Software Development for Telcos: Open-Source Tools vs Out-of-the-Box Solutions – Which to Choose?
Open-source vs. Out-of-the-Box Tools: A Primer
Open source code can be modified and redistributed freely. Proprietary (out-of-the-box) tools come with certain restrictions in place regarding the use of the underlying source code.
Today, however, few tools have pure proprietary code. Instead, many choose to re-use, extend, and customize their core product with open-source components.
For example, Red Hat OpenShift is a commercialized open-source product, derived from an open-source Kubernetes project. The key selling point of OpenShift is that its container orchestration platform has better security and provides extra features, designed specifically for enterprises.
Likewise, Amazon offers a host of managed services for open-source products such as MongoDB or Redis. Also, the company distributes commercial open-source code such as Babelfish for PostgreSQL or AWS Distro for OpenTelemetry.
The above dynamic leaves telecoms with an array of choices — use out-of-the-box, enterprise-ready tools or go down the open-source route when it comes to developing new software systems. In this post, we propose to look at the pros, cons, and considerations for each option.
Open-Source Tools, Platforms, and Frameworks
Pure proprietary code is hard to come by. As of 2021, 95% of telecoms use open-source code at least in some capacity, according to a Red Hat report.
- 66% use open-source components (such as containers) in application development
- 63% rely on such solutions for infrastructure modernization
- 59% leverage this technology for digital transformations.
In telecom, open-source tools can be used in a variety of ways, including:
- As discrete code. For example, as a Virtual Network Function (VNF) running on top of Cloud or Network Function Virtualization Infrastructure (NFVI).
- As a middleware abstraction or virtualization layer between commercial hardware and an application sitting on top of it. For example, in server virtualization projects.
- As a component of another software. For example, as part of the provision of a wider Software as a Service (SaaS) application or virtualized core deployment.
In our case, we would like to focus on the latter — infusing open source into your software development projects such as Operational Support Systems or Business Support Systems.
The pros of using open-source components in OSS/BSS development are as follows:
- A high degree of customization. You can mold the underlying code into any type of application you need; replace or refactor certain components; or build custom integrations and extensions to connect the new application with the rest of the architecture.
- Big community = faster innovation. Open-source means that you can tap into the collective wisdom, instead of battling with the issue on your own. For example, AT&T, China Mobile, Orange, Bell Canada, and Vodafone, among others, are active contributors to the open-source ONAP framework — a platform for the orchestration, management, and automation of network and edge computing services. Such a diverse range of contributors means that ONAP innovates faster than any proprietary product.
- Nearly limitless integration and hybridization opportunities. You can fuse together different platforms/frameworks and add custom extensions to your application without any usage restrictions.
- Cost-effective for large-scale projects. There are no licensing or per-seat subscriptions bills. Additionally, open-source usage minimizes vendor lock-in risks.
Overall, open-source frameworks are great for testing different hypotheses and determining the technical feasibility of new feature implementation. You are free to experiment, try different approaches, and perhaps, come up with unique solutions that delight your customers.
T-Mobile, for example, has recently rebuilt its entire customer support application using Elastic — a robust open-source platform that lets you build self-managed and SaaS offerings for analytics, logging, search, and security — instead of using a proprietary content delivery network (CDN) and customer analytics engine to personalize the support experience for each customer.
- Slower rollout — Open-source frameworks provide you with building blocks. Your job is to assemble them correctly. Understandably, this takes more time than integrating an off-the-shelf solution.
- More tech expertise — You will need to have people on board, not just familiar with the selected open-source tech stack, but also capable of adapting it for your architecture and ensuring top-most security.
- Limited support — some open-source tools are community-driven; some provide paid support for advanced features. Interestingly, 53% of telcos are not aware that dedicated third-party support services are available for open-source projects.
Examples of popular open-source tools telecoms use in application development:
- Kubernetes — container orchestration platform for automating the deploying, scaling, and management of containerized apps.
- Elasticsearch — RESTful search and analytics engine. Part of a commercial open-source ELK stack.
- Terraform — Infrastructure as a Code (IaC) tool that provides a consistent CLI workflow to manage hundreds of cloud services.
While open-source tools give you re-usable building blocks, out-of-the-box tools and platforms provide a ready-for-deployment solution, tailored for a specific use case or packed with extra business/security features that are required for your product.
Some out-of-the-box solutions are enhanced, commercial versions of open-source software (for example, RedShift Open Shift or Realm MongoDB). Others feature primarily proprietary components.
The pros of using out-of-the-box solutions for telecom application development include:
- Faster roll-out and deployment — you gain access to a function- and feature-rich platform, ready for usage after the initial configuration. Out-of-the-box solutions also come with extensive documentation and support, provided by the vendor, as well as a host of best practices for making the most out of the product.
- Access to a wide range of pre-made functionality — for example, Splunk comes pre-furnished with tools for implementing over 50 telecom-specific features such as emergency service assurance, roaming fraud detection, PBX/IP-PBX fraud mitigation, automated compliance reporting, network access auditing, and more. When using open-source, you would likely need to assemble these functionalities separately.
- Requires smaller team — open-source projects easily require 20-30 people for initial deployment and ongoing support. Out-of-the-box solutions can be rolled out with a much smaller headcount.
- Access to managed services and maintenance — the main selling point of some out-of-the-box tools is managed support, again meaning less involvement from your personnel. Also, such tools come with vendor-ensured maintenance, covering security, updates, patches, etc. — something you would have to do on your own for open-source products.
- Less flexibility. The obvious downside of any out-of-the-box tool is bounded customization opportunities. While you can use the underlying technology to pursue any of the supported use cases, you might be limited in terms of supported deployment scenarios, data integration sources, integrations with third-party products, etc. This, in turn, reduces the degree of flexibility in your app architecture choices.
- Significant upfront investment. Most proprietary tools are distributed on a license and/or subscription-based basis. The two assume ongoing investment in renewal costs. While the initial adoption cost may look steep, most out-of-the-box solutions offer proven long-term direct and indirect ROI.
Overall, out-of-the-box tools are well-suited for large-scale, security-sensitive, and high-impact projects such as implementations of a new telecom billing system, CRM, or ERP. Unlike open-source frameworks, out-of-the-box solutions often come with better SLA and cybersecurity facets, lending a greater peace of mind. Similarly, attempting to develop a complex custom solution, such as a new CRM system, often proves to be less cost-effective when a proven proprietary solution already exists on the market.
Examples of popular out-of-the-box tools telecoms use in application development:
- Splunk — cloud-based advanced data management platform, offering a range of analytics, security, and monitoring capabilities.
- Sumo Logic — a SaaS solution for aggregating and analyzing security telemetry data such as logs, metrics, and traces. Features multi-cloud SIEM and SOAR products.
- Datadog — comprehensive data observability and security analytics platform with rich analytics capabilities.
To Conclude: Which Route to Choose?
Traditionally, open-source has been the go-to route for companies with mature development culture and a diverse range of IT specialists with deep knowledge of specific open-source tools and frameworks. Telecoms, however, have long been relying on proprietary and legacy software. Most are still early into their transformation journeys to cloud-first and cloud-native application development. Respectively, most have a convoluted portfolio of different infrastructure elements, which, in turn, pose integrational, maintenance, and support challenges.
If the above sounds like your case, it is better to go for an out-of-the-box solution. In this case, a new application roll-out will not steer many extra complexities. On the contrary, a properly selected vendor and right-sized deployment might help harmonize some aspects of your architecture through the usage of premade connectors and integrators.
On the other hand, if you are certain that you require the maximum degree of customization — a host of custom integrations with on-prem and hybrid systems, unique system functionality, or security controls — your best option may be opting for custom software development, using both out-of-the-box and open source solutions. This is the best choice for non-trivial, complex projects in the telecom domain.
Contact Infopulse telecom experts to receive further consultation on the optimal technology stack for your planned project. We’d be delighted to advise you on the optimal combination of out-of-the-box and open-source tools, based on our audit.