Skip to main content

Open Source – the key to unlocking the networks of the future

Open Source – the key to unlocking the networks of the future
(Image credit: Shutterstock.com)

Open source is proving itself to be invaluable in shaping large areas of science and technology. Most recently, we have seen how global cooperation among researchers, technologists, scientists and doctors has led to thousands of open source tools and projects emerging designed to model the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigate the shortage of equipment that is desperately needed around the world. 

About the author

Yves Bellego, Director of European Network Strategy, Orange.

Here we see how by bringing together experts from many different organisations, and using their collective intelligence, solutions can be found efficiently through shared knowledge and expertise.

In the telecommunications sector, open source is not just a way to foster collaborative research and innovation, but more importantly, it is an opportunity to make real change to the telco ecosystem. Open source projects are being used as a major component to create the technology that will drive the evolution of the next generation of mobile networks. 

This is especially important as we move towards the 5G era when network traffic will only increase and there is a need for the technology that supports it to be intelligent, energy-efficient and software-defined.

The O-RAN Alliance

The concept of collaborative development on networks and new technologies is not new in telecoms. The O-RAN Alliance – founded in 2018 – brought together a number of telecom operators, all committed to the evolution of radio access networks (RANs). RANs are what enable physical access to devices and were mostly developed as complete proprietary solutions. This in turn meant that it was difficult for innovations to happen at the same pace as the rest of the market. 

The founders of O-RAN realized that through an open, intelligent and combined effort, they would better be able to improve their network infrastructure. O-RAN was created in order to define the requirements needed for the evolution of RANs – virtualized network elements, white-box hardware and standardized interfaces – and help build a supply chain that would cater to this. 

Built on a foundation of openness and a belief that having open interfaces and using open source software would enable more efficient and more democratic innovation. It is this mindset that has continued to expand across all areas of research and development within the industry. Today operators are collaborating on open source projects that will not just improve existing networks – but shape the networks that will support future communications technology.

The next step in collaboration

Since the founding of O-RAN and the strides the alliance has made in the sector, the concept of openness in the research and development of network technology has only grown and become more embedded. One of the organisations spearheading this is the Linux Foundation Networking fund (LFN). It already has 8 major open source projects working on strategic subjects such as Network Virtualization and orchestration

A perfect example is the OPNVF (Open Platform for Network Function Virtualization) project, which aims to develop a platform to integrate virtual network functions with cloud services. The development of these technologies is beneficial to the industry as a whole. Indeed, Network Function Virtualization (NFV) is one of the key technological developments that will support the 5G era. 

Without it, many of the use cases that are often spoken about in relation to 5G and industry would simply not be possible. In bringing together thousands of contributors including from some of the biggest players in the telco space, open source projects are redefining the way in which the networks of the future are created.

Setting standards

Another area that open source is proving to be transformative is in helping to create shared standards in new technological developments. By ensuring common standards and uniformity across telecommunications technology, carriers can address and overcome shared challenges. For example, by developing more unified interfaces, the industry can simplify integrations onto information systems and ultimately simplify their whole business resulting in greater efficiency across the board.

The Open Networking Automation Platform (ONAP) project is another example of how creating standards can benefit all the carriers involved, and is supported by the likes of ourselves as well as AT&T, Verizon and Bell Canada. The advantage to these companies lies in having a shared voice when prompting suppliers to integrate technology into their products. The combined work of these companies – and others – has meant that ONAP is already being used and will ensure better automation in future 5G networks that are in development. 

The same collaborative approach is being adopted with the CNTT (Cloud Infrastructure Telco Task Force), whose ambition is to create and document a common infrastructure for virtualizing network functions. By fostering the creation of technologies with a de facto standard, open source is responding to challenges shared by all carriers and helping everyone to develop more efficient networks.

Open source benefits everyone

No single company alone has the resources to be able to finance the type of ground-breaking research and development currently being pursued in open source environments. While carriers themselves obviously have a large stake in this, it is also worth emphasizing that as we move into the 5G era, and we see increasing densification and more demanding applications on our networks, it benefits us all to know that our networks are up to the job. 

That means they must be self-driving, and intelligent. These are some of the areas where open source has already seen huge success. In embracing open source and welcoming an almost infinite pool of knowledge and expertise, there has been rapid progress in shaping and defining how the networks of the future will look.