Linux and Open Source in Telecommunications

A success story with a focus on Carrier Grade Linux.

This article examines the impact that Linux and open-source software are having on the telecommunication industry, technology trends moving toward open and standards-based platforms and the .orgs that are active in promoting carrier grade base platforms. Furthermore, this article focuses on the Carrier Grade Linux initiative at OSDL and discusses its contributions to this growing ecosystem.

Introduction

The telecommunication industry is facing several challenges:

  • Telecom service providers are looking to reduce their costs using commodity software and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware building blocks.

  • Telecom service providers require seamless integration of COTS carrier grade components; the integrated solution must be validated for carrier grade availability.

  • The growth of packet traffic is putting pressure on communication networks originally designed for “store and forward”; platforms in an all-IP environment that maintain carrier-class characteristics are delivering increasing levels of availability and dependability.

  • Operators want to decrease time to market and increase the capability for fast delivery of new services by shortening new service development time and unifying platforms.

  • Of course, operators want to roll out the above capabilities while still making money and increasing profits.

Linux and open-source software provide a compelling avenue to operator success. The open-source operating system has certain characteristics that confer upon it advantages over other operating systems; indeed, Linux has been a disruptive technology with clear impact in telecommunications. Today, not only do many of the server nodes with telecom networks run Linux, but Linux also powers mobile phones and many intermediate nodes “in the middle”.

So, what is a disruptive technology, and how does it impact an industry?

Disruptive Technology

Disruptive technologies first appear saddled with significant deficiencies and are usually targeted at niche segments. Disruptive technologies, however, also provide significant cost benefits. For example, a truly disruptive technology may offer only half the performance of its legacy competitor but can be delivered at one-tenth the cost.

Disruptive technologies are most often taken up by early adopters and then experience a much slower adoption into the mainstream. The adoption of a disruptive technology always starts with non-mission-critical applications (such as utility computing) and moves to mission-critical application as it matures (such as business-critical and enterprise core applications). Linux adoption followed this pattern, starting out hosting Web servers, e-mail and FTP servers and moving now to mission-critical applications, such as telephony. With increasing adoption, a disruptive technology, such as Linux, provides an opportunity (or even forces) companies to re-evaluate and also re-invent their business models and identify real value-added products and services. Companies that do not provide clear value quickly find themselves out of the market.

Linux adoption in telecommunication has not only been increasing, but adoption is also accelerating. Reasons to adopt Linux vary but revolve around common key advantages, such as licensing terms, full access to source code, freedom to choose from multiple providers, lower costs versus legacy and proprietary operating systems, higher system performance, reliability, security, source code quality, innovation rate, peer review, testing resources and the availability of an established ecosystem.

The Telephony Business in (R)Evolution

The traditional telecommunication business model is one of high-margin and high-revenue business. In the past, telecom experienced better than 10% year-on-year growth, and almost any project could become successful because demand was so great. Telecommunication companies bought in and sold on proprietary solutions, taking a margin on top of the initial licensing costs. Standards were sufficient only to ensure basic connectivity; after that, essentially proprietary models were built up, with vendor lock-in as the norm.

Figure 1. Telephony Business in (R)Evolution: the Business State from the mid-1980s to Today

Figure 1 illustrates the state of the telecom business beginning in the mid-1980s up to the present. In the 1980s, the carrier's business was monopoly-based with very few players in the field, which provided carriers the opportunity to make a lot of money, due to significant margins with voice telephony as a high-priced premium service. In the mid-1990s, new players (carriers/operators) entered the business, increasing the competition. However, voice telephony was still a premium service, and although prices were falling, operators still had significant margins. Today, the business looks very different. It is shrinking with many more players in the space, increased competition and much diminished profits. Voice telephony is a commodity. Furthermore, the industry faces additional threats, such as VoIP and broadband telephony. How can they beat free or close-to-free calling?

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