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Thursday, November 24, 2005

‘Open IMS’: could the LINUX model work?

LINUX was, and still is, an open, “community developed” software. After several years of developments and enhancements mainly by volunteers, it is now considered stable enough for enterprise applications. Not only that, several companies have “adopted” it (e.g. IBM) and even offer technical support for it. The core group that “coordinates” LINUX is still not for profit, and is funded via pooled resources from several sources where nobody dominates or has an upper hand.

Can this be model be replicated for an ‘Open Source IMS’? Operators would certainly benefit, their customers would certainly benefit, but the NEPs will certainly dismiss it, just as the big proprietary vendor in the IT world, Microsoft, reacted in the early days of LINUX.

I asked Ivelin Ivanov, founder of Mobicents (
www.mobicents.org) to describe the potential of ‘Open IMS’. Let me know what you think: editor@ims-insider.com

‘Open IMS’

Major telco operators are looking at a number of basic IMS features to enable the rapid creation and deployment of new generation services targeted to specific user audiences and with potentially short lifecycle [See October's Edition of the IMS Insider Report for new methodology for defining and prioritising high value IMS-enhanced/IP-converged services - www.ims-insider.com].

A few of the more common IMS infrastructure features include:

- Unified Communications over SIP, XMPP and legacy protocols, including potentially mobile client for VoIP on mobile handsets.
- Single Virtual Directory for user registration, profile information and configuration settings.
- Virtual PBX for phone line provisioning, call control and billing.
- Multiplayer Gaming environment that provides facilities for game setup, multiplayer communications, object sharing, state persistence and scalability capacity for millions of players.

Such basic features require serious investment to implement and do not translate immediately into increased ARPU. Some of the key factors that contribute to the sizeable investment are:

* *Standardization*. In order for IMS to reach its global potential, there need to be a number of industry standards that participants comply with. Standardization processes are very slow and tedious. They take years to be developed and cost a lot of research money.

* *Interoperability*. Standardization is just the tip of the iceberg. There are always a number of aspects that cannot be predicted during the standardization process, but they become apparent at a later stage during implementation. Interoperability initiatives need to be organized between vendors and validated by operators. This is an even more involving and resource consuming process than standardisation. The cost includes not only highly skilled corporate architects but also armies of development teams who have to interact among each other and close gaps between implementations.

* *Time to market*. Working, standards based products have to appear on the shelves in a timely fashion. Otherwise the market demand will be fulfilled by a variety of narrow-focus proprietary solutions, which will add insult to the injury and further fragment the market space. Skype is an example of a successful proprietary platform, which has a limited set of features but is nevertheless widely adopted by consumers.

* *Mainstream developer adoption*. The dream of thousands of off the shelf IMS applications could only come to fruition when the technology is embraced by mainstream developers. This demands availability of low cost, lightweight IMS execution environment and convenient development tools. Developers need to be able to run a self contained environment on their laptops running any major operating system.

Open Source IMS addresses all of the needs above at a lower cost compared to the traditional closed source approach. This has been recognized by several operators and vendors. Since the June release of Mobicents - the first and only certified open source implementation of JSLEE, new contributors have been joining each month. The number of visits to the project pages has been growing by a multiple almost every month and the download rate crossed 1,000 in October.

The benefits to operators are quite obvious - they get a working IMS platform at a low cost. Portugal Telecom Innovacao for example contributed Resource Adaptors for XMPP and Asterisk as well as many useful examples. Vendors can also derive benefits on their own. Aepona is leading the development of a Parlay Resource Adaptor, which will allow JSLEE applications to communicate with Parlay gateways. Lucent Technologies on the other hand is building a prototype hardware appliance that embeds Mobicents and guarantees certain levels of performance and reliability. Open Cloud contributed to EclipSLEE, with the hope that a tool for rapid service creation will grow the SLEE developer community.

The idea of Open Source IMS is not without challenges though. There are telco players that are very conservative about the potential risk of exposing Intellectual Property to competitors. This is a barrier that seems to be taking a long time to lift in some cases. Another problem is the low level of comfort for operators that are used to purchase multi-million hand-holding support contracts from vendors instead of dealing directly with a given technology. These operators prefer to wait until their primary NEPs (network equipment providers) offer a product or service before they consider it. There is a certain amount of substance to such logic since at its heart Mobicents is driven by a team of volunteers with real day jobs and lives beyond IMS. Recently two of the core team developers stepped back as other priorities have demanded their time. This had immediate impact on the project liveliness.

While the idea of an Open Source IMS platform is meaningful and has produced concrete positive results it has yet to find a sustainable business model. Over the last few months Mobicents members have circulated the idea of forming a formal body - Mobicents Foundation - to look after the long term interests of the project and its community. It would provide a structured way for committed members to steer the development roadmap. The foundation would also secure funding for a dedicated core team that will be responsible for enhancing the kernel as well as reviewing and glueing together the various add-on contributions in an optimal way. The Foundation might be the missing piece that makes Open Source IMS a huge success. Pooling resources for a common infrastructure layer has been proven successful in the cases of Linux with OSDL and Development Tools with Eclipse. It could work for IMS too. [See www.mobicents.org]


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