Communication service providers, or telcos, have been struggling with digital transformation initiatives over the last decade. Despite progress on virtualization and cloudification, telcos still tend to hyper-specialize on a per use-case basis, tightly-coupling services in vertically integrated solutions. As a result, they continue to struggle with interoperability and change.
Nearly all of the most current and interesting paths to monetization of network investments cut across telecom domains (i.e., RAN, core and transport) and OSI protocol layers. The priority is exposing network capabilities at layer 7 for flexible consumption by internal teams and external developers to rapidly deliver new business and consumer services and continuously update them. Network reliability and security, long the obsession of network engineers, are now table stakes. Developers are focused on and require productivity and agility.
As telcos deploy 5G and begin to move toward “converged architectures,” all the elements of a network service at application, infrastructure or network layer will increasingly need to be accessed by APIs. However, despite many Open API initiatives in the telecom, siloed structures creep back in when the standard interfaces are implemented as concrete components with point-to-point integration. The rise of hybrid/multi-cloud and now edge deployments raise new challenges for telcos as there are no unifying models to help them work across silos and between layers, which constrains interoperability, end-to-end automation and policy-based management.
Defining the telco cloud
Telco cloud is not a product category. Rather, it is a platform use-case. A telco cloud platform is a unified solution that addresses communication service provider interoperability and automation pain points to facilitate their transformation to digital service providers. The mission of a telco cloud platform is to enable a composable, catalog-driven, intent-based telco.
The key to achieving this mission is abstraction. Instead of manually integrating cloud network functions (CNFs) on a static, one-off basis, a telco cloud platform must include an abstraction layer that models OpenAPI and cloud provider API interfaces to support automation. A harmonized telco domain model would allow developers to declaratively compose services using standards, while the platform runtime automates the deployment on a target host and late-binds the elements as a background process. Abstraction for interoperability and intent eliminates tedious system integration work and enables zero-touch network and service management.
The new abstraction layer de-couples consumers of network capabilities from implementation details so they can rapidly compose network services from functions in a telco catalog, identify a target host and set policies for its expected operations, without worrying about “how” that is to be achieved. This separation-of-concerns insulates developers at the application layer from network volatility and change. For the telco, they gain operational flexibility as long they maintain service level agreements (SLAs).
NetDevOps + Abstraction = Telco Cloud
A product category that most closely aligns with the above requirements is NetDevOps, which is the application of DevOps principles and techniques to network operations. It is an emerging market that extends beyond cross-domain or multi-domain orchestrators to present an integrated stack for the software development lifecycle. NetDevOps frameworks offer features like continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD), programmable infrastructure (as Code), automated workflow management, state awareness and more.
NetDevOps is relevant to telco service providers, who are increasingly looking for unified solutions that help them realize end-to-end automation and intent-based network and service management. Several players are active in this space, including a mix of incumbent OSS/BSS vendors and startups. While operating across multiple domains and layers to varying degrees, many of these products tend to be specialized to work over a specific set of domain elements and protocols. This is typified by hard coding of domain-specific functionality. The issue with this approach is that it can make it hard to weave in new concepts into their foundations, inherently limiting the scope of intent-based network and service management.
In addition, to offer a complete solution most of these products depend on other tools such as message queues, event-brokers, API gateways, integration tools, workflow engines, etc. (i.e., a middleware stack). While an integrated solution may be comprehensive, the approach might be tightly coupled and heavy weight. This means that some of these products will not be appropriate for the edge, which demands lightweight, low-latency, high-performance solutions.
There are promising new NetDevOps approaches that have abstraction at their core. A recent white paper “Over-the-Top Orchestration with Telco Cloud” highlighted EnterpriseWeb, which offers an industrial grade, no-code platform that supports complex distributed systems and event-driven processes. Their CloudNFV solution features a graph knowledge base with a ready-to-use, standards-based Telco operational model. It includes concepts from 3GPP 5G and NEF, MEF LSO, LF CAMARA, O-RAN Alliance, TMF OpenAPIs, ETSI NFV, etc. The harmonized model provides a unified interface for developers, cutting across domains (RAN, transport, and core) and protocol layers (OSI 1-7), to declaratively compose intent-based network services using standards-based metadata instead of manually integrating network services.
In a telecom network, the ability to have a unified control plane to orchestrate services through a common technology platform can lead to significant opex and even capex savings. Opex savings will come from automated cross-domain orchestration, while capex savings will come from rationalized solution architecture. This unique and potentially disruptive approach can be an enabling technology for telcos who are deploying 5G networks and looking for ways to enables use cases like network slicing. Network slicing has made limited progress to date but a telco cloud approach with middleware as a service will go a long way to breaking through the current bottlenecks in the modern telecom network.
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