Marek’s Take: Why open source communities are critical to operators

Marek's take

It’s no secret that AT&T is a big champion of the open source community. CEO John Donovan first started talking about the company’s open source efforts back in 2016 when he declared that AT&T was transforming into a software company.

Flash forward to 2019, and we are seeing other wireless operators around the globe follow a similar path by becoming involved in open source communities and talking about virtualizing parts of their network.

In my last Marek’s Take column, I noted that Dish Network, which hopes to become the United States’ fourth wireless carrier once T-Mobile’s $26.5 billion acquisition of Sprint is finalized, doesn’t have much of a presence in the open source community. I concluded that this absence will be a disadvantage for the company, particularly when it comes to building its greenfield 5G virtualized network.

A few readers disagreed with my conclusion, and said that Dish doesn’t really need to be a part of open source projects and instead can rely on its vendors to bring that expertise to the table.

I decided to explore that theory a bit more and found that other operators (even AT&T) had tried that strategy and found (not surprisingly) that relying solely on the expertise of vendors often leaves you in the dark about certain things.

“If you don’t participate in open source your voice doesn’t get heard,” says Chris Rice, senior VP of network cloud and infrastructure at AT&T. “Part of [the reason for] joining the community is so you can understand why a decision is better, and what it means for your business. If you don’t, you may not be as informed as a consumer when you buy from vendors. It’s important to understand their bias.”

Rice added that AT&T’s original motive for exploring open source was that it wanted to bring some of the efficiencies and advantages of data center networking to the wide area network. AT&T had watched as the big cloud firms like Amazon and Google used open source and software-defined networking (SDN) to automate their networks and grow quickly. Initially, the company looked to vendors for this type of innovation. “We found that there were people that did pockets of this but no one had a complete solution,” Rice said.

The company then turned to open source because it allowed them to collaborate not just with vendors but also other operators and software developers. “Open source allowed us to align the market around how to bring these SDN and data center innovations to the wide area network,” Rice said.

Interestingly, Rice noted that he believes open source is now helping to drive standards, which have always been fundamental to the wireless industry. Rice even described the relationship between standards and open source as symbiotic.

“Standards are a direction,” he said. “But, standards take time. And, if you are a developer these options mean complexity.”

Open source locks down standards in code and makes sure it is interoperable, Rice said. “That’s why it’s symbiotic. Standards are options but they come together because they are built on one another.”

And, similar to standards bodies, where delegates work side-by-side with competitors to develop global specifications, the same occurs in open source groups.

Sharing expertise among operators is becoming much more common than in the past when carriers wanted to keep a lid on their networking techniques and troubles to keep competitors at bay. Not only does sharing information help operators learn from each other, it also can equate to cost savings because companies can share the R&D costs instead of duplicating efforts. That leaves more R&D funds for operators to spend on services that might help them differentiate from the competition.

“Get common stuff cheaper but spend the other dollars on how to deploy it faster, or to better serve customers,” Rice said. “That is your differentiator.”