Network virtualization is a culture shock. We need to get over it.
Can you get past the huge culture shock open source is introducing?
Much has been written about the technological change, financial benefits and increased agility that NFV/SDN technology will bring to telecoms networks. But behind the glossy shopfront of virtualization lurks a subject few commentators have dared to broach.
For a very monolithic sector like telecoms, virtualization is a huge culture shock – one so major that it could become a serious roadblock to the technology’s success.
We need to get over it – and quickly.
The only constant is change
When Cloud computing and data center companies started to adopt virtualization, theirs was a young sector with little technological baggage. With more than a hundred years of history and decades’ worth of legacy infrastructure to consider, the telecoms sector faces a much bigger challenge.
Casting aside the technological implications of moving from hardware to software, there is a significant cultural component to consider.
Looking at it from the point of view of service providers, telecoms has a history of operating in silos: network operations, IT, and service creation have all been distinct functions with limited crossover. With the advent of NFV/SDN, the once solid boundaries between these functions are starting to crumble. The resulting changes and overlapping of roles and responsibilities have created uneasiness among staff which is not helped by the lack of a firm vision of what the future telecoms landscape will look like.
The cultural impact of NFV/SDN only adds to the substantial practical challenges that come with operating a ‘cloud’ rather than a physical network, including aligning and retraining large swathes of the workforce. Taken together, these concerns have led to delays in adopting NFV/SDN technology and may explain why many operators have settled for partial deployments rather than committing fully.
Such a halfway house may feel more comfortable culturally, but it will not enable service providers to reap the full benefits of virtualization.
Embracing the sharing culture
For vendors, the move towards open source standardization – again pioneered by the Cloud community – adds another level of complexity and unease.
Where ringfenced intellectual property used to be their main source of differentiation – and income – vendors are now being asked to share code with customers and competitors alike.
What’s more, the way vendors develop, package and sell products will have to change substantially as a result of working in an open source setting. Instead of focusing on proprietary products, there needs to be a stronger emphasis on creating new services but also on integrating and customizing third-party applications, for example. Similarly, vendor ‘lock-in’ will become a thing of the past. Operators will no longer be tied to vendors eternally and will be able to swap between different vendors’ solutions in their network, further affecting individual suppliers’ revenues.
For network equipment manufacturers, this will be a particularly bitter pill to swallow as it will only aggravate the impact of virtualization on their hardware sales.
The fact that open source is so new to telecoms – it is still looking for direction rather than presenting a solid roadmap – further adds to the feeling of being in limbo among the vendor community.
Don’t cut off the branch you’re sitting on
It is easy to understand why both service providers and their suppliers struggle with these fundamental changes to the inner workings of the telecoms sector.
But burying our heads in the sand and hoping it will go away won’t get us anywhere. Legacy infrastructure, processes and strategies won’t keep up with the demands of an increasingly digitalized world. NFV/SDN and open source are the best approaches to meet these demands, and we need to get over our misgivings and embrace them.
As an industry, we must not cut off the branch we are sitting on but collaborate to develop this new market. Only then can we ensure that it becomes big enough for us all to get a viable slice of the pie.
We should view open source as a way of offloading some of the mundane aspects of our work – standardization for one – to free up time for more productive activities, not least of which is service creation. We also need to realise that open source means ‘collaboration’ but it does not mean ‘free.’ There will still be plenty of opportunities to develop differentiated products and carve out competitive advantage.
In particular, there is a major opening for smaller companies to enter the fray – companies that operators would have ruled out previously simply due to their size and maturity.
In the past, selecting a supplier for a critical piece of hardware was a risky business. Operators needed to play it safe and minimize risks by working with large, proven players. With NFV/SDN, this risk is much reduced because each system is just one of many pieces of software.
Virtualization has the potential to open many new doors for our sector, speed up innovation and make it thrive again. We should not let fear of change hold us back.
This blog is part of our ONAP Insider series, which takes you behind the scenes, offering a more in-depth look at the workings of ONAP, how it is changing business models, simplifying network design and untapping new business opportunities for service providers, content developers and end-users. Go to ONAP Insider.