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The Critical Lowdown Podcast Episode 23

OpenWiFi: The Future of Seamless & Scalable Enterprise Connectivity


June 20th is World Wifi Day. #WorldWiFiDay 2023 celebrates innovations and new projects that help bridge the digital divide worldwide. The goal is to improve consumer access in broadband-deprived areas in both developed and developing countries. One such innovation is Open Wi-Fi, a groundbreaking initiative from the Telecom Infra Project. It's more than just a technology; it's a movement that aims to democratize internet access, particularly in areas lacking broadband connectivity, in both developed and developing countries.

New latency-sensitive applications like Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) are driving demand for fast, reliable connectivity. The combination of high-density WiFi 6, WiFi 6E, and Wi-Fi 7 offers service providers a powerful toolkit to deliver ubiquitous, always-on connectivity. Open Wi-Fi plays a pivotal role in this ecosystem.

In this bonus episode of The Critical Lowdown, we delve into what Open WiFi is, or more importantly is not, and its potential to revolutionize connectivity. So, sit back, relax, and join us as we look at how Open Wi-Fi is contributing to the mission of World Wi-Fi Day and the potential of this new technology.

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Jack Raynor, META and TIP

Jack Raynor
Co-Chair Telecom Infra Project Open Converged Wireless Project Group

Jack Raynor is the Co-Chair of the Telecom Infra Project's Open Converged Wireless Project Group. As Co-Chair, he leads the OpenWiFi initiative, an open-source architecture that enables multi-vendor, interoperable Wi-Fi networks to accelerate Wi-Fi infrastructure innovation. He leads the Program Group and global ecosystem that creates feature-rich, cost-effective communications solutions globally and directs the growth and demand for open, disaggregated networks for the Enterprise Wi-Fi industry. In addition, he’s driving adoption of the TIP OpenWiFi software and solutions, advancing the Program Group’s community participation and collaboration, and working with ecosystem members including MSPs, ODMs, OEMs, and Silicon Providers, among others, to drive open source Wi-Fi market success. He also serves as the leader of TIP OpenWiFi at Meta.

Andrew Westerman, IO by HFCL

Andrew Westerman
Vice President, International Sales, IO by HFCL

Andrew Westerman, Vice President, International Sales at IO by HFCL is responsible for sales and business development across the complete portfolio of IO by HFCL communication products. IO by HFCL is headquartered in Delhi, India and is now focussed on significant international expansion under the brand name of IO by HFCL. TIP Open WIFI represents a major part of these activities and HFCL are rapidly expanding their operations across the world with numerous new distributors being onboarded and many trials in progress with large Enterprise and MSP customers.

Alan Fagan: My name is Alan Fagan, and I manage the North American team for EPS Global. We're a value-added distributor specializing in open networking solutions.
I'm joined today by:

and we're going to talk about OpenWiFi.

Let's dispel some myths about OpenWiFi. While preparing for this podcast, I asked BARD, Google's AI tool, for some good questions about OpenWiFi. It provided this description: “Open Wi-Fi is a type of wireless network that is open to anyone who wants to use it, meaning there is no need to log in or provide any credentials to connect to the network”. This is not true of course, and we’re here today to talk about the evolution of open networking into Wi-Fi technologies. Jack, as the co-chair of the Open Converged Wireless Project Group in TIP, can you give us an overview of what this project group does; your role; and what OpenWiFi actually is?

Jack Raynor: Sure, thanks, Alan. It's a pleasure to be here. As you mentioned, my name is Jack Raynor, and I'm a Senior Technology Consultant at Meta, and Co-Chair of the TIP OpenWiFi Project. I work diligently on raising awareness and recognition of what OpenWiFi truly is.

Unlike the response you've gotten from BARD (which we get a lot!), OpenWiFi does not mean the network is open and non-secure. In fact, we work very hard on security to ensure that all industry standards are supported from a security perspective.

OpenWiFi is a community-developed, open, disaggregated Wi-Fi platform. What does that mean? It consists of two pieces of software: an AP NOS (Access Point Network Operating System) firmware based on OpenWRT and a cloud SDK management and control plane.

Alan Fagan: OK, great. Thanks, Jack. So, Andrew, you're the VP of International Sales for IO by HFCL. Can you tell us about HFCL and how you fit into the OpenWiFi ecosystem?

Andrew Westerman: Thanks Alan, it's a pleasure to be here. HFCL is a very large Indian company, well-known in the Indian market and now expanding internationally under the IO by HFCL brand. We're one of the big backers of the OpenWiFi initiative. We make a range of Wi-Fi Access Points, both indoor and outdoor, and we make all our APs available with the OpenWiFi firmware.

We're not only an Access Point manufacturer, but also a controller manufacturer. We offer a Wi-Fi controller in OpenWiFi format to the market, and we're one of the vendors that participate in the OpenWiFi initiative. It's truly open, with openness on the controller side and the Access Point side. You can either go with one OpenWiFi manufacturer, or with a number of them. We are committed to supporting ‘Open’ moving forward.

Alan Fagan: So it's very analogous to the open networking philosophy then, using whatever hardware you want and disaggregating the hardware and software. In discussions I've had about OpenWiFi, one word that has repeatedly come up is transformative.

Jack, is OpenWiFi transformative, and if so, how?

Jack Raynor: I'd say the software itself is not necessarily transformative. It's AP NOS firmware, and there's a lot of those out there, as well as management and control planes. What I think is transformative though is the model of the community. Wi-Fi is constantly improving, with Wi-Fi 6, 6E, and now Wi-Fi 7 being released within just a few years. This model is evolutionary for the Service Provider industry.

In the traditional model, most Service Providers need to pick one vendor and stick with them. Once they deploy at scale, it's very difficult to move off of that platform. The OpenWiFi community model gives Service Providers two critical advantages over the existing way things work:

  1. First is choice, as we're completely disaggregated at both the access point and management layers, so Operators are never locked in. They can choose their hardware maker and software control plane maker without being locked into either ecosystem.
  2. The second advantage is that it gives them a direct seat at the table. As an open community, Operators can directly participate, communicate their requirements, provide feedback on issues, and influence features they need to market quickly.
 

Alan Fagan: I want to talk about the mission of the Telecom Infra Project, which is to deploy open, disaggregated, and standards-based solutions that deliver high-quality connectivity. How does your group, OpenWiFi, contribute to this mission?

Jack Raynor: Our community has fundamental beliefs in principles such as being open, disaggregated, and diverse. All community members have an equal opportunity to participate, and there's never vendor lock-in at any layer, organizations are free to select whichever hardware they favor for example, which adds supply chain diversity. We're diverse from a community perspective, including ODMs, OEMs, software, value-added software, MSPs, and large Service Providers.

We're also diverse geographically and across all verticals. Because of this, we get to serve the underserved and deploy communications capabilities where they don't exist now, which is very important to us.

Alan Fagan: Great, thanks, Jack. You mentioned vendor lock-in and supply chain diversity. At EPS Global, we've been involved in network infrastructure for decades, and we're increasingly seeing pushback against vendor lock-in and the lack of supply chain diversity. I think it's becoming more of an issue, not just supply chain diversity, but geographic supplier diversity. Andrew, I'd like you to talk a bit about how Open Wi-Fi and HFCL can aid in creating that sort of geographic supplier diversity.

Andrew Westerman: Sure. HFCL, as you said earlier, is an Indian company, and India is fast emerging as a major alternative location for manufacturing to China. A couple of years ago, it didn't matter which vendor you bought from; all Access Points were manufactured in China. During the COVID era, this became a huge problem for Service Providers as they were locked into a particular manufacturer shipping APs from one country. If there were national lockdown policies, factories could not operate and products couldn’t be manufactured, this caused all sorts of supply issues. Not to mention tariffs in North America hitting products imported from some regions.

HFCL is a large Indian company with our own factories in India. We're not only offering OpenWiFi but also geographic diversity in terms of supply. Additionally, there are different politics involved. We hear a lot about Chinese-oriented products in the news, and no one knows where that's heading. We're offering customers an alternative with products manufactured in India that are OpenWiFi compliant, providing another option in the bigger picture.

Alan Fagan: Thanks, Andrew. So, Jack, where are you currently seeing success with Open Wi-Fi, and where do you expect to see future success?

Jack Raynor: The initial success we've seen is primarily in the hospitality and MDU (Multi Dwelling Unit) verticals. They are more nimble, easier to upgrade, and easier to swap out. In the future, I believe the prospects are bright. To elaborate on the diversity I mentioned earlier and what Andrew discussed, opening up ecosystems like OpenWiFi and unlocking new manufacturing regionally creates opportunities that no one ever thought of before. When everything is manufactured in the same place by the same people, you get the same form factors and a monotonous supply chain.

I've seen and worked with many innovative community members recently who are coming up with creative models for hardware, deployments, and ways to deploy without truck rolls. I don't even know what the future holds because of our diversity and the abundance of great ideas.

Wi-Fi 7, convergence technologies, and AI on the management plane (AI Ops) will likely be significant developments over the next decade. We'll probably deploy into different verticals like venues, but first, we need to teach those AI tools what OpenWiFi is!

Alan Fagan: That's great. On the other side of that coin, Jack, what challenges do you see with the Open Wi-Fi approach? Are there any issues that keep you awake at night?

Jack Raynor: I think the things that might keep me awake at night are the normal things that keep regular technical businesses awake, such as growing the community, enhancing the software, fixing bugs, and ensuring community members are satisfied.

OpenWiFi is not the silver bullet; it's not going to solve every problem instantly. There are challenges to the approach, mainly because it's a technical software stack, so there's a learning curve. If you want to develop your own hardware, you have to learn about the tools, processes, and how to apply it to your hardware. If you're a management company, you need to do the same. However, we've built a strong core ecosystem of suppliers that can help overcome those initial hurdles. It's not all challenges, but it's a technical stack, so you need to learn it. I think that's the key message.

Alan Fagan: That's the key message, right? There’s help out there - you're not on your own.

Andrew Westerman: The thing I was going to add is customer acceptance. When they hear the word "Open", there's a feeling initially that it wasn't stable. The reality couldn't be more different. The TIP labs are very advanced, and there's a strong community. The feature set is now very comparable to mainstream incumbent vendors. It has reached the point where it's a very viable alternative. The only challenge has been people's acceptance of that. However, we're seeing more customers, particularly after they've trialled it, willing to take the leap. We've had a major win recently with a large global enterprise where they're switching from a well-known, non Open Wi-Fi vendor to the OpenWiFi environment, which has been a major vote of confidence.

Jack Raynor: A point I really want to emphasize is that this is not your father's Open Source software. This is a commercial-grade, enterprise-class platform that is hardened by people who understand this industry. We have a very sophisticated quality lab with over 5,000 test cases and climbing. Over 90% of those test cases are automated, so when this software comes to production, it's ready for deployment.

Alan Fagan: Andrew, you mentioned HFCL being a large Indian company, and they are investing a lot of time and effort into Open Wi-Fi. How do you view it from a long-term perspective?

Andrew Westerman: From a long-term perspective, we are very committed to the OpenWiFi initiative. Whenever we develop an access point, we make it available in OpenWiFi firmware. Currently, we are at Wi-Fi 6, and we plan to launch Wi-Fi 7 by the end of the year. The same logic will apply across all our access points and our controllers. We are a bit unusual within the community as we are a provider of both access points and controllers. This means you have the option of going with IO by HFCL for a fully OpenWiFi network or mixing and matching with other vendors. We have instances of both, and I can vouch for the fact that it all works very well.

If you put yourself in the customer's shoes, you are moving from a world where, as Jack mentioned, you have to pick your vendor and are pretty much locked in at that point. Changing vendors becomes very difficult. However, if you choose the OpenWiFi route, you are not locking yourself into anything. You can pick a vendor or a set of vendors in the beginning and remain totally flexible throughout the lifetime of your network, never being locked into any single manufacturer. As a company, we believe in and support the OpenWiFi initiative. We think the opportunity will become very large ultimately, with major markets like North America, the MDU, the hospitality market, and Africa as a continent having huge opportunities with OpenWiFi. The developing world, in general, also has enormous potential with OpenWiFi. Why – add this here – lack of infrastructure, dark or other fiber in the ground, wireless provides broadband connectivity in rural areas? In addition to the flexibility, the actual cost of deployment and operation is significantly lower compared to more well-known incumbents.

If I were to put myself in the customer's shoes, it would be a no-brainer for me, as I have seen the quality of the equipment, the cost levels, and the software. It all adds up now.

Jack Raynor: I would agree. I think it's a matter of time. Every point that Andrew hit on is good. We have the quality, which is enterprise class and commercial grade. I think it's just a matter of time for people to try it, understand what it's all about, and build confidence in it. I believe it will take on a life of its own.

Alan Fagan: Over the last few years, we at EPS Global have worked with TIP and our partners, IP Infusion, Edgecore, and UfiSpace, to implement solutions for Service Providers globally. These Providers have already embraced open networking. So, what does OpenWiFi offer these Service Providers, and how can it help them further embrace open networking? I'll throw that to Jack first.

Jack Raynor: I think it offers them flexibility, a seat at the table, a voice, cost savings, and supplier diversity. All of the things that we've mentioned already. With strong community members like HFCL, I don't think there's much negative in it. I believe there are many advantages for Service Providers.

Alan Fagan: Great. Andrew, anything to add to that?

Andrew Westerman: The only thing I would say is that open networking has been more established in the IT switching and networking space for some time. Many enterprises and companies have deployed that open environment in the IT and networking space, but then connected it to a non-open environment in the Wi-Fi space. It's a natural next step now to extend that open approach to the edge of the network and into the Wi-Fi space. We think this is a logical next step for large enterprise ISPs and Service Providers to take.

Jack Raynor: Along with that, I'd like to add that we're part of this community because of the way it works. The community members can develop and cultivate their own ideas. We are working on a project for a campus PoE power switch that's open and works with the same control plane as our access points. You can already see where this is going; we're going to try to own the entire enterprise network.

Alan Fagan: Great. Thank you, Jack and Andrew, for your participation. I just want to check to see if there's anything that either of you would like to add before we wrap up.

Jack Raynor: I just want to thank Andrew. IO by HFCL is one of our most prized community members. They work in so many different areas. As Andrew said, they are making hardware, they're making software, they offer us geographic redundancy and diversity. We really do appreciate them and the contributions they make to the community.

Andrew Westerman: Just to sum up, thank you to both TIP and EPS Global. We're happy to be working with both organizations. I think the TIP organization is very strong and it's a great framework for this to sit in. At the end of the day, we're hoping to deploy a lot of these Open Wi-Fi networks. We're looking forward to deploying a lot of OpenWiFi with EPS Global around the world.

Jack Raynor: If I could add, this discussion with one of our major community members and a global supplier like EPS Global is a testament to where we've come. We're at the next step where we have the software, we have sufficient demand in the market, and now we're trying to build global supply chains around it. That just shows you right there where we've come.

Alan Fagan: Yeah, I think the combination of the three of us is a very powerful one, and I really appreciate the support and your participation today. I just want to wrap up the discussion and talk about OpenWiFi. The combination of deployment savings and automation-driven operational savings brings significant reduction in total cost of ownership over the current proprietary solutions. The diverse multi-vendor selection of cloud controllers and access points bring Service Providers choice and flexibility in enterprise-grade Wi-Fi infrastructure.

At EPS Global, we have hardware from HFCL ready to deploy. We have the relationship with TIP, relationships with multiple software partners, and the ability to put this hardware and software together to create OpenWiFi solutions for you. Please reach out to us if you're interested in finding out more. With that, I'll say thank you and goodbye.

Glossary of Terms:

  • OpenWiFi / Open Wi-Fi: A community-developed, open, disaggregated Wi-Fi platform consisting of an AP NOS firmware based on OpenWRT and a cloud SDK management and control plane. It provides flexibility, security, and choice for Service Providers without vendor lock-in.
  • Telecom Infra Project (TIP): An organization focused on deploying open, disaggregated, and standards-based solutions to deliver high-quality connectivity. TIP supports projects like OpenWiFi to promote innovation and diversity in the telecommunications industry.
  • Open Converged Wireless Project Group: A project group within TIP that focuses on the development and promotion of OpenWiFi solutions.
  • HFCL: A large Indian company specializing in telecommunications equipment, including Wi-Fi access points and controllers. HFCL is a major backer of the OpenWiFi initiative and offers products that support OpenWiFi firmware.
  • Open Networking: A philosophy that promotes the disaggregation of hardware and software in networking solutions, allowing for greater flexibility, choice, and cost savings for Service Providers.
  • Wi-Fi 6, 6E, and 7: The latest generations of Wi-Fi technology, offering improved speed, capacity, and efficiency for wireless networks.
  • Vendor Lock-in: A situation where a customer is dependent on a single vendor for products or services, making it difficult to switch to another vendor without incurring significant costs or disruptions.
  • Supply Chain Diversity: The practice of sourcing products and services from a variety of suppliers to reduce risk and increase flexibility in the supply chain.
  • Geographic Supplier Diversity: The practice of sourcing products and services from suppliers located in different geographic regions to reduce risk and increase flexibility in the supply chain.
  • MDU (Multi-Dwelling Unit): A type of residential building that contains multiple separate housing units, such as apartments or condominiums. OpenWiFi has seen initial success in the MDU market due to its flexibility and ease of deployment.
  • AI Ops: The use of artificial intelligence (AI) to automate and optimize the management and operation of IT systems, including Wi-Fi networks. AI Ops is expected to play a significant role in the future development of OpenWiFi solutions.

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