Will Telco Infrastructure Go Soft in 2018?

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:

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:

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.

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.