At last week’s 4G World conference in Chicago, I had a couple of very interesting (and very similar) conversations with Telecom Equipment Manufacturers (TEMs) who visited our booth. In both cases, the architects from these TEMs told me that their next-generation equipment (gateways) would be based exclusively on commodity hardware platforms. And they were referring not just to telecom-oriented ATCA blades, but rather to standard, off-the-shelf server blades and COTS compute platforms. As one of them explained, “We need to think of ourselves as a software company, that’s where our true value lies”.
In the case of these two companies, a number of factors have contributed to this strategy:
First, standard hardware platforms based on the latest multicore processors are capable of delivering performance at least as high as that achievable on custom hardware, especially when those standard platforms run software such as 6WIND’s in order to maximize networking performance (which is why these architects were visiting our booth).
Second, the time-to-market advantages of using standard hardware are overwhelming, and this is especially important in 4G networks where new infrastructure must be deployed on aggressive schedules in order to meet the requirements for exponential growth in network capacity.
Third, standard platforms (at least from the right set of suppliers) now deliver the high levels of reliability that are required for “five-nines” or “zero-downtime” telecom equipment.
Fourth, the opportunities for TEMs to differentiate core networking products at the hardware level are extremely limited. Their real differentiation is in the upper levels of the system software (layer 7 and above), where their innovations can contribute directly either to providing a better end-user experience or to delivering improved ROI for operators. The open software APIs supported on standard platforms encourage the rapid development of value-added applications within industry-standard software environments.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, the use of standard hardware platforms enables TEMs to provide infrastructure that is designed to scale in line with ever-increasing requirements for network capacity and new, advanced services.
This last point was emphasized by Rose Schooler, General Manager of Intel’s Communications Infrastructure Division, during a well-attended keynote address at the conference, who referred to a recent statement from Verizon that their next-generation network will be deployed on COTS platforms with open APIs.
As Ms. Schooler discussed in her speech, open platforms enable operators to design their networks for the scale required to address future requirements that are not predictable today, whether in terms of capacity, connectivity or threats. She explained the parallels between the transitions happening in the telecom industry today with the evolutions in computing during the ‘90s, when data centers transitioned from multiple proprietary hardware platforms, with closed APIs and divergent form-factors, to a model based on standardized hardware platforms and open APIs. Telecom operators have a great opportunity to leverage successes and learnings from the compute sector, in areas such as power management (OPEX), virtualization (CAPEX), security and others, as the industry moves towards the Software-Defined Network concept.
Were you at 4G World last week? What were the main trends that you observed at the conference?