5G represents the rise of open infrastructure

Profile picture for user kmarko By Kurt Marko February 13, 2019
5G is coming and the early to market players are all using open source hardware and software for the foundational infrastructure.

Interest in and news coverage of 5G primarily centers on how quickly the technology will come to mobile phones and wireless carriers, its real-world performance relative to LTE and signal range. Such consumer-centric reportage is natural given the immense market for these devices and services. The preoccupation on consumer products overshadows the equally important changes 5G brings to the business market.

One industrial area that has received a fair amount of publicity is the role 5G plays in the IoT ecosystem and how it will spark increased use of various types of mobile connected sensors, vehicles, and intelligent devices.


Source: Google Trends

5G is catalyzing equally profound changes in the telecom infrastructure used to deliver next-generation wireless service, changes that are affecting other areas of IT infrastructure, notably cloud service providers.

5G represents the rise of open infrastructure, in which open source software, open, non-proprietary hardware and multi-vendor collaboration combine to produce a programmable, software-defined infrastructure stack capable of delivering critical services.

AT&T has been at the forefront of the change via its strategic Domain 2.0 infrastructure redesign initiative. AT&T reflects a larger group of hardware and software vendors developing open source network plumbing that is reliable, secure and flexible enough for the largest telcos, ISPs, and online services. Vendors from up and down the IT supply chain are cooperating with one another across numerous open source projects designed to develop the plumbing for 5G services.

AT&T 5G - delivered by OpenStack and Kubernetes

AT&T began planning for the world of 5G and cloud-like services more than five years ago when it shared a vision of a technology architecture it called Domain 2.0. As described in a white paper detailing the strategy, Domain 2.0 is (emphasis added),

A transformational initiative to enable AT&T network services and infrastructure to be used, provisioned, and orchestrated as is typical of cloud services in data centers. It is characterized by a rich set of APIs that manage, manipulate, and consume services on- demand and in near real time. Moreover, these network services are to be instantiated, to the extent feasible, on common infrastructure. In a nutshell, Domain 2.0 seeks to transform AT&T’s networking businesses from their current state to a future state where they are provided in a manner very similar to cloud computing services.

AT&T concluded that achieving this vision required a design this is:

  • Open, with APIs that enable internal developers, partners and third parties to use and augment its services programmatically.
  • Simplified, via a ‘blank sheet’ approach that eliminates complexity and encourages change and adaptation.
  • Scalable, to handle a variety of performance and reliability requirements and unquantifiable future demands for more capacity, performance, new traffic types.

Implementing AT&T’s vision, as outlined in this slide presentation, would require using open infrastructure to replace proprietary, fixed-function hardware appliances and software-defined networks (SDN) running a suite of virtualized network functions (VNF). Indeed, as an AT&T network architect described almost two years ago (emphasis added),

So how does software fit into this story? 5G will be our first new major technology initiative that will be ‘born in the cloud’. … How do you control, automate and upgrade those network assets? How do you increase efficiency? How do you get faster and better service delivery? How do you improve security? Doing all that in hardware is slow, cumbersome, and expensive. The answer is software.

The blog post sums up the infrastructure transformation this way:

SDN and 5G will be deeply intertwined. Software and hardware.

In announcing its latest open source project, the company’s technology blog noted that:

5G is as much about software as it is about hardware. In fact, without software, there is no 5G.

The intervening years have seen the vision turn to reality as AT&T embraced a number of open source projects including OpenStack (and related sub-projects), Kubernetes, ONAP (network automation), dNOS (white box server OS), Akraino (edge device software stack) and most recently, Airship (declarative software and syntax for automating container cluster configuration and provisioning).

Verizon is also substituting software for hardware via network function virtualization (NFV) by using OpenStack and other open source projects, but one look at the contributors to these projects shows that other telcos around the world are joining the two American giants.

Open software, open hardware

While a programmable SDN and a suite of software-based network services provide the control plane for AT&T’s network, there is no 5G without hardware, but here too, a new software-centric approach is instrumental.

To connect and control the network in its 60,000 wireless towers, AT&T is ditching the past practice of buying proprietary hardware and replacing routers from the likes of Cisco with white box products built to its specification. As the CTO of AT&T Labs describes the change (emphasis added),

Traditionally, we bought these routers from a handful of vendors, and the equipment was highly specialized and came with specialized software. The hardware and software functioned as a single unit. Being dependent on a single vendor makes upgrades slower, increases cost, and hampers innovation.

Rather than buying a single, closed package, we’re designing our own hardware specs for these routers and encouraging any manufacturer to build to those specifications. This is known as the ‘white box’ model. In addition, we’re writing our own software for these machines, and we’ll release parts of it into open source, so any other service provider can use it.

AT&T is following in the footsteps of hyperscale cloud service providers like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft by embracing white box hardware.

It's notable that white box servers from various ODMs are the fastest growing share of the market, with one estimate showing them with 30 percent share, while no-name switches now account for about 20 percent of total sales.

Expect these numbers to grow as other telcos see the benefits in cost, flexibility and ease of automation provided by open hardware. According to Chris Rice, AT&T's SVP of Network Cloud Infrastructure at AT&T and a board chair at the Linux Foundation working group responsible for ONAP, the platform is becoming a favorite of telcos building next-generation software-defined infrastructure like that needed for 5G,

With wide-scale service provider and equipment supplier participation, ONAP is becoming the de facto automation platform for carrier-grade service provider networks,

he said.

In the cloud, things run better in containers

Taking another page from the hyperscale CSPs, AT&T and SK Telecom are moving from VMs to containers as the application environment for their 5G infrastructure, working with Mirantis to incorporate code from the Mirantis Cloud Platform (MCP) into Airship and to develop Kubernetes automation and configuration tools. AT&T's goal is to use Kubernetes, Airship and other open source projects to create a fully automated platform for continuous software integration and delivery (CI/CD) that uses a readable, declarative syntax to describe system state. As Ryan van Wyk, AT&T's head of Network Cloud Software Engineering puts it, the text-based syntax,

Includes both hard assets such as network configuration and bare metal hosts as well as soft assets... You manage the document and Airship implements it.


Source: Mirantis

My take

The 5G network transition has catalyzed the aggressive use of open hardware and software by domestic carriers changing how domestic companies approach infrastructure development.

Although companies like AT&T, Google, Microsoft and others see the value in building infrastructure on a foundation of open source software and, increasingly hardware, it’s unclear to what extent other, less technologically savvy enterprises will follow their example, particularly in the realm of hardware. I expect they will once a hybrid model of open source-commercial support takes root as it has in software and represewnted by firms like Red Hat, Cloudera and Databricks.

5G is also a multi-billion dollar milestone that highlights a deeper philosophical rift between the U.S. and China regarding the free and unfettered use of communication networks, exposing an ideological chasm between societies distrusting or threatened by the free flow of ideas and information.

A recent Wall Street Journal article surveys the two divergent worldviews, which has spilled over into threats to ban Chinese-made equipment from U.S. networks, Chinese companies’ use of equipment subsidies to become the infrastructure backbone in less-developed countries and Canada’s arrest of a Huawei executive. As the Journal writes,

At the heart of the divide are differing views on how to manage the internet. The U.S. pushes the open model on which the internet was built. Beijing and like-minded countries such as Russia say states should be able to censor, spy on or otherwise control internet traffic within their borders.

The Internet is built on a foundation of open source specifications and projects that ensured network access and the free flow of information, an openness that fueled new industries and most of today’s tech giants.

Initially, most of the equipment (and its operating software) providing the Internet’s hardware plumbing was of proprietary design, however that too is changing as telco giants like AT&T, Verizon, SKT and others see that the advantages of cooperation on fundamental technologies far exceeds any temporary short-term benefits of exclusive designs and implementations.

However, as the Journal details, such openness makes building an easily-filtered, command-and-control network nearly impossible. Eric S. Raymond, author of the seminal work on the open source movement and methodology put it this way two decades ago in The Cathedral and the Bazaar,

Yes, the success of open source does call into some question the utility of command-and-control systems, of secrecy, of centralization, and of certain kinds of intellectual property. It would be almost disingenuous not to admit that it suggests (or at least harmonizes well with) a broadly libertarian view of the proper relationship between individuals and institutions.

Whether 5G ultimately exacerbates the trend to an Internet bifurcated between open, less centralized networks and services and those that are centrally controlled and filtered remains an open question, but the widely divergent strategies of U.S. and Chinese carriers suggests that it will.