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Widespread use of open source software is an important enabler of agility and innovation in many of the world’s leading internet and IT players. Yet while many telcos say they crave agility, only a minority use open source to best effect. We examine the barriers and drivers, and outline six steps for telcos to safely embrace this key enabler of transformation and innovation.
This report examines the approaches to open source software – broadly, software for which the source code is freely available for use, subject to certain licensing conditions – of telecoms operators globally. Several factors have come together in recent years to make the role of open source software an important and dynamic area of debate for operators, including:
- Technological Progress: Advances in core networking technologies, especially network functions virtualisation (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN), are closely associated with open source software and initiatives, such as OPNFV and OpenDaylight. Many operators are actively participating in these initiatives, as well as trialling their software and, in some cases, moving them into production. This represents a fundamental shift away from the industry’s traditional, proprietary, vendor-procured model.
- Why are we now seeing more open source activities around core communications technologies?
- Financial Pressure: However, over-the-top (OTT) disintermediation, regulation and adverse macroeconomic conditions have led to reduced core communications revenues for operators in both developed and emerging markets alike. As a result, operators are exploring opportunities to move away from their core, infrastructure business, and compete in the more software-centric services layer.
- How do the Internet players use open source software, and what are the lessons for operators?
- The Need for Agility: In general, there is recognition within the telecoms industry that operators need to become more ‘agile’ if they are to succeed in the new, rapidly-changing ICT world, and greater use of open source software is seen by many as a key enabler of this transformation.
- How can the use of open source software increase operator agility?
The answers to these questions, and more, are the topic of this report, which is sponsored by Dialogic and independently produced by STL Partners. The report draws on a series of 21 interviews conducted by STL Partners with senior technologists, strategists and product managers from telecoms operators globally.
Figure 1: Split of Interviewees by Business Area
Source: STL Partners
Open source is less optional than it once was – even for Apple and Microsoft
From the audience’s point of view, the most important announcement at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) this year was not the new versions of iOS and OS X, or even its Spotify-challenging Apple Music service. Instead, it was the announcement that Apple’s highly popular programming language ‘Swift’ was to be made open source, where open source software is broadly defined as software for which the source code is freely available for use – subject to certain licensing conditions.
On one level, therefore, this represents a clever engagement strategy with developers. Open source software uptake has increased rapidly during the last 15 years, most famously embodied by the Linux operating system (OS), and with this developers have demonstrated a growing preference for open source tools and platforms. Since Apple has generally pushed developers towards proprietary development tools, and away from third-party ones (such as Adobe Flash), this is significant in itself.
An indication of open source’s growth can be found in OS market shares in consumer electronics devices. As Figure 2 shows below, Android (open source) had a 49% share of shipments in 2014; if we include the various other open source OS’s in ‘other’, this increases to more than 50%.
Figure 2: Share of consumer electronics shipments* by OS, 2014
* Includes smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs
However, one of the components being open sourced is Swift’s (proprietary) compiler – a program that translates written code into an executable program that a computer system understands. The implication of this is that, in theory, we could even see Swift applications running on non-Apple devices in the future. In other words, Apple believes the risk of Swift being used on Android is outweighed by the reward of engaging with the developer community through open source.
Whilst some technology companies, especially the likes of Facebook, Google and Netflix, are well known for their activities in open source, Apple is a company famous for its proprietary approach to both hardware and software. This, combined with similar activities by Microsoft (who open sourced its .NET framework in 2014), suggest that open source is now less optional than it once was.
Open source is both an old and a new concept for operators
At first glance, open source also appears to now be less optional for telecoms operators, who traditionally procure proprietary software (and hardware) from third-party vendors. Whilst many (but not all) operators have been using open source software for some time, such as Linux and various open source databases in the IT domain (e.g. MySQL), we have in the last 2-3 years seen a step-change in operator interest in open source across multiple domains. The following quote, taken directly from the interviews, summarises the situation nicely:
“Open source is both an old and a new project for many operators: old in the sense that we have been using Linux, FreeBSD, and others for a number of years; new in the sense that open source is moving out of the IT domain and towards new areas of the industry.”
AT&T, for example, has been speaking widely about its ‘Domain 2.0’ programme. Domain 2.0 has the objectives to transform AT&T’s technical infrastructure to incorporate network functions virtualisation (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN), to mandate a higher degree of interoperability, and to broaden the range of alternative suppliers available across its core business. By 2020, AT&T hopes to virtualise 75% of its network functions, and it sees open source as accounting for up to 50% of this. AT&T, like many other operators, is also a member of various recently-formed initiatives and foundations around NFV and SDN, such as OPNFV – Figure 3 lists some below.
Figure 3: OPNFV Platinum Members
Source: OPNFV website
However, based on publicly-available information, other operators might appear to have lesser ambitions in this space. As ever, the situation is more complex than it first appears: other operators do have significant ambitions in open source and, despite the headlines NFV and SDN draw, there are many other business areas in which open source is playing (or will play) an important role. Figure 4 below includes three quotes from the interviews which highlight this broad spectrum of opinion:
Figure 4: Different attitudes of operators to open source – selected interview quotes
Source: STL Partners interviews
Key Questions to be Addressed
We therefore have many questions which need to be addressed concerning operator attitudes to open source software, adoption (by area of business), and more:
- What is open source software, what are its major initiatives, and who uses it most widely today?
- What are the most important advantages and disadvantages of open source software?
- To what extent are telecoms operators using open source software today? Why, and where?
- What are the key barriers to operator adoption of open source software?
- Prospects: How will this situation change?
These are now addressed in turn.
- Executive Summary
- Open source is less optional than it once was – even for Apple and Microsoft
- Open source is both an old and a new concept for operators
- Key Questions to be Addressed
- Understanding Open Source Software
- The Theory: Freely available, licensed source code
- The Industry: Dominated by key initiatives and contributors
- Research Findings: Evaluating Open Source
- Open source has both advantages and disadvantages
- Debunking Myths: Open source’s performance and security
- Where are telcos using open source today?
- Transformation of telcos’ service portfolios is making open source more relevant than ever…
- … and three key factors determine where operators are using open source software today
- Open Source Adoption: Business Critical vs. Service Area
- Barriers to Telco Adoption of Open Source
- Two ‘external’ barriers by the industry’s nature
- Three ‘internal’ barriers which can (and must) change
- Prospects and Recommendations
- Prospects: An open source evolution, not revolution
- Open Source, Transformation, and Six Key Recommendations
- About STL Partners and Telco 2.0
- About Dialogic
- Figure 1: Split of Interviewees by Business Area
- Figure 2: Share of consumer electronics shipments* by OS, 2014
- Figure 3: OPNFV Platinum Members
- Figure 4: Different attitudes of operators to open source – selected interview quotes
- Figure 5: The Open IT Ecosystem (incl. key industry bodies)
- Figure 6: Three Forms of Governance in Open Source Software Projects
- Figure 7: Three Classes of Open Source Software License
- Figure 8: Web Server Share of Active Sites by Developer, 2000-2015
- Figure 9: Leading software companies vs. Red Hat, market capitalisation, Oct. 2015
- Figure 10: The Key Advantages and Disadvantages of Open Source Software
- Figure 11: How Google Works – Failing Well
- Figure 12: Performance gains from an open source activation (OSS) platform
- Figure 13: Intel Hardware Performance, 2010-13
- Figure 14: Open source is more likely to be found today in areas which are…
- Figure 15: Framework mapping current telco uptake of open source software
- Figure 16: Five key barriers to telco adoption of open source software
- Figure 17: % of employees with ‘software’ in their LinkedIn job title, Oct. 2015
- Figure 18: ‘Waterfall’ and ‘Agile’ Software Development Methodologies Compared
- Figure 19: Four key cultural attributes for successful telco transformation