How can telcos capitalise on their cloud?

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It’s a demanding environment for telecommunications companies.  Customer’s expectations continue to increase, and the industry is seeing a major transformation as networking and communications standards undergo their greatest transition since the migration from analogue to digital. Increased capacity demands, data needs, and the arrival of 5G are all reshaping the industry. 

An early adopter of scale-out systems, telcos are building infrastructure on a massive scale. Add to the mix the drive to differentiate through providing consumers with innovative services, and the result is undeniably complex environments which can be a challenge to run cost-effectively. For many telcos, even ‘basic’ problems of building functional and robust technology, and then operating as a service in the cloud, can create big issues. 

So how can telcos ensure that the economics of their cloud environment is working for them? These are the three guiding principles that telcos must bear in mind as they look at capitalising on cloud.

1. Adopt a vendor agnostic approach 

Operators tend to have large and highly complex cloud requirements, which can be quite costly to purchase and maintain. When telcos opt for purchasing pre-packaged stacks, the bulk-buy discounts may make it seem like the cheapest and most simple solution. However, this is short-sighted as it sees operators locked-in. Operators in this situation are at significant risk from unexpected price increases and suffering from a lack of functionality down the line, which may hinder growth and innovation. Once locked in, it is much more difficult to change any one part of the stack without having to reprogram or implement new solutions for the rest.  

Choosing the best combination for the job - OpenStack cloud and NFV solutions - is critical for the success of the telco. CIOs need to be on the lookout for open source operating systems which require less proprietary system development, but which nonetheless offer full flexibility with large eco-systems, personalisation, high levels of support and security. This requires selecting a variety of different solutions, from a range of vendors and unifying them with the right open source platform to simplify both deployment and management. It’s important to choose solutions which offer continuous evolution and improvement automatically, tied in with a development cycle. In the long run, this approach will help keep costs low while providing the best platform for innovations and scaling.

2. Automating operations

To run environments cost effectively, operators need to be able to implement industrial scale automation.  In a highly competitive market, telcos are constantly looking for ways to differentiate technically. But, continually adapting software for individual purposes creates ’snowflakes’. These bespoke, complex services are reliant on the systems architects who built them staying in the role. This makes it nearly impossible to automate each upgrade and maintenance cycle. 

Each ‘snowflake’ demands special configuration outside of the automated deployment scripts, draining developer time and resources. Fully-automated DevOps pipelines work best when each piece of software is uniform. Telcos can deploy thousands of identical operations within half the time and trouble than running a few deployments which require manual adjustment.  

3. Modelling deployments

Operators are under increasing pressure to expand their network capabilities and capacity across developing markets. To keep up with this kind of growth, telcos must be able to easily reproduce the environments they have in existing markets in a cookie cutter manner. Once well supported models have been implemented, it’s straightforward to overlay more bespoke functions or services on top of models to satisfy region-specific requirements. An automated infrastructure can be neatly packaged up in containers and redeployed to servers around the world, enabling telcos to reduce latency issues and lag across regions. 

Getting the house in order

While many telco providers are hanging their hats on network and computing advancements like 5G and edge computing to deliver greater opportunities to differentiate, they won’t see the benefits unless they get their SDN and NFV infrastructure in order. For instance, modern NFV solutions that facilitate traditional and modern real-time communications are not immune to jitter and delay. They must be implemented in a manner that does not consume the entirety of a system’s resources before they have scaled to a size that provides acceptable return on investment. 

As the industry faces pressure to deliver faster scalability and on-demand computing, lower infrastructure and operational management costs, and short time-to-market for new applications, having the right tools and operating infrastructure in place is key to capitalising on cloud investments.

Nathan Rader is the director of NFV strategy at Canonical