Telecom operators are modernising networks to 5G and gigabit fibre to keep pace with society's insatiable demand for faster and more reliable connectivity. Driven by the rise of data consumption, a proliferation of connected devices and the emergence of a vast range of new services continue to transform the way we live our lives, socialise, communicate and conduct business.
In this evolution, telco cloud has emerged as an increasingly critical element hosting vital network functions which ensure the delivery of services to customers . These services are essential for operators to generate revenue: mobile voice and data, fixed and many value-added services.
Telecom operators are now moving to containerized network functions (CNF) in combination with the adoption of automation, leveraging machine learning/artificial intelligence (ML/AI) to create the next generation of powerful networks.
With the right approach, these operators can create a highly automated platform for growth and innovation.
CNF (Cloud-native Network Function)
Moving to CNFs enables the digitalisation of network core and allows operators to benefit from the efficiencies promised by digitally native technologies. This is crucial, as the efficiency of an operator’s network plays a critical role in achieving return on network investments, providing a fully digital customer experience, and rapidly innovating new services . The level of automation achieved in the network and the underlying IT platform, as well as the levels of standardization and utilization of infrastructure, is critical to the success of any CNF hosting platform.
In fact, tier-1 operators such as Verizon and Vodafone are moving ahead with telco clouds that leverage open standards and have common containers, hardware infrastructure and automation tools which can host CNFs from a range of different network equipment providers. This enables the faster launch of new services and highly efficient management of applications and network loads across any telco infrastructure—in the core, on the edge and across radio access networks.
Going forward, containers will be the key element to making network functions cloud native. Since containers can encapsulate software code with any relevant dependencies, organizations will be able to enable operations across any infrastructure configuration. In this way, operators can optimize spend by operating a variety of workloads in commercial hardware configurations and with the use of standardized hardware infrastructure.
It is possible to architect and tune commercially available hardware infrastructure so it meets the stringent requirements expected from telco clouds. This includes parameters such as computational performance, latency, power consumption, data storage, privacy and resilience. This approach not only results in standardized hardware infrastructure, but it also allows for elevated levels of utilization, which reduces costs.
Container technology is rapidly maturing and offers tangible benefits that can optimize efforts and outcomes for both developers and the operations team and enhance the overall telecom infrastructure of the organization. Some of the key benefits of containerizing or encapsulating software code as CNFs include:
- Greater efficiency in the use of technical resources such as servers and licenses Increased flexibility through portability and container orchestration, which serves as the basis for improved automation
- Easing of development and operational tasks by leveraging standardized developer tools and inherent fault isolation
In this context, standardizing container layers is advisable, so that a single container layer can support all network functions. This helps you avoid additional costs and technical complexities that are commonly experienced with multiple traditional silos.
Automation is increasingly becoming an imperative for operators as they seek to reduce operating costs. Moreover, monetising 5G will result in the introduction of more services increasing operational complexity. And the only way to truly scale will be to fully automate their provisioning and operations. Soon, managing these services will simply become too complex as the volumes of connected devices rise with different connectivity agreements and SLAs.
Consequently, operators should make investments in their IT layer that enable automation with advanced analytics, AI/ML and orchestration. This will result in easier network management across various scenarios, such as easing network congestion, mitigating security problems and detecting faulty devices. This not only reduces costs but also makes it possible to support new products and services at scale. Without core automation, operations risk become increasingly complex and are unable to support a broad range of services, such as in the case of multiple different use cases for enterprise customers leveraging 5G.
To achieve the above, teams need to significantly upskill their digital capabilities, so they are able to better manage CNFs across a digital infrastructure. Organizations will continue to adopt new digital technologies such as CI/CD toolchains and innovative approaches to AI/ML-enabled monitoring to drive observability and enable advanced capabilities such as predictive maintenance. Additionally, automation will be increasingly essential in ensuring the performance and compatibility of network functions as they get patched or upgraded. Along with digital technologies, organizations can also expect the emergence of new ways of working that will require the adoption of DevOps and SRE approaches, so they can fully achieve their efficiency and scalability potential.
To benefit from the potential of digital technologies made prevalent by the success of hyperscalers and to ensure resilient network operations, organisations must focus on:
- Simplifying and standardising their architecture by leveraging emerging technologies and commercially available hardware
- Investing in maximizing automation to simplify maintenance, support and deployment of network functions
- Taking control of the virtualization layer to standardize on a single platform to support network functions from all their vendors
- Upskilling their workforce in digital technologies and realigning operations to maximize productivity, operational agility and efficiency.