Network function virtualization (NFV) replaces dedicated hardware with virtual network functions. This reduces the diversity of hardware appliances, increases service agility, enables rapid service innovation and provides a lean path to fully automated service provisioning. However, transforming legacy networks into virtual network function infrastructures (VNFIs) adds complexity. Network layers for resource virtualization need to be introduced and additional management entities are required for orchestrating virtual resources across geographically dispersed sites.

This year’s Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV) Summit in Berlin provided a great opportunity for getting firsthand information on the status of NFV but also a feeling for how this technology will impact on the way networks are implemented and operated. NFV technology experts from operators, suppliers and academia met for four days to review progress, identify challenges and define milestones on the journey towards an NFV platform. In parallel sessions with up to six tracks, delegates received the latest information from the OPNFV projects and open source communities.

The OPNFV project is a collaborative effort supported by various equipment suppliers, software companies and communication service providers. It aims at jointly developing a carrier-grade, pre-integrated and tested, open source platform for NFV. As a side effect, it also creates valuable input into upstream open source communities – such as OpenStack, Open Network Operating System (ONOS), OpenDaylight (ODL), Open Networking Foundation (ONF) or OPEN-Orchestrator Project (OPEN-O) and Open Source Management and Orchestration (OSM), among others – allowing them to optimize their architectures, specifications and code.

While technical topics were the focus of most sessions, there was also some discussion on the impact of open projects on technological innovation. It became obvious that open projects and open source software are a game changer in our industry. Previous sequential processes for network innovation included phases such as architectural designs, requirement analysis, interface specification, standards, product development, tendering, system integration, and system acceptance. While this method has served its purpose in the past and created important technologies such as SDH, Ethernet switching or radio technologies, it lacks the flexibility and agility required in cloud-centric networks.

Open projects and co-operation of various stakeholders in open communities create a very different approach. When teams work in parallel, there is a continuous development and innovation process. Progress is consolidated by proof-of-concept testing, which evaluates maturity of technologies and identifies requirement for additional features. Applying agile project methods creates unprecedented speed of innovation and flexibility to respond to emerging needs.

When looking at NFV, we should also consider the change in application methods needed to develop and implement this new technology. The delegates of OPNFV Summit 2016 learnt about both aspects: the technical dimension of NFV but also the required change in methodology, which frequently was referred to as a cultural change. Heather Kirksey, director of OPNFV, outlined this in her opening talk with a nice example comparing the situation in soccer and taking the example of the German team. While many of the players in this team are fierce competitors in their national league, they sacrifice this rivalry to battle together in the German national squad. We will need the same way of thinking in our industry. Co-operation and competition is not a contradiction.

Chris Wright, VP and chief technologist at Red Hat, also addressed the need to change in his keynote speech. As we move from standards-driven to code-driven innovation, this is not just about technology but also about culture, processes and mindsets. Standards represent the culmination of sequential processes, while coding is agile, incremental improvement responding to the flexibility needs of NFV networks.

The key question is whether open projects and open source are creating an additional, optional path to network innovation or whether open collaboration will become the dominant way. The arguments of the open communities are convincing and the speed of progress is impressive. Despite the fact that open collaboration gets a lot of attention, there are some questions about it.  Quite importantly there is the discussion on how companies will be able to create value from their contributions to the collaborative effort. It is likely that different ways for creating competitive advantage will emerge as differentiation by features becomes less relevant in an open future. There is also some concern about the increasing number of open projects with partially overlapping focus. Selecting winning projects presents companies with a serious challenge.

One benefit from engagement with open projects is certainly having the time and knowledge advantage when it comes to the commercialization of respective solutions. Independent from where companies will set their bet, they will need to cope with the change – technical but also cultural. That’s why openness has such power to determine the direction of the industry and why I chose the title of this blog – the forceless force of open source.