ANALYSIS & OPINION

Facebook Telecom Infra Project aims to open up hardware

Nokia, Intel and major telecom operators have joined Facebook in a new initiative that aims to make it easier and quicker to design new telecom networks.

The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) is modelled on Facebook’s successful Open Compute Project for data centre networks, which has helped the social networking company save billions of dollars on infrastructure costs over the past few years.

Now Facebook wants to apply the same approach to the telecom world. It wants to move away from proprietary systems and hardware because they are inflexible and expensive, and instead promote disaggregation and open source development of new technologies.

By speeding up development, Facebook hopes to reduce the cost of bringing Internet connectivity to unserved areas.

“Every day, more people and more devices around the world are coming online, and it’s becoming easier to share data-intensive experiences like video and virtual reality. Scaling traditional telecom infrastructure to meet this global data challenge is not moving as fast as people need it to…

“We know from our experience with the Open Compute Project that the best way to accelerate the pace of innovation is for companies to collaborate and to work in the open,” said Jay Parikh, global head of engineering and infrastructure Facebook, in a company statement.

He notes that the power of CPUs and fibre-optic network technology has skyrocketed while simultaneously growing significantly cheaper. “It was clear that the raw building blocks of what we were developing for our own infrastructure could be applied to telecom networks with great benefit,” he commented.

TIP is an engineering-focused initiative that brings together operators, infrastructure providers, system integrators, and other technology companies to “reimagine traditional approaches to building and deploying telecom network infrastructure”.

TIP members will work together to contribute designs in three areas — access, backhaul, and core and management. In what is a traditionally closed system, the pieces will be broken down into modular hardware and software components that were previously vendor-specific.

This flexibility will allow operators to do away with components and features they don’t need, and should result in significant gains in cost and operational efficiency for both rural and urban deployments, Facebook contends.

To kick-start the project, TIP members such as Facebook, Intel, and Nokia have pledged to contribute an initial suite of reference designs, while other members such as operators Deutsche Telekom and SK Telecom will help define and deploy the technology to suit their needs.

It’s clear why operators are supporting TIP, as Deutsche Telekom explained: “With the cloudification of our network functions, OCP recently became very relevant for telco operators… But the telco world is much bigger than data centres – just to mention service production, IP core, aggregation, fixed and mobile access, and home networking. We strongly believe that TIP can do to those areas what OCP did to the data centre. Community-driven open specifications will lead to disruptive innovation across all network areas.”

However, the open source model represents a step into the unknown for network equipment vendors, who – with the exception of Nokia – are noticeably absent from TIP’s list of partners.

While a move towards generic hardware and multi-vendor software-enabled environments is already underway with the evolution towards network functions virtualisation (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN), Facebook’s intrusion into that process could be unwelcome.

The project has already begun. To illustrate the advantages of testing new approaches to connectivity, Facebook, in collaboration with Globe, recently launched a pilot deployment based on TIP principles to connect a small village in the Philippines that previously did not have cellular coverage. In addition, UK operator EE is planning to work with TIP to pilot a community-run 4G network in the remote environment of the Scottish Highlands.

Facebook insists that it doesn’t want to become an operator; rather, it wants to jump-start these connectivity efforts, prove they can be sustainable and cost-effective — whether connecting the small population of a rural village or increasing the network capacity of a large metropolitan area — and then hand the reins over to local operators and communities.

 

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