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Telecom operators and vendors push for open source NFV

Rival telecom operators and infrastructure vendors lay down their swords to collaborate in an open source NFV consortium that will develop standards for productizing interoperable technology.

An influential group of telecom operators and infrastructure vendors have formed an open source consortium to bring network functions virtualization (NFV) to life more quickly.

The Open Platform for NFV Project (OPNFV) was founded through the Linux Foundation by more than two dozen operators and vendors, including AT&T, China Mobile, Telecom Italia, Cisco, Juniper, Huawei, Brocade and HP.

Through an open source, peer review process, OPNFV will develop a reference architecture that can be used to swiftly productize NFV technology. A product that is developed on a shared reference set is more likely to be interoperable and work in multivendor environments.

The project is basically the OpenDaylight of the NFV world. It brings together fierce competitors who must share development information for the sake of productizing technology. Telecom operators are notoriously protective of their network secret sauce since they often make their revenues from "hand-crafted" service-specific infrastructure, said Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at 451 Research.

But communications service providers (CSPs) need NFV to help them deploy new services that can compensate for revenue streams that are being cannibalized by over-the-top services, such as IP voice and video, as well as pricing wars. NFV allows for flexible provisioning of new and unique services -- referred to as service agility or service chaining, said Hanselman.

With virtual functions and orchestration, operators can get new services to market in a matter of days instead of months.

"We were approached by a group of operators who said, 'We've got this thing we want to do with NFV, and we heard open source can accelerate that movement. Tell us more," said Jim Zemlin, executive director at The Linux Foundation, which also hosts the OpenDaylight project. "For the sake of expediency and for the case of interoperability, nobody wants to create the underlying infrastructure on their own."

Even with products built on a shared reference architecture, operators can differentiate their business models with unique applications.

"You could see differentiators around manageability, more efficient orchestration and applications," Zemlin said. "In open source [SDN and NFV], you see people innovating above and below … at the hardware level and the management application level … and that will be the case here."

How the open source NFV process will work

In most open source initiatives, "upstream components get integrated at a certain point in a midstream distribution. Those get taken downstream into actual products, such as a router or an appliance," said Zemlin. The OPNFV is that midstream point, Zemlin explained.

OPNFV members will integrate code and components from a wide range of carriers, vendors, software developers and open source organizations to build the reference architecture. The OPNFV will license new components from open source organizations under the Apache License Version 2.0 and will contribute code back upstream to these projects.

Zemlin said it's likely both OpenDaylight and OpenStack will be employed in the project since they are the most widely used open source SDN and orchestration initiatives. The Linux kernel will also be at the heart of the initiative. Beyond that, he could not be specific about which applications would be developed or where other code might come from.

What about ETSI NFV standards?

The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has led the way in virtual networking development for operators, forming an Industry Specification Group (ISG) to develop NFV standards. But ETSI never had an implementation arm, said IDC research manager Nav Chander. The OPNFV will "keep the momentum of the ETSI ISG" by providing a path to productizing the technology.

While the OPNFV consortium includes many of the ETSI ISG operators, it is also missing some key players, such as Verizon, BT and Deutsche Telekom. Chander said operators like AT&T have made it clear that SDN and NFV are critical to transform their networks, so it's no surprise they are spearheading this effort. However, he wouldn't be surprised if other key operators join in the coming months.

Networking vendors are forced to take part in open source NFV

While operators have clear incentive to get involved in open source NFV, hardware vendors have a lot more to lose.

If the idea of NFV is to transform network services into virtual components on white boxes, hardware vendors could see their proprietary hardware sales tumble. But Chander said vendors can't afford to sit out this process.

"The role they have to play is to develop the virtualized network functions [VNFs]," said Chander. "The VNFs become their key to monetization. They will have to figure out how to bundle them or sell them on a usage basis. If you're Cisco or Alcatel Lucent or Huawei, you better start to focus your efforts on how you are going to sell these VNFs."

Beyond getting vendors to change their business models and service providers to unify, OPNFV will face challenges in standardizing technology for hugely disparate environments. Because CSPs have home-spun so many of their apps and infrastructure pieces, "being able to bolt those together is a real challenge," said Hanselman.

Who can be involved in OPNFV?

OPNFV membership is open to vendors and operators -- or end users -- at different costs.

Platinum membership costs $200,000 a year for vendors and $100,000 year for end users, or carriers. Platinum-level vendor members must dedicate two full-time engineers and platinum end-user members must dedicate one. Silver member fees vary by size of company, but range from $10,000-$50,000 a year without dedicated engineers. There is no gold member status.

However, because OPNFV is open source, contributors don't have to be members. Technical steering committee meetings and forums are open to the public.

The OPNFV will hold its first hackathon today in Santa Clara, Calif., and the group will follow with more information about specific applications and projects that will be first up in the development process.

The full list of platinum members includes AT&T, Brocade, China Mobile, Cisco, Dell, Ericsson, HP, Huawei, IBM, Intel, Juniper Networks, NEC, Nokia Networks, NTT DOCOMO, Red Hat, Telecom Italia and Vodafone. Silver-level founding members include 6WIND, Alcatel-Lucent, ARM, CableLabs, Cavium, CenturyLink, Ciena, ClearPath, ConteXtream, Coriant, Cyan, Dorado Software, Ixia, Metaswitch Networks, Mirantis, Orange, Sandvine, Sprint and Wind River. 

 Let us know what you think about the story; email Rivka Gewirtz Little, or follow her on Twitter.

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