Ongoing developments in technology have led businesses to look to the cloud for greater flexibility, scalability and processing power. The telecoms industry is no different. Under growing pressure to meet the demands of the internet of things (IoT) and 5G, service providers are increasingly adopting cloud and virtualization technologies such as network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) to provide them with the capacity they need to manage the explosion in data traffic.
In an environment in which traditional telco revenue has been eroded by OTT (over-the-top, or IP-delivered) players, the commercial advantages offered by a telco cloud have never been more important. It’s hardly surprising then, that the global market is expected to grow at CAGR of 20 percent, reaching $29 billion within the next two years.
Despite the messages of benefits, however, operators have reservations, with many expressing concern that the hype around the promise of NFV and SDN is just that—hype.
During a panel discussion at the MPLS, SDN and NFV World Congress 2018 in Paris, representatives of Orange and Nokia, among others, raised questions over the current level of investment in the technology. SDN was described as “not really a new concept” and NFV as being a “bubble.”
It was additionally suggested that the benefits of virtualization weren’t particularly economical. Operators are becoming increasingly aware that the cost savings that NFV promises often are offset by the need to deploy entire racks of compute resources to handle processes that previously would have been supported by a single appliance. When you factor in the CPU and server requirements, along with the necessary power and physical rack space, the cost of delivering the same performance as a dedicated solution can be at least as expensive as a custom-designed alternative.
Given the fundamental role that both SDN and NFV play in underpinning telco cloud, opinions such as those expressed in Paris are concerning—particularly when publicly voiced and apparently widely held. It’s clear then, that if they’re not already doing so, operators need to address these issues to realize the potential of telco cloud in the most cost-effective and efficient way possible. Indeed, time is of the essence, as the performance and scaling problems that operators face with generic NFV infrastructure are only set to get worse once 5G networks are fully implemented. The sheer volume and speed of data traffic through a 5G network, for example, will bring entirely new requirements in terms of scalability and performance.
Encouragingly, though, steps are being taken to tackle technical challenges around performance and power consumption, particularly with regard to generic hardware. By distributing workloads between x86 general purpose processors and software-reconfigurable, FPGA-based SMARTNICs that are optimized for virtualized environments or VNF re-architecture, operators are turning to hardware acceleration as a means of improving performance both now and in the future.
The analyst forecast mentioned at the beginning of this article illustrates that, while discussions continue around the relative economic benefits of virtualization, there’s no denying that cloud-based network infrastructure is beginning to take root across the telecoms industry.
Increasingly we are seeing operators moving workloads on to virtualized or containerized infrastructure, for example, as they look to improve performance, reduce costs and hyperscale as required by their various network functions, applications and services.
What’s more, inspired by other sectors that have successfully leveraged cloud-native functionality, operators are embracing Agile and DevOps development practices. Telco cloud provides operators with the development agility they need to combine and re-combine existing functions that, when tested and proven for scale, can deliver entirely new network capabilities. With the ability to quickly bring innovative new ideas to market, operators now have a new avenue of revenue to explore.
The benefits extend into the wider ecosystem, too. Not only will an open multi-vendor platform running on open source software improve operational and cost efficiency, but by allowing software from multiple vendors to be more quickly integrated, it will enable the creation of innovative new network services and IT functions that, in turn, could led to new revenue streams.
And, of course, the new paradigm shift will improve the customer experience. Shortly after last year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC), for example, Verizon and Colt carried out the first demonstration of two-way, inter-carrier SDN orchestration, making near real-time bandwidth changes in each other’s production networks. The implications of this are significant, offering enterprise customers in particular flexibility on demand.
The 5G networks and the new generation of handsets, including foldable devices, dominated this year’s MWC. One look at the show’s agenda, however, shows just how important the cloud has become. And in meeting the demands of 5G and all it entails, its importance will only grow. It’s time, then, for operators to take a serious look into the telco cloud.
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