Telecom Italia has said it will be impossible to overhaul its existing back-office systems and that it plans to use an "overlay" to support the rollout of new software and virtualization technologies.
Like other telcos, the Italian incumbent is trying to automate and "digitize" parts of its network in response to changing customer requirements and in an effort to gain web-like efficiency.
Having indicated earlier this year that digital transformation was proving enormously challenging, Telecom Italia (TIM) says it will continue maintaining its legacy operational support systems (OSS) alongside an overlay in a kind of hybrid environment -- where both physical and virtual network functions (VNFs) will be in use. (See Telecom Italia Not Ready to Transform, Admits Exec.)
"We consider it is not possible to transform our current traditional OSS because there is too much complexity," said Alessandra Pavese, Telecom Italia's head of network evolution, during a presentation at Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. 's recent Ultra-Broadband Forum in Frankfurt, Germany. "It is a nightmare to transform this and so what we are looking at is an overlay network where we will onboard virtual network functions."
Exactly which network functions are to be virtualized will depend on an assessment of business requirements, according to Pavese.
The decision seems pragmatic, and not unusual, given the difficulties of virtualizing a large number of functions in a short space of time, the immaturity of the technologies in question and the resource limitations within the Telecom Italia organization.
"This means a portion of our network will move to this automation framework and other network functions will still be managed by the traditional OSS," said Pavese.
Various other telcos also appear to have abandoned ideas of jettisoning legacy back-office systems and shifting all their services on to new digital platforms in one go, although Pavese's remarks suggest older systems may have a longer shelf life at Telecom Italia than elsewhere.
While it has not provided detailed plans for a shutdown of legacy systems, or given a timeframe over which this could occur, Telecom Italia is evidently keen on ditching older technologies where possible.
"We need to decommission to optimize costs and speed up the onboarding of virtual network functions and our cloudification," said Pavese.
A major challenge for the company is to ensure that staff have the requisite software skills and are able to function in more of a "DevOps" environment -- typically associated with the working practices of the web-scale Internet companies -- than using the "waterfall" processes to which many have grown accustomed.
With a waterfall approach, software design and release tends to happen in a highly structured sequence. In a DevOps culture, by contrast, development takes place in a less formalized, more flexible manner and as products are being introduced into the market.
Ultimately, investment in the overlay network is aimed at ensuring Telecom Italia can take advantage of new service opportunities -- especially in the enterprise sector, where interest in the potential of network slicing and network-as-a-service (NaaS) offerings is growing fast.
Typically associated with the rollout of 5G, network slicing would allow an operator to provide a variety of highly differentiated network services over the same infrastructure. With NaaS, meanwhile, business customers would be able to activate service capabilities on demand and according to particular needs and circumstances.
"We are working hard with the business marketing department to define new use cases and want to make self-provisioning possible and allow customers to manage the service lifecycle and activation of services," said Pavese.
In March, Michele Gamberini, Telecom Italia's core network and infrastructure director, said the operator had already deployed network functions virtualization (NFV) infrastructure at two points of presence and was planning to set up an additional two sites this year.
That process is set to continue in 2017, when Telecom Italia also wants to begin virtualizing its radio access network and deploy an NFV orchestrator.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading