Comcast's Howald: Open source is key to service providers' future

Speaking at ONF Connect on Wednesday, Comcast's Rob Howald says service providers need to collaborate through open source groups such as ONF in order to be successful. (FierceTelecom)

Low latency services and applications, the constant need for more bandwidth, IoT, and augmented reality and virtual reality services are not just dim possibilities for service providers, they're constant drumbeats that are getting louder.

Speaking in a keynote session Wednesday morning at ONF Connect, Comcast's Rob Howald, vice president of access architecture, said it's no longer business as usual for carriers.

Service providers need to do things differently to meet the onslaught of challenges, but they also need to provide a better customer experience while also not having an impact on the current services, Howald said.

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Service providers need to be more revolutionary in their thinking, which is one of the reasons that Comcast is a member of the ONF. Howald, who is an ONF board member and chair of the ONF technical leadership team, said that open source is the answer even if it means sitting in the same board room with competitors such as AT&T.

Comcast and AT&T can compete against each other across other areas, but in order to meet the industry challenges head on they need to be part of a collaborative efforts such as open source, Howald said.

RELATED: ONF operators push reference designs out for membership review

On Monday, ONF announced it has put its four reference designs out for review by its membership. Howald answered the questions below prior to ONF Connect kicking off on Monday.

FierceTelecom: What is a key element to making open source work for all of the operator members of ONF?

Rob Howald: The strength of any open source project is the strength, passion, and engagement of the supporting open source community.  A healthy community allows companies to share the development burden on common equipment, functions and features, and thereby devote more energy and investment toward differentiation on top of these platforms, and work very closely with operators to optimize those features and functions and bring best-in-class value as suppliers.

For operators, the focus on differentiated services helps us deliver more value to the customer experience.  It also simplifies and accelerates our delivery cycle by minimizing the permutations of equipment and platforms that are configured and operationalized differently to achieve foundational functionality.

FierceTelecom: There are numerous open source communities and standards development organizations, what specifically drew Comcast to ONF?

Howald: There are indeed multiple open source communities, and we pay attention to others beyond ONF.  However, what we find particularly noteworthy about ONF is that it is operator driven and thus by definition focused on operator needs. We do not all need the same thing, but there is substantial commonality and we meet frequently and collaboratively to set direction and prioritization. 

Also, ONF’s projects are edge and access-focused at a time when Comcast is in the midst of transitioning our access network towards DAA and vCMTS.  We believe there may be synergies.

FierceTelecom: What impact will DAA have on Comcast's automation efforts, node deployments, Ethernet services, and the migration to all IP?

Howald: One of the reason we are engaged at ONF to begin with is that we have been planning and executing a next gen access strategy that includes taking fiber deeper into the network, transitioning to digital nodes (DAA) fed by 10GbE using Remote PHY, virtualizing the CMTS and migrating to all-IP delivery. These are all very complementary component parts of our network evolution strategy, designed to ensure that we can deliver capacity, speeds, services, reliability, and overall the best customer experiences possible for the long term

FierceTelecom: At the ONF Connect event, four of ONF's reference designs will be discussed. Can you comment on any of them specifically, such as Trellis, ODTN, SEBA and UPAN, and how they may impact Comcast?

Howald: Comcast believes the open source community, being comprised of some of the best software developers from companies all over the world, offers the breadth and depth to efficiently create innovative proof-of-concept architectures and platforms. The nature of ONF projects being on the leading edge is that there will inevitably be hits and misses, both on the right mix of open source and commercial development, and also on the use cases and applications expected driving the development.

Comcast is currently following several of the reference designs at ONF, including each of those mentioned above, for potential use in our network as we move to DAA and virtualization. The aforementioned reference designs (Trellis, ODTN, SEBA, UPAN) are the four reference designs officially launched by ONF earlier this year, each with an operator leadership group. Comcast is the operator lead on the ONOS/Trellis RD currently, which we are evaluating to support the switching infrastructure in our DAA architecture.

ONF is in the process of planning 2019 and considering additional reference designs. We have espoused in the past the key benefits of DAA and virtualization that these implementations could enable—namely network scalability, facility efficiencies, service velocity and reliability enabled by the granular and deep visibility into network health.