Operators look for clarity in relationships with virtualisation vendors

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"It's complicated." The infamous Facebook description for hedging your bets about a relationship could well describe the state of virtualisation, according to day one of SDN World Congress.

Operators and vendors stood up at the event in the Hague to confess difficulties with implementing the technology. While they are more than aware of the promised land the technology offers - that of transformed delivery, greater flexibility and potentially reduced costs, among others - the nitty gritty of the transformation made some sessions sound like open marriage counselling.

Take Verizon. The US operator's VP for Product and New Business Innovation, Shawn Hakl, used his keynote slot to tell of how vendors are struggling to help it meet the "rapacious" demand for wireless services among its customers.

He said: "We have very deliberately moved away from the old-school telco way of doing things." Verizon has done this by offering a "pick and mix" style approach to customers, selling functions and software on a pay as you go basis.

The problem, Hakl claimed, is not enough companies were assisting them in this change. There was too much focus on "Soviet-style five year plans", and not enough on disruptive, "softer", technology and services in the short term.

He identified two areas that need greater attention. "Interoperability is vital," he said. "Talk to rivals and work out problems before you hit an operator. Make it fit for purpose, not almost ready."

As for his second area? He said some companies need to look beyond eight hours a day, five days a week working models to encompass new, "always on" ways of working. "It's going to blow up occasionally," Hakl said. "That's the nature of new stuff. Just don't tell me I have to wait until Monday for the solution."

Open source projects were also criticised by operators. As Caroline Chappel, Principal Analyst at Analysys Mason noted in her opening remarks on Tuesday, open source had changed from the days when it offered a cheaper route into technology, to now, when projects almost amount to global R&D labs. "It's a Darwinian process," she said.

Speaking at an operator panel on day one, Axel Clauberg, CTO for Aggregation, Transport and IP at Deutsche Telekom, said: "Just opening something up doesn't help at all. The open activities that are successful are communities. One vendor opening up an interface and calling it 'Open...' is wrong. It's a misused and overused trend. The most important thing is to get communities working together."

André Beijen, Head of Network Innovation at KPN, agreed, wryly noting that the dizzying array of solutions on the market almost called for a "standardisation of standards". He added: "There are so many open initiatives and standards that it's difficult to move forward."

Neil McRae, Group Chief Architect at BT, said there was a growing trend of companies going rogue and calling a service "open" if they don't have enough control over a partnership, which complicates the landscape. He said: "There's a lot of frustration from customers about understanding what is going on. Our focus is to cut through that and deliver services that matter to them.

"Anyone generating momentum around solving problems is someone we would back. But if we move away from simplicity, it's the wrong answer." He accused these companies, which he was polite enough not to name, of becoming "geniuses at licensing complexity".

So open relationships could prove problematic as well. Ironically the day began with a quote from US presidential philanderer John F Kennedy. In his opening address, Rick Bauer, Interim Executive Director at the Open Networking Foundation, said the telco industry was reminiscent of the space race in the 1950s and 1960s.

He said: "John Glenn and Yuri Gargarin had already been to space but we were still lacking a project that could organise our activities and give us greater focus."

He accepted that vendors needed to turn greater attention to systems integration and customer-centric solutions to build upon the early successes of SDN.

Quoting the 35th President of the United States, he said this was not an easy task to achieve, but "that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win".

Space age optimism is one matter. Operators will hope vendors follow through sufficiently to build harmonious relationships in future, and not have things crumble into frosty silences and more conversations about who is to blame.