Facebook showed the rise of 3G and LTE nets in a blog on why TIP is needed

Cellular base stations and other telco gear may go the way of open servers if a new group gets its way.

Rick Merritt, SiliconValley Bureau Chief

Data center and telecom networks are on a course to blend into one big cloud. Facebook, Intel, Nokia and two large carriers announced plans to jointly develop infrastructure products in an early sign of the trend. The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) also includes 23 mainly small software companies. It notably does not contain many top tier telco giants including AT&T, Ericsson, Vodaphone and anyone from China. Presumably folks such as China Mobile, Alibaba and Huawei collaborate freely without needing to issue a press release about it.

That said, the group has a powerful precedent. Facebook pitches TIP as the telco equivalent of the Open Compute Project (OCP) it started to spawn open standards for data center systems ranging from servers to switches and storage arrays.

Facebook says its saved billions thanks to the OCP standards, but it’s not clear how they come up with their numbers. The group certainly has been effective gathering big users and vendors to hammer out hardware designs that fit the very low cost and power requirements of the biggest data centers.

Amazon, Google and a few of the world’s other biggest data centers still refer to specify products under NDA, believing they gain an advantage. I suspect that’s why the AT7Ts and Ericssons of telecom are not in TIP.

If TIP is half as successful as OCP, it will shine a big public light on the glaring design challenges in telco networks these days –especially around their edges where they meet the data centers of folks like Facebook. Collaboration around these shared edges will grow.

Carriers are pondering how to put more computing at the edge of their networks, especially with 5G’s promise to support low latency traffic. Telcos will need to work with data center giants to figure out how and where to best hand off and synchronize data.

“Deutsche Telekom told us it’s not a question of when but how they do edge computing in network,” said Devashish Paul, strategic marketing director at Integrated Device Technology in a talk a week before TIP was announced.

Interestingly, Deutsche Telekom and SK Telecom are members of TIP.

“Putting computing closer to users eliminates a long round trip turn around between the base station and core data center,” said Paul. But expect small steps because “we can’t have a ton of hardware in the base station or even the central office,” he said, suggesting this will be an opportunity for ARM servers.

As part of TIP, Facebook, Intel, and Nokia will “contribute an initial suite of reference designs… across three initial focus areas: access, backhaul, and core and management,” Facebook said in an announcement.

The group will help pave the road to software defined networks (SDN) as well as 5G, it said.

Facebook will contribute to TIP software for an L3 mesh network that could be used for wireless backhaul. Others will contribute a reference design for a system that can be configured as either a 2G or an LTE cellular access point and software that handles both telco access functions as well as services typically found in the central data center.

For its part, Nokia will publish through TIP by June an open spec for a base station as well as “the operability interface associated with the radio access run time environment, which traditionally is vendor specific,” the company said.

No doubt, Nokia hopes to undermine proprietary interfaces used by its competitors. It’s high time the industry open up telco systems to lower costs and speed the pace of design, an effort already started with SDN.

“We need a new way to revolutionize how the networks are built,” said Park Jin-hyo, head of SK Telecom’s network technology R&D center, speaking in a Nokia release.

“The fastest way for this to happen is for us to work in the open,” said Jason Taylor, vice president of infrastructure at Facebook and chairman of OCP in a blog on TIP.

Taylor knows a thing or two about the already heady pace of growth in networking. “In 2010 at Facebook we had 1 Gbit/s links to each server with 2 Gbits/s of bandwidth per rack of 40 servers. Later this year we expect to deploy 25 Gbit/ss links to each server and 400 Gbits/s of bandwidth per rack,” he said in the blog.

Strap in, the roller coaster ride is just getting started.