Why an open culture is critical to telecom industry innovation
A conversation with Ron Haberman, CTO, Nokia Cloud and Network Services
As part of our interview series exploring the four dimensions of openness driving telecom innovation, Nokia’s Solutions Lead for Cross-Portfolio Marketing Stefan Kindt spoke to Ron Haberman, CTO of Nokia's Cloud and Network Services (CNS) division.
Ron and Stefan discuss the benefits – and challenges – of moving to an open culture within the Nokia organization, and take a look at the future of the network as a service in the public cloud.
CTO, Cloud and Network Services, Nokia
Solutions Lead, Cross Portfolio Marketing,
STEFAN KINDT: Ron, can you describe your organization’s role at Nokia?
RON HABERMAN: We provide the platform and services for open innovation across Nokia. As part of this we provide enabling solutions for the other business groups within CNS, through our Common Software Foundation (CSF). Engineers in individual business groups can get all of their non-functional technology from CSF, leaving them free to focus on the problem statement of what their particular product should solve.
SK: What does openness mean for you, and how important is it for the solutions you provide to the rest of the organization?
RH: Openness is a guiding principle in everything we do: from our development process to the pieces we contribute into the product organizations and the solutions we deliver to the marketplace.
On the development side, CSF was designed specifically to adopt solutions from – and contribute solutions to – the leading open source communities in a given domain. When we started, we had eight domains and a dozen components. Now we have 12 domains and 62 components. And nearly all of them come from open source communities in which we're actively participating.
We’ve also put a lot of effort into achieving internal openness across our own software engineering teams. My organization has led the way in creating an API-first approach, where we design APIs and publish them ahead of implementation. That contributes greatly to velocity: teams don’t need to wait for a full release, they can start the integration much earlier.
And as we connect to the outside world and into an open ecosystem, we’re trying to keep that set of interfaces as stable as possible, so organizations that choose to work with us don’t have to keep going back into integration and testing with us.
SK: At Nokia we talk about four dimensions of openness: open forums, open interfaces, open ecosystems, and an open culture. Do you think any of them are more important to drive innovation?
RH: My view will change depending on the time of day! I think it starts with open forums, but only because it’s a chain reaction from there. Open forums usually drive the need for open interfaces, which are needed to build an open ecosystem. And for efficiency, we need an internal culture that accepts open source – and inner source – as a system.
SK: Nokia and the telecom industry have traditionally quite ingrained ways of working. The idea of working in communities, using open source, providing open APIs, is a major change. What barriers did you have to overcome to get everyone working with this open mindset?
RH: As an organization that was used to building everything ourselves, we had a hard time at first understanding what an open source development model meant in practice. It was very difficult to hold back the eagerness to add and fix things outside of the community.
Engineers who had been very focused on how to build the best code suddenly had to ‘sell’ their proposals to the community. At the start it was a difficult task to get people to want to participate in that type of environment.
SK: Did you have to adapt your KPIs and rewards structure to get developers to participate in the community – and if so, which approaches have worked best?
RH: In terms of KPIs, I recently had the pleasure of open sourcing a component from scratch. We wanted to encourage community collaboration, so we defined what I thought was an interesting KPI: within two years, our contribution to the asset should be at most 50%. That meant our engineers had to convince external engineers to take an interest in the asset and to contribute new code.
We didn't get to 50% in two years, but we did get to under 70%, which was a huge achievement in terms of getting people involved in the open community, as opposed to just trying to solve an issue in front of them at Nokia.
In terms of rewards, I think you need multiple levels. There are KPI-oriented rewards where you’re specifically rewarded for contributing. There’s also personal reward in seeing something you’ve contributed get a lot of use. Then there’s project-oriented reward, where your contribution not only progresses your own project, but also helps other units. We're trying to create traction in all three dimensions to get internal openness to pick up better.
SK: In your experience, have open APIs also helped to stimulate collaboration in the telecom space?
RH: The industry has been making a transition – or augmentation – from relying purely on standards for interoperability, towards doing a lot more in open environments and with open source.
When we deliver a Nokia solution to a customer, of course they care about the relationship between the different components. But they mostly care about how the solution interfaces with the outside world. Providing a set of interfaces for easy integration makes the entire project more seamless.
We have customers now who say: we’ve selected you for x and somebody else for y, and we’d like you both to agree on the principles of the integration so we can run the project in parallel. This has happened enough times to convince me it will become a new way of working – as opposed to first the vendor selection and then the systems integration, with every release having to be integrated from scratch.
SK: How do you think that collaboration between different external parties needs to evolve?
RH: My goal is to get closer to how modern development is done. Take Uber: the average user doesn’t care that the mapping is Google Maps, the solution is running in AWS, and there’s a third-party service for calling the driver. It’s all stitched together in a way that’s transparent to the user.
I envision a similar scenario for Nokia capabilities and public cloud capabilities.
SK: In that context, what is the relevance of the Nokia Common Software Foundation (CSF) being available on public cloud platforms like AWS, GCP, and others?
RH: If the public cloud providers build some of our CSF capabilities into their offering, we will obviously make use of it. We're getting closer to that by the day.
And since our ambition is to make everything available as a service, it’s also a question of optimizing our own development into these public cloud environments. 2021 will be a key year for that transformation.
Particularly if we look at enterprise, especially the industrial segment, openness is assumed in the way 5G and private wireless are coming into the picture. As CSFP becomes available on platforms like Azure or AWS, enterprises can make direct use of the communication capabilities and integrate into their applications. Our CSP customers want this too. If they have invested in a public cloud platform, they want us to bring our communication capabilities into that environment.
SK: Do you have any KPIs to measure any of this?
RON: We track adoption of our components. Over 80% of our go-forward products include CSF components, and the most-used components are in 40+ products. The least-used are only in around five – but even five products means they’re still important enough to keep as shared components.
We also measure the speed at which we deliver into third-party environments. The first one took several months. The second one, using Common Software Foundation Platform (CSFP) and containerization, has been as fast as two weeks.
We don’t measure innovation speed in great degree yet. But we do see improvement as we adopt different methodologies and delivery mechanisms. In the past, upgrading a single component was measured in months. Now it can be measured in weeks, and the goal is to be able to do it in days.
SK: Finally, on a scale on a scale of 1-10, how important is openness for driving innovation, particularly in terms of the upcoming technology evolutions with 5G, IoT and Industry 4.0?
RH: I would rank it 8, but tracking upwards. In the very short term, it’s critical in terms of the path to cloud-native and being able to deliver the building blocks of 5G. And it's tracking upwards because the value of 5G will come from enterprising use cases that will be invented in an ecosystem environment. As we get closer to delivering 5G with all the bells and whistles – full slicing, orchestration, closed loop operations – that will become the focus of the industry.
At that point, if we aren’t API-led, if we aren’t available for consumption in all different platforms, if we aren’t pervasive enough in how we interface with third parties, we will be too slow to combat the broader industry. Especially as we progress further into the IT space, where the pace is much more rapid and where innovation as a whole has a greater dependence on openness.
SK: Ron, thank you very much for your time and your insights.