Telcos Must Go Cloud-Native to Compete

Customer demand for new services is driving carriers to cloud architectures.

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

May 31, 2018

5 Min Read
Telcos Must Go Cloud-Native to Compete

AUSTIN, Texas -- Big Communications Event -- Communications service providers need to adopt cloud-native architectures on their networks to meet customer demands for new services.

Service providers "have to go to cloud-native methodology to support the business in order to successfully, and competitively, go into the market," Steve Plotkin, global solution architect for analytics and monitoring systems specialist SevOne Inc. , suggested during a panel discussion at the recent Big Communications Event. "It's a challenge." (See SevOne Takes Network Analytics to Cloud.)

Edward Fox III, vice president of network services at New York-based managed services provider MetTel , agreed. "For us it's not about operational savings or orchestration. From our perspective, it's a competitive component. Can my company build an environment where we can spin up services quickly?"

But telcos, which prize service reliability, face cultural obstacles to adopting the fail fast ethos that drives innovation in Silicon Valley using cloud-native architecture, said Roz Roseboro, Heavy Reading senior analyst, who moderated the panel. "I cannot imagine anything more anathema to a telco than 'fail fast.' Failing faster means you lose your job faster."

Figure 1: Heavy Reading's Roz Roseboro; Linux Foundation's Chris Aniszczyk. MetTel's Edward Fox III, NTT Innovation Institute's Icihiro Fukuda and SevOne's Steve Plotkin. Heavy Reading's Roz Roseboro; Linux Foundation's Chris Aniszczyk. MetTel's Edward Fox III, NTT Innovation Institute's Icihiro Fukuda and SevOne's Steve Plotkin.

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Cloud-native requires a "mindset shift," Fox said. "The maintenance side is what scares us most. How do we handle routing and switching issues in this framework, because it's not automatic," he said. "It's a struggle internally between our routing folks and others about which direction we're going to go."

Telcos are looking to emulate cloud-native companies, but that's difficult, Fox said. "We would want to be Facebook but that's a stretch for us," he said. Telcos need to support brownfield applications, which makes the transition tough. "When you have greenfield applications, it's certainly the way to go," he said.

"We have an embedded investment, and products that customers are consuming today around that infrastructure," Fox said.

Culture is the biggest problem for telcos making the shift to cloud-native, said Icihiro Fukuda, NTT Innovation Institute Inc. VP of engineering and chief architect. To gain experience, NTT started building things internally. "Building things and getting your hands dirty is one of the first things we did," Fukuda said. "Also, building a strong team, with more of a software-development mindset -- it's very important."

Engineers need respect for both the cloud and for how things are done in telcos. For example, young cloud-native engineers proposed retiring the BGP protocol. "This scared me," Fukuda said. Teams need to comprise cloud-native engineers and telco vets, for balance.

Enterprise cloud-native adoption is driving carriers and vendors to follow, Fox said. For example, VMware is adapting NSX from east-west data center traffic to the branch and WAN. (See VMware Takes On Cisco & Juniper With Network Vision.)

The path to cloud-native often runs through virtual network functions (VNFs), breaking network components into pieces and implementing continuous integration and continuous development (CICD) and service meshes, Chris Aniszczyk, Linux Foundation VP of developer programs, said.

But Fox said VNFs have proven disappointing for MetTel, failing to deliver the expected cost savings because they require additional hardware.

Instead, SD-WAN drove the transition for MetTel. "SD-WAN forced us to become very cloud-native, spinning up gateways across the world to support growth," Fox said.

Cloud-scale companies have the advantage of using custom technology, although it was something they were forced into. "Google and Facebook couldn't buy off-the-shelf because they were operating at scales not previously seen," Aniszczyk said. Those companies arrived at architectures based on microservices in containers, and that became the basis for cloud-native architectures, needed to achieve resiliency.

Open source is "critical," Plotkin said. "Yes, there will be challenges in supporting it in your mainstream," he said. But open source is "indispensable."

"Open source helps you to differentiate," Fox said. Telcos can use community-developed open source for technologies that don't differentiate, and focus on filling in the gaps.

But telcos need to participate in the open source process to be sure cloud-native technologies meet their needs, which are different from the needs of cloud-native companies, Aniszczyk said. "With open source, you have to contribute to influence direction," he said. "What we have works well for many companies. We just haven't heard from our telco friends."


— Mitch Wagner Follow me on Twitter Visit my LinkedIn profile Visit my blog Follow me on FacebookExecutive Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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