C.P. Manoharan, Director, Business Development, APAC South, Spirent Communications

5G, SD-WAN and cloud are the building blocks of the telecom future, and they demand a new test infrastructure, labs and expert processes. Most importantly, they demand a new mindset. Use cases such as autonomous vehicle communication, industrial IoT, tele-health and augmented reality bring in intensive performance requirements against a backdrop of multilayered domains of hybrid network complexity. Delivering on the promise of these new use cases with limited investment and expertise requires new levels of automation and a shift to continuous integration/continuous development (CI/CD).

Overcoming complexity with innovation

The applications of these technologies and the underlying infrastructure have become phenomenally complex, making it difficult for telecom service providers and vendors to collaborate on new innovations. To address this complexity, the network should be segmented into domains with well-defined interfaces. Innovation pipelines may then be established for each domain, allowing the domains to evolve independently. To accelerate innovation in each domain, pipelines should follow CI/CD best practices with continuous testing as a key enabler. Highly automated testing is enables rapid validation and problem isolation as new functions and infrastructure are developed and then deployed into production environments.

Consolidating and automating physical labs with LaaS

The lab-as-a-service (LaaS) approach pools physical and virtual resources across labs globally so that they function as one lab. LaaS manages and tracks the utilisation of all lab resources so that they can be rapidly reconfigured, test beds can be spun up and down on demand and complex validation test suites can be fully automated. LaaS solutions enable zero-touch provisioning by connecting all physical, virtual and hybrid infrastructure and test equipment with programmable Layer 1 switches. Web interfaces deliver a “single pane of glass” where resources located in different global regions are discovered and made accessible to users worldwide, and test beds can be designed and provisioned.

Since the continuous delivery process typically involves multiple suppliers and multiple internal teams, the lab environment must enable state-of-the-art collaboration across all of these groups. LaaS gives each group access to the same automated test environment so that it can perform consistent validation as part of a larger innovation pipeline. LaaS also seamlessly integrates with in-house or third-party automation tools to maximise the use of all resources across the existing innovation pipeline.

Adopt agile CI/CD practices with test-as-a-service

Telecom innovation may start with the lab, but it extends far beyond to network validation test cases, workflows and cross-team collaboration. The testing of previous generations of network equipment used to be much simpler because it focused on the validation of well-defined physical network elements. With the 5G Core and its cloud-native architecture, these monolithic network elements are superseded by individual cloud-native network functions (CNFs) that may be deployed in traditional centralised locations or closer to the network edge to enhance performance. Likewise, SD-WAN introduces multiple layers to the network with CNFs distributed across the end-to-end network, from the core to the customer premises.

This new reality requires that individual CNFs are validated both in isolation and as part of an end-to-end cloud network. To enable rapid collaboration and development, CNF validation must be automated and seamlessly integrated into systems for tracking feature requests, creating new builds, and managing the status of testing and bug fixes. This automated and integrated approach to validation, often referred to as continuous testing (CT), is a critical element of CI/ CD, a best practice for accelerating cloud software releases.

Adopting CI/CD requires new capabilities for implementing a CI/CD environment for multiple vendors with a constant stream of releases, integrating automated CNF isolation and end-to-end validation tests with the CI/CD environment, emulating the network to perform realistic validation including interoperability testing of vendor CNFs,  and validating both performance and security for network functions and cloud infrastructure.

The new approach

As networks have undergone a major architectural shift, we must now transform our telecom innovation pipelines – the way we design, develop and deploy new network-based products and services. We need to build a new approach and this requires a fundamental rethinking of the traditional approach to network labs, validation and deployment. To this end, service providers and network vendors must take a hard look at what they can do themselves and when expert help is required.