For most people, the word “infrastructure” brings to mind images of roads, bridges, airports, water lines, and phone poles. In other words: hardware. In the cloudified world of today, it’s software that’s driving innovation. Obviously, software runs on physical servers and uses physical storage. While servers and storage are being innovated, software is undergoing a revolution. What does that mean for telcos? Here are some predictions for 2018.
COTS Servers Are King
The preferred approach for software-centric infrastructure is network functions virtualization (NFV). With NFV, we replace closed network appliances by deploying software virtual network functions (VNFs) on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) servers. There has been an ongoing debate about whether that approach can meet stringent telco requirements. My view is that the answer is now a resounding “yes.” Granted, it has taken time and hard work to address cost, performance, and reliability issues. The time for deployment is here.
In 2018, more and more operators will reach that same conclusion. The result will be a ramp up in the deployment of NFV using COTS servers. Operators will place a severe constraint on deploying closed or hybrid devices, limiting them to specialized applications.
Cloud-Native is Essential
Moving from appliances to COTS servers is necessary for cloudification, but it is not sufficient. For example, some suppliers have supplanted their closed appliances with proprietary software VNFs running directly on the server. This approach omits the virtualization layer. We call it “bare metal” because the software runs directly on the central processing unit (CPU). An example for software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) is shown below.
In contrast, software in the traditional cloud runs in a virtual machine (VM) or container. This approach isolates the application from the underlying operating system and hardware, which are virtualized. In the case of NFV, this layer is referred to as NFV Infrastructure (NFVI), and is shown on the right side of the figure above.
Virtualization, abstraction, and isolation are essential attributes of cloudification. Using COTS servers with software running on bare metal misses many of the benefits of the cloud. In 2018, we will see operators insist on cloud-native solutions for new services.
Software Lets Us Do Things We Couldn’t Do Before
We used to talk about the benefits of software and NFV in terms of reduced cost and increased speed of innovation. These are still valid goals, but they are evolutionary. They let us do what we are already doing, only faster and cheaper. That’s good, yet perhaps not a compelling reason for disruptive change.
We are now learning that the move to software lets us do things that were previously impossible. In other words, the benefits are revolutionary. For example:
- Operators like Verizon and Masergy are giving their customers the ability to dynamically control services, and do it in real-time via a portal. Waiting for weeks and months for service changes will be a thing of the past.
- With its universal CPE (uCPE) project, Verizon has radically changed the fulfillment process. In the past, they stocked CPE devices and pre-configured them with customer information. Now they can have COTS servers shipped directly to the customer and then turn up services in a zero touch fashion. Buying telco services is not like ordering physical products online with overnight delivery.
- With the advent of containers and micro-services, operators have the ability to update a part of a service, rather than the entire stack. This reduces the cost and risk of making changes to services.
In 2018, we will see operators require a business case that provides improvements in capex and opex. But the revolutionary benefits will drive the move to software.
Security Continues to Grow in Importance
Moving to the cloud has many benefits, but there are also risks. One of the most worrisome is security. There seem to be new security breaches every week. How can operators get the benefits of the cloud while mitigating security risks? Here are some tools that operators will deploy in 2018:
- Software-based encryption — Appliance-based network encryption has been used for many years, along with software encryption for specific applications. Now software-based network encryption will emerge. This approach gives the benefits of encrypting all traffic, with no dependence on a particular application. In addition, software encryption can be placed in the cloud, where it is not feasible to deploy an appliance.
- Zero trust — The default mode for most networks is to allow connections unless specifically denied (e.g., restricting access to certain servers containing privileged data). In a zero-trust model, only authorized connections are permitted. This model is usually enforced with a policy server using software-defined networking (SDN) to dynamically setup and teardown connections. The benefit is that intrusions become much more difficult.
New Infrastructure Requires New Ways of Working
Software is going to be increasingly important to telcos; but are they equipped for a cloudified world? In some ways, yes. Telcos have been working with automation and large software systems for decades. Gaining the full benefits of the new world means making some changes.
- Agile development — Telcos have traditionally used a waterfall method for development. This involves a strictly sequential process of specification, review, coding, review, testing, beta trial, field trial, and full deployment. Waterfall development can produce good products, but it can also cause cost, delay, and missing the market. In contrast, agile development shrinks mega-projects down to bite-size chunks that are developed in an iterative fashion. In an ideal model the development cycle includes both suppliers and the end customer.
- DevOps — DevOps is short for development operations, which integrates software development with its operation. DevOps emphasizes the use of software tools and automation to increase consistency and speed of software innovation.
- Breaking silos — Agile development and DevOps are great, but they don’t work in isolation. Operators have to break down barriers between different groups and flatten organizations. This is already happening and a lot more will occur in 2018.
Software Powers the Cloud — and the Telco
Hardware is not going away. It can’t. But software is where the action is. In 2018, we’ll see lots of evidence for the preeminence of software in the telco world.