9 initiatives that revealed
the power of openness to CSPs
Openness is a key driver of CSP innovation. But which initiative has had the most impact? Here are nine that have transformed the whole industry - or will in the future.
Openness is not a word that has historically been associated with the telecoms industry. Traditionally, CSPs have run closed, proprietary networks and limited, invitation-only partner ecosystems - the legacy of nearly 150 years of history and heavy government regulation.
But in recent years, as we explored in our previous article ‘Crack innovation in telecoms’ we’ve seen the industry start to embrace open principles across multiple dimensions, from open interfaces to open ecosystems. The aim is to enable faster and more market-responsive innovation and drive sustainable business growth in a hyper-connected world.
What does openness look like in the telecoms industry?
CSPs recognize that the industry needs to be more open, even if not everyone agrees on how critical openness is to the industry’s future. And when we asked people from across our organization - engineers, business unit heads, product owners - to name the openness initiative they feel has had the most transformative impact on the industry, the answers they gave were incredibly varied.
For example, some cited the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), built by CSPs and vendors from across the industry. As a ready-made automation platform for 5G networks, ONAP frees developers to focus on building innovative operations, use cases or services on top of the network, rather than having to build core plumbing functions from scratch.
ONAP definitely scores points for open collaboration and the ability to support faster innovation. But has it had the biggest impact overall? Or should that accolade go wider - to Linux, the “wunderkind” of all open source initiatives - or to Android, the Linux distribution that democratized the smartphone - and the app store - for billions of people around the world?
Perhaps it shouldn’t go to an open source software initiative at all, but to one of the many standardization organizations - from ITU and IETF to ETSI and GSMA - that enable open collaboration in the industry. Or maybe to a technology paradigm change, like cloud or blockchain technology, which have paved the way for new services, new business models, and new ecosystems.
9 openness initiatives driving innovation in the telecoms industry
In truth, there’s no single initiative that has had the most impact in terms of opening up the industry and driving game-changing innovation. But after much discussion, we’ve chosen 9 we believe have either had a truly transformative impact on the telecoms industry or look set to do so in the future.
You may disagree with our choices, but together, they show how far the industry has come on its openness transformation journey, and what exciting possibilities lie ahead. Click on the images to explore further.
The foundation of mobile communications
Beginning life in the 1980s as a local European initiative, the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard became a global success. In 2000, at the dawn of 3G, it was transferred to the newly formed 3G Partnership Program (3GPP). This open forum has set the base for the future evolution of mobile standards ever since.
By ensuring that mobile operators’ networks are standards-based and interoperable, 3GPP has laid the foundations for an explosion of global mobile communications innovation—from voice calling and SMS messaging to mobile video calling, social networking, augmented reality gaming and the Internet of Things.
It’s safe to say that without the open standard of GSM and the open forums of ETSI and 3GPP, the global smartphone revolution would never have taken off—a solid example of how openness drives innovation and just the start of what was to come.
Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
Open standards for an open internet
As the governance body for TCP/IP and other internet protocols, and the effective custodian of the internet, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has had a huge impact on the telecoms industry. IP, in particular, gave us a data transfer protocol based on best effort, paving the way for transformative over-the-top services from Voice over IP to real-time video streaming or gaming.
But the IETF didn’t just bring IP to the industry; it also brought an internet-age approach and an agile-style pace to the standardization process. The IETF created a forum where anyone can bring a prototype and propose it as a solution to a problem, rather than waiting years for a top-down industry body to define a new standard.
If it’s deemed valuable, the community works together on the solution until it’s robust enough to be adopted as a de facto or official standard—a great example of openness driving faster innovation for the industry.
OpenStack and Network Functions Virtualization
First step on the path to telco cloud
The decoupling of hardware and software in CSP networks created opportunities for new players—and existing ones—to develop innovative virtual network functions (VNFs) that take the whole industry forward. A strong accelerator of the shift to network functions virtualization (NFV) was OpenStack, the open-source cloud stack that enabled VNFs to be built and run in a private or public cloud.
Before OpenStack, there was massive debate in the industry about whether CSP networks would ever move to the cloud. With OpenStack, it was no longer a case of if, but when. Today, there are very few CSPs who don’t have at least some of their network running in the cloud.
While OpenStack has created operational advantages, its virtual machine-based architecture does have performance limitations. Despite this, its role in the journey to telco cloud cannot be overstated.
Kubernetes & Cloud-Native Computing Foundation
The shift to cloud native
While NFV and OpenStack first enabled the move to the cloud for telco networks, its virtual machine-based architecture meant CSPs couldn’t take full advantage of the performance and automation capabilities of cloud platforms. That’s all changing with the advent of cloud-native applications and container-based models, and at the heart of that shift is Kubernetes and the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF).
As the steward of Kubernetes, the open source container orchestration system, the CNCF enables software engineers across industries to collaborate on evolving Kubernetes into a manageable platform for cloud-native VNFs. Thanks to CNCF and Kubernetes, network functions can be fully re-architected for maximum scalability, agility and performance.
Today, Kubernetes is emerging as the de facto standard for cloud-native CSP networks, creating the foundation on which the high-performance, highly scalable networks of the future will be built.
Mobile app stores
A revolution in software distribution
Remember what mobile phones were capable of before app stores came along? If you were lucky, you’d get voice, SMS, voicemail and a few basic games. By opening up their platforms to third-party app developers, the smartphone OS vendors unleashed an extraordinary wave of innovation, transforming mobiles from handy communication devices into all-encompassing lifestyle enablers.
There’s plenty of debate to be had about how “open” the app store model is: developing for Android and developing for iOS are still two very different things, and the real power remains in the hands of the OS vendors.
But in terms of reach and ease of use, app stores completely revolutionized the way software is distributed and sold—with such success that it’s now the dominant software distribution model for PCs, TVs and other smart devices.
TMF Open Data Architecture / Open API
Toward an app store model
One of the next waves of innovation for CSPs will come from exposing network data and services to applications that can make valuable use of them. That can’t happen without a standard way of exposing data and services via APIs—and that’s where TM Forum’s Open Data Architecture (ODA) comes in.
ODA takes a community-based approach to defining the architectural standards that will connect CSP network and service layers to the business layer. While it’s still early days, it’s possible to see this as a foundation for a boost in service innovation.
Like mobile app stores, this could give developers of network-centric applications an open (or at least, easily accessible) distribution and monetization platform with worldwide reach, allowing for economies of scale in pricing. One to watch.
Open Compute Project
Open source comes to webscale hardware
The telco cloud needs hardware, and lots of it. But building data center infrastructure with proprietary hardware is expensive and inflexible. With every vendor’s hardware using different architectural principles, it’s hard to knit them together, so vendor lock-in is a real threat.
Enter the Open Compute Project (OCP), a collaborative forum that agrees to a set of open principles for building webscale data center hardware and publishes them: a sort of x86 for the webscale world. Anyone can use OCP principles to build hardware that’s flexible and interoperable. And with the community publishing open hardware specs, companies that need specialist kit may not even have to start from scratch.
Just like open source software, infrastructure that can be built faster and at a lower cost using open innovation paves the way for new, highly efficient cloud offerings.
The final frontier of network openness
The radio access network (RAN) was the last closed domain of the wireless network, considered “unopenable” due to the difficulty of separating its core components: radios, antennas, baseband units and the software that controls them.
The first steps toward openness were taken with Cloud RAN, a new architecture that allows the disaggregation of RAN software and hardware. Now, we have the O-RAN Alliance.
Further, a new intelligence layer based on the Radio Interface Controller (RIC) brings programmability to the RAN, enabling new, AI-powered VNFs, known as xApps, to be developed. A new ecosystem of innovators is springing up around the xApp opportunity, with use cases benefiting from near-real-time speed combined with programmability of sizable network clusters. Innovation in the newly opened RAN will be a hot area to watch.
A basis for new innovation ecosystems
Could the open distributed ledger of the blockchain create new opportunities for innovation in telecommunications? Certainly, there’s a huge market of unbanked people in developing countries for whom the smartphone could provide secure access to cryptocurrency-based financial services like mobile payments, peer-to-peer lending and seed funding.
More widely, blockchain could provide the trust and governance foundation that underpins a new kind of open B2B digital services ecosystem. If companies who don’t know each other want to use each other’s resources (like datasets and AI models) to build new digital services, blockchain can create a trusted environment to record the data use and handle the financial transactions between parties, allowing for trusted open ecosystems without a middleman.
That means new services can be built more easily, rolled out faster and monetized more effectively. It’s a bit early to tell how this will evolve, but it’s an intriguing model—and one we’re pioneering ourselves with Nokia Data Marketplace.