throughout the year as service providers move forward with their virtualization plans. - Sean | @FierceTelecom