Scaling up the network – what can telcos learn from tech giants?

As the traffic demands on networks escalate, getting the right underlying infrastructure in place is the next big issue for operators. The network infrastructure must change for the networks to remain profitable.

The need for a new approach to existing hardware-centric networks, is critical: cost pressures and double-digit data growth being driven by bandwidth-hungry services, are creating a ‘perfect storm’ of pressures on operators.

To add to this, the anticipated growth in the Internet of Things, looks set to exacerbate existing capacity and network management challenges. It all means that the traditional networks, with sub-optimal asset utilisation cannot, cost-effectively, meet the growing traffic demands.

Here we explore how embracing a software-centric approach to the network is a necessity now for operators and what can be learnt from the big tech players whose infrastructure has been built to elastically scale, rapidly and at low cost.

Web-like speed: from Hardware-centric to Software-centric

A number of factors are driving the need for operators to adapt a new approach to their existing infrastructures.

Firstly, with margins already being squeezed, there are huge pressures on operators to reduce both capex and opex. At the same time, competition is intensifying; new entrants and OTT players are disrupting the market, so finding new approaches which can help to improve agility and the speed with which they can roll out new services – quickly and cost effectively – are critical.

Further, as traffic volumes across the network are growing exponentially, and more devices connect to the internet, custom, hardware-centric networks simply can’t scale to keep up with these network demands.

So how can operators adapt to meet these combined demands of achieving cost savings, improved agility and scalability? The answer lies in less reliance on custom-hardware platforms and a move towards a software-centric, programmable, agile and automated approach to drive improved asset utilisation.

In learning how to deploy new services at low cost and with web like speed, we should look to the example which has already been set by the tech giants. The same commercial off the shelf (COTS) technology leveraging merchant silicon that has been used by the big players – from Google to Facebook and Amazon – can be used to scale to massive proportions.

> See also: Integrated inventory: what telcos need to know

The same principle can be applied to deliver more services, faster and at lower costs. This means that operators can handle rapid growth efficiently by delivering new services without the need to significantly re-architect the platform.

A web-scale architecture and a software based approach means that operators can elastically scale services across one homogenised, commoditized platform and drive optimal asset utilisation. This brings significant benefits in terms of cost and efficiencies as a result of a higher degree of programmability and automation.

Not only does it enable operators to build infrastructures at low cost but it also means that when they want to launch a new service or applications they don’t have to build a brand new infrastructure.

Automation and programmability

To this end, two much talked about technologies – SDN (Software Defined Networking) and NFV (Network Functions Virtualisation) are gaining momentum and helping operators to meet these new cost and network demands.

SDN offers operators more programmability and control through a centralised approach to network management. SDN decouples the brains and brawns of today’s networking gear. It means that operators can rapidly make a change in the network in the control plane and have it automatically propagate to the forwarding plane.

For instance, operators can quickly respond to changing demands by moving traffic from one segment of the network to another – and less reliance on complex configuration changes to achieve this drives significant opex savings.

NFV will enable operators to run a wide variety of network function workloads over commodity COTS hardware. The ability to share a common COTS hardware infrastructure will dramatically lower capex and drive optimal asset utilisation. Combining SDN with NFV – using software to carry out the functions that would otherwise be carried out by custom-hardware – brings a further level of programmability to the network. By enabling a higher degree of automation through management and orchestration, it minimises the need for human intervention, further driving opex reductions.

The technology is now proven to be viable, scalable and able to deliver significant economic benefits; SNS Research estimates that, by 2020, SDN and NFV can enable service providers to save up to $32 billion in annual capex investments.

Skills and integration

Once this agile infrastructure is in place, CSPs will have the ability to rapidly introduce new services, cost effectively. However, whilst the promise of lower costs and greater service agility holds great benefits, there are new challenges on the horizon.

Teams will need to be armed with the right skills as networks start to become increasingly virtual and software driven. Processes, tools and organisational structures will need to adapt as capabilities are increasingly built around software.

Ultimately, systems integration will be key to its success and here operators should look to avoid vendor lock-in, in order to achieve the planned capex and opex savings.

By working with vendor neutral System Integrators (SI) who have a telecom pedigree, who bring software skills and who can speed up the transformation to integrate this technology, operators can realise the full benefits promised by a more virtual network and keep their networks profitable while traffic continues to grow.

Sourced from Manish Singh, VP Product Management, Tech Mahindra

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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