Telecom service providers are facing a challenging dilemma. While they are sitting financially comfortably, the forward-looking service providers know that they are required to implement sweeping changes in how they deliver services. Otherwise, they stand the risk of being relegated to commodity dumb pipe provider by visionary entrants with new service models. Thus, in facing the risk of marginalization, service providers have to embark on a software transformation process that’s challenging and painful.
To transform their clunky hardware-based networks to flexible adaptive software-based network service providers are looking, and a few are implementing, SDN and NFV technologies which have had a lot of attention in the last 5 years with limited market traction to date. The argument is that with NFV and SDN, new service creation and delivery become order of magnitudes easier and faster as does scalability in all the sense of this word.
But software transformation is more than a change in technology. For the transition from slow hardware-centric entities to agile software-centric entities is a fundamental change that reaches deep into entrenched cultures. This change impacts all layers and functions of the organization: its people, its processes and modus operandi, and its activities. Its is a far-sweeping change that requires new ways of thinking and skill-sets.
A software-centric entity by nature requires software programmers. Service providers have to attract those people and in this they will be competing with a whole bunch of software-based companies ranging from the giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon to the small Internet startup with hip and cool ideas. This means a massive change in culture if this transformation to succeed (just think of the difference between the suits and the jeans and T-shirts!!). Moreover, the software transformation would require rethinking of the silo model adopted by service providers: It would take much more than enacting cosmetic changes into the organization.
The ‘waterfall’ product introduction process that is followed by service providers has proved its worth for hardware-based and standard-centric networks needs to give way to models based on DevOps and CI/CD (continuous integration / continuous delivery) that allow overlap of the development, testing and operating cycles to quickly release solutions onto the market. This is much more than a process, but rather it is a culture that service providers would need to adopt.
Todays, telecom networks are based on standards, many of which are very old – still around to support legacy systems (PDH, TDM, X.25, etc.). A new 5G wireless access standard is in process of being defined by 3GPP following traditional models. But the need to change is slowly creeping into the service provider world. There is a recognition that open source models need to be adopted as demonstrated last May by a call from NGMN to look into this model. Organization such as the IEEE are opening up to create synergy between standard activities and open source model. Service providers such as AT&T, Telefonica and others are releasing part of their code as open source. The pace and ability to change is something to watch for.
Software transforming requires a new understanding of how networks are architected, behave and perform. Basic concepts take on a new meaning that could fundamentally contrast with the definition adopted by service providers for decades. For example, service providers aim for high reliability – five 9’s is the common metric to ensure high service availability. This transforms into many requirements such as redundancy and different operating processes. The reliability in a software-based networks take on a different approach that service providers have to embrace: building perfect networks on imperfect infrastructure rather than building the perfect infrastructure.
In telecom, there is much emphasis on technology as witnessed by the hype that surrounds different technologies, such as 5G. Technology is developed first while the use cases come later, following the model of ‘build it and they will come.’ The Internet space on the other hand is focused on services and applications that drive technology development. Undoubtedly, the different structure of the two ecosystems has much to do with that. However, if we concur that the Internet and mobile worlds have converged, then we not far from concluding that we need to deliver services irrespective of the type of access technology. The transformation towards a software-centric organization is one towards a service-based organization. That’s why the service providers risk at being marginalized.