Why forward-thinking telcos are cloudifying their networks

Like businesses in pretty much every sector, many telecommunications companies (telcos) have already moved their IT infrastructure delivery and maintenance to the cloud. Cloudification is an increasingly essential way for any company to cut IT operating costs while gaining the flexibility and agility needed to survive and thrive in today’s fast-changing world.

But what about telecom networks? Just a few years ago, the conventional wisdom was that there was no place for cloud computing within telecom networks — which were strictly the domain of specialized, purpose-built appliances.

The emergence of network function virtualization (NFV) first opened the door to cloud as a core part of tomorrow’s telecom networks and heralded the beginning of the end for dedicated network appliances.

First step on the journey: virtualizing network functions

Network function virtualization is a critical step on any telco’s journey to cloud, whereby traditional network appliances are replaced with highly efficient virtualized functions delivered using industry-standard IT equipment. Through virtualization, telcos can use standardized server hardware for multiple purposes, instead of relying on bespoke appliances.

More recently, two new trends have advanced the cloudification of telecom networks. First, in addition to pure virtualization, telcos have started to employ cloud business and cloud management practices such as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) for their network functions. Second, cloud-native software – in the form of microservices and Kubernetes containers – has proliferated in the design of virtualized network functions.

As a result, we have seen the emergence of what we can call network function cloudification — a game-changer for next generation telecom networks.

What’s telco cloud?

Telco cloud encompasses both network function virtualization and network function cloudification, bringing to telecom networks the same kinds of benefits that cloud has delivered for IT infrastructure. Telco cloud gives telcos a highly flexible platform that enables the evolution to a software-defined network and significantly reduces the need for specialized hardware.

Telecom networks and cloud: Two technological domains that don’t mix. Or do they?

While it almost exclusively employs private cloud today, public and hybrid cloud increasingly play a role in private 5G systems (where other rules apply) in delivering maximum cost efficiency and agility.

Yet cloud isn’t only about smart technology: it’s also a critical enabler for new ways of thinking and working. Cloud enables agile service management and supports the agile design, development and delivery of new telecom services — using DevOps to accelerate innovation.

Transforming the network

The merits of cloud in the network environment are indisputable. Telcos can benefit from the unprecedented agility, dynamism and faster time-to-market that programmable infrastructures and cloud-native software can bring. Moreover, a cloud platform enables telcos to harness AI and automation to begin realizing the vision of an entirely self-adapting network.

Telco cloud also enables virtualization at the edge of the network, bringing telcos even more flexibility and efficiency. For example virtualizing radio access networks (RAN) would simply be impossible without cloud-native network function cloudification.

Telco cloud and decarbonization

In the face of the climate crisis, one feature of telco cloud is particularly noteworthy. With cloud-native network functions built as a mesh of microservices, the number of service instances can be automatically scaled down when network traffic is low. The remaining instances can then be concentrated on a few compute nodes and any unused hardware assets dynamically shut down.

Conversely, the system dynamically scales back up when the load increases or network traffic spikes due to special events (trade shows, major sporting events, etc.). This auto scaling is a key benefit of cloud-native network functions and an important step in building the energy-efficient, decarbonized telecom networks of the future.

So why now?

So why is this so compelling now? The answer is the advent of 5G and, before too long, 6G – for which telcos need to be ready. Whether it’s smart city services, connected health and wellbeing solutions or autonomous cars, telcos will play a vital role in bringing these value-added services to society. That is a welcome development given that connectivity alone long ceased to be a prime source of revenue.

Yet with all these exciting possibilities come critical challenges for telcos. The requirements of some ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC) applications will be so demanding that even far-edge data centers will not suffice. The service must come straight from the network.

A carrier whose network is still built from bespoke appliances rather than industry-standard hardware will be lost — which is why telco cloud is now surely on the critical path.

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About Franz Kasparec
Head of global digital infrastructure and cybersecurity in telecommunications, media and technology
Franz Kasparec is globally in charge of the digital infrastructure and cybersecurity offerings in the telecommunications, media and technology industries. He spends much of his time advising carriers, media companies, and internet providers on new infrastructure and security trends. One of his specializations is mobile edge computing (MEC) and virtualization of the radio access network (RAN) in telecom. He holds several cybersecurity and business-continuity management certifications. Franz is a resident of Vienna, Austria.

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