In a recent interview, Susan James, Red Hat’s senior director of telecommunications strategy, discussed Red Hat’s role in open source and its spirit of innovation.
SDxCentral: Service providers finally are beginning to embrace open source. Why do you think this is happening now?
Susan James: To a large extent, it’s a necessity for those service providers. If you look at their need to innovate and their desire to reposition themselves as they move forward, they really need to take advantage of web-scale economics. And if you look at where most of that technology is coming from, it’s in the open source community. For example, Google has open sourced Kubernetes and TensorFlow, which they use as their AI platform. Communities can evolve these technologies further to suit a broader need and innovate on top of them, and use them as a foundation. As a result, service providers and the whole industry get much faster access to innovation – and much broader range of innovation – than they would if they had to go back and completely design the full stack.
Most equipment providers used to do the hardware, the middleware platform, and the applications on top of that. Now they’re able to focus on just the applications, and doing those in the best possible way. So you’re seeing acceleration across the whole industry when open source is one of the components.
There was a terrific guest speaker on Day 3 of Red Hat Summit 2018—Chief Decision Scientist, Cassie Kozyrkov, at Google. She gave a great example of the importance of machine learning. She made the point that you don’t have to be able to design a microwave to be able to use it. That’s essentially what I’m trying to say. If you look at the applications that service providers need going forward, those developers don’t need to be able to build the full stack – they need to take advantage of the tools and bring those capabilities forward, they can take advantage of the foundation that’s there to bring new capabilities forward.
What are some open source benefits that telecom providers should understand?
You can summarize this in 6 words: innovation, inspiration, freedom, control, quality and security. It’s very much about innovation and the pace of innovation. But also, one of the great things I took away from Red Hat Summit 2018 was this: so many different industries are using the same technologies and innovating in different ways that it creates a huge community that you can access for inspiration. If you look at how United Parcel Service (UPS) is solving logistics problems in the last mile, service providers can take that work as inspiration and ask how they can solve some of these edge challenges they anticipate in the future. It also gives companies the freedom to say, “How can I use this technology today, understanding that I’m not tied to that specific technology going forward?” If you’re using proprietary technologies, it’s often very difficult to switch between different technology tracks, which means you have to try to predict whether your technology stack is going to address your future needs as well as your present ones.
On a more fundamental level, open source gives service providers more control. In the past, they could talk to Cisco or Nokia or Ericsson and say, “We want this capability in the infrastructure,” and those vendors might or might not add that technology to their roadmaps. Working in open source, if service providers really want to have certain capabilities, they have the ability to contribute them to the open source community, to make sure those capabilities are there. You see that happening with different service providers around the world, participating and contributing in many different open source projects.
Open source also gives providers better quality software and greater security. The saying is: the more eyes, the shallower the bugs. As far as things like fault detection, you have a much broader community of people working with the software and testing it, so the faults are found earlier. From a security perspective, if you want to know what the code is you can go in and have a look at the source code and see what’s there. That’s been a really interesting takeaway over the past year or so: Open source is actually seen as less of a security risk.
What are some of the challenges that service providers face when migrating to a more open environment?
Telecommunications has been based on open standards for years, but when we moved to using open source, we redrew some functional lines. That’s been one of the challenges: traditionally, applications could rely on the platform (e.g. duplicated hardware) to handle resiliency, availability, load balancing, etc. Now that we’re working from a virtualization layer, the applications have to take on more of those responsibilities. This impacts the way applications are developed, how load balancing is handled, how data is managed – a completely different way to solve problems. When applications are built in a cloud-native way, they know how to cope with failure, rather than relying on the underlying platform.
Of course, when you put that into operations, a new challenge arises because where/how you do troubleshooting has also changed. A large part of that challenge has been solved through experience, by understanding those things and bringing solutions back into OpenStack. If you look at the OpenStack development over the past two years, the bulk of it has centered around Day 2 operations. Introducing things like Ansible—which lets you automate operations, network provisioning, and business processes—has made a significant difference.
How can service providers avoid the fragmentation that can occur when moving to an open source model? How can they promote collaboration instead?
One thing service providers will do—and are doing—is to keep their end goal in mind, which is to advance the industry and serve their end customers better. When it comes to advancing the industry, operators have always worked together, as have the vendors That’s why they’ve worked together on standardization for years, because if they can agree upfront on what needs to be done, then they can all go do their individual parts to achieving it. There is an established foundation and an established way that the industry works together to achieve its goals, and there are numerous examples of that carrying forward in open source projects.
That’s a large reason why organizations like Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV) are founded, so that we can understand from a service provider perspective what needs to be done and then advance that knowledge through open source projects. Companies like Ericsson, Nokia, Intel, Amdocs and Cisco have been doing these sorts of things in collaboration with service providers for a long time. One recent example is the foundation of Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), where they’re starting to look at how we accelerate the improvements in operational efficiency to—again—serve end users and gain the economies of scale I mentioned earlier.
5G is top of mind for most telecom service providers. What role will open source play in the 5G ecosystem?
Well, we’ll be there! I mean, the 5G platform infrastructure will be based on open source—whether those workloads will be deployed using containers and virtualization, using platforms like Red Hat OpenShift Container Platform and Red Hat OpenStack Platform. It will really depend on the types of workloads they want to run and where they want to run them. But more importantly, not just at the infrastructure layer, the applications that are used to address Internet of Things (IoT) will be based Linux and open source infrastructure, and open source APIs, again so that they can tap into that larger community of innovation. So it will happen at many different layers, but pretty much across the board, most of the applications will be using open source one way or another.
Mobile edge computing (MEC) is another area that is gaining a lot of traction with service providers. What role does open source play in MEC?
It’s similar to the 5G question. Of course, the infrastructure will be based on open source infrastructure, and it will be potentially based on OpenStack. But if you look at MEC, it is actually a collaboration of network equipment providers, open source companies like Red Hat, standardization boards like ETSI and service providers all working together in those communities to define what it will look like. It’s been a change from doing just standardization to more actual collaboration in the open source communities, and then going back to the standardization process to define what those interfaces should look like.
Ian Hood, our Chief Technologist for Global Service Providers, had a very good session at OpenStack Summit 2018 in Vancouver that went into the details of how 5G and MEC will evolve.
The whole open source movement is becoming far more prevalent in many industries – not just telecommunications – when it comes to how a company innovates. The importance of technology leadership and engaging with partners who can guide you in that journey is extremely important. It’s vital that you work in that ecosystem of network equipment providers, application providers and integrators, in the interest of supporting the whole community, because that’s the source of innovation and the direction of how things will evolve.
To hear more from Susan James and Red Hat top technologists on open source innovation in the telecom industry, please watch the on-demand webinar series The Future of Telecommunications Is Open – Red Hat Summit 2018 Highlights.