The telecommunication industry has been one of the fastest changing industries in the past two decades. Everything from business models to products/ services to underlying technology gets redefined every four to five years. The recent roll-out of 5G worldwide is creating many challenges and opportunities and has the potential to change the telecom industry to its core. One of the biggest lessons telecom service providers have learned in their turbulent journey during the past two decades is that their survival and success heavily depends on how flexible their internal processes, systems and infrastructure are and how quickly they can adapt to these changes.
Telecom service providers’ continuous pursuit of becoming more flexible and adaptable in this rapidly changing environment explains the increased adoption of softwarisation and virtualisation trends. The softwarisation and virtualisation of networks and infrastructure are opening the door to faster innovation and greater agility while helping telecom companies reshape entire aspects of the business in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago. Softwarisation also comes with many additional operational benefits, including higher potential for automation, flexibility in resource utilisation, scalability, advanced redundancy, and advanced management features that are common in the cloud-native and data centre world.
All telecom operators need to determine the right transition path from their current legacy network architecture to a fully cloud-native architecture. In their journey to modernise networks, softwarisation will help operators turn the network into their next competitive battleground and gain a competitive advantage. The right technology choices related to the network will determine their degree of success in the future. Network virtualisation, software-defined networks and standardisation are the three key technology shifts driving network softwarisation. Network virtualisation (which includes network function virtualisation (NFV) and virtualised radio access network (vRAN)) decouples network functionalities from the underlying hardware. Software-defined networks (SDNs) separate the control plane of a network from the user plane and centralise it; and standardisation helps create the openness of network interfaces and the application programming interface (API). SDN and NFV will provide sufficient flexibility for versatile network procedures, as opposed to typical networking technologies, allowing quick and basic adjustments of network resources and data flows.
Network softwarisation is one of the key enablers for telecom companies in their evolution from 2G, 3G, and 4G to 5G. The sector has evolved from ancient pure hardware play to previous semi-software/hardware play to current exclusive software solutions. The scope of software in the radio access network (RAN), transport and core network/service logic domains has also increased from 2G to 5G. In the future, it will shift to a cloud-native software platform. Telco-grade internet technologies such as HTTP2 further enable and accelerate cloud-native 5G network adoption.
Flexibility and adaptability are not the only things driving operators toward softwarisation and virtualisation. Infrastructure softwarisation also helps operators derive maximum benefits from emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and implement data-driven strategies. By leveraging AI, the devices can “learn” from their data and experience. The deep monitoring capabilities offered by SDN and NFV support the collection of extraordinary amounts of fine-grained observation data and aid in the discovery phase of data intelligence. Telecommunication companies can leverage these insights to improve their networks, and it opens new dimensions of data insights that can be utilised to provide a better customer experience and differentiated services.
Telecom service providers also leverage SDN and NFV to significantly improve their capacity and efficiency in dealing with the rapidly evolving cyberthreat landscape. In this era of information warfare, cyberterrorism and computer crime, managing security issues has become extremely complex. With internet of things (IoT) devices becoming more widespread, there is an increased threat to communication networks as the bad actors may potentially exploit vulnerabilities in these devices to launch distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) and other cyberattacks. SDN facilitates the central management of security policies to increase flexibility and efficiency for network operators and system administrators. SDN also helps organisations move past current management approaches such as simple network management protocol (SNMP)/command-line interface (CLI) to more effective modern policy management processes.
East-west and north-south traffic can pose a security risk in a complex network. SDN can be used for better traffic engineering to direct network flows to specific security devices like firewalls, intrusion detection systems/intrusion prevention systems (IDS/IPS), and web application firewalls as needed. Another way SDN can provide greater security is through micro-segmentation, where policies are applied to individual workloads for greater protection. Organisations can decrease the network’s attack surfaces with more granular segmentation of data centre workloads. Telecom service providers are also leveraging automation and automatic provisioning features of SDN to create a network capable of proactively handling the evolving threats.
Telecom service providers that are moving telco network functions to the cloud, in conjunction with softwarisation, will get an opportunity to redefine their business model and improve their financial performance. Certain areas of the core network and RAN baseband processing could be run on the cloud infrastructure, allowing operators to reduce the upfront hardware costs and instead opt for a “network-as-a-service” model that scales with business growth. The computational load capacity could be dynamically scaled up and down, thereby avoiding the need for site-level permanent provisioning of capacity that is only required for certain peak occasions. Telecom service providers can now better manage their infrastructure, reduce operation costs and streamline complexities, increasing the focus on value-creation drivers and exploring new network monetisation avenues.
However, reaping the benefits of softwarisation is not as straightforward as it might seem. For example, some operators have seen costs increase with SDN and NFV deployments. In some cases, vRAN set-ups are facing energy efficiency challenges. Real-life implementations of such modern network architecture concepts have yet to prove their financial advantage when deployed at scale.
All telecom service providers should take an approach rooted in value creation for customers and procurement excellence to offset considerable swap/migration and system integration costs. Softwarisation and virtualisation provide improved flexibility for telecom operators to reduce the time required to implement network services and the time to market, scale up and down their infrastructure, help navigate the complex cyberthreat landscape, and provide better opportunities for the trial and deployment of new, advanced cloud-native services. However, as with all new technology implementations, it is equally important for every stakeholder to evaluate the cost benefits of different use cases before implementing them on a large scale.