A Journey to 5G and Network-as-a-Service: Seven Degrees of Freedom
It’s not easy being a Communications Service Provider (CSP) executive these days. Senior technology and business officers are bombarded with visionary messages about the paradigm shift that 5G and cloud will bring, and how a highly automated, service intent network will simplify the management of multi-layered networks run by complex operations. Simplifying the layers of complexity added over decades is key to achieving the full business value of 5G for consumers and enterprises, and prepare for the Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) future that will enable CSPs to deliver new, revenue-generating enterprise services.
Yet the required changes to the network, operations and customer experience is a tough, multi-faceted challenge. The solution must be simple, complete and executable. There are seven key design principles that CSPs can address to achieve full freedom in creating value with 5G and transition to NaaS in the most flexible and efficient way. Let’s call them the seven degrees of freedom.
Cloud-native applications done right
Flawed or limited implementations of cloud-native real-time applications will restrict a CSP’s ability to achieve a true 5G network that can take full advantage of cloud’s agility, scaling and efficiency.
Software vendors must develop the right disciplines of cloud-native design across the full span of 5G applications, and consistent methodology is key for simplification. Such skills must encompass not just the principles of cloud-native microservices and containers, but also cover stateless functions with shared data models, control and user plane separation, and N+K design resilience. Ensuring applications adhere to these foundational design principles will achieve the necessary 5G “network function disaggregation” that maximizes the software’s re-use, which is a fundamental business driver because it brings agility for new vertical services.
Freedom of “any cloud” platform
CSPs gain flexibility by being able to use any platform for cloud and NaaS. This means applications must be built from the ground up to be platform agnostic.
The challenge is to ensure multiple vendors’ telco applications can readily use cloud vendors’ Containers-as-a-Service (CaaS) and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) capabilities. It’s also important to design for performance and scale of real-time applications across the user-plane, the control-plane and subscriber data management. The design can take advantage of software acceleration technologies such as Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK), Open vSwitch (OVS) and others that are readily available on many cloud platforms.
Openness of networks and ecosystems
Service-oriented architectures (SOAs) have existed in the web scale world for 15+ years, yet telco applications struggle to fully embrace the SOA approach. It is essential for a CSP to build a norm of using open networks and ecosystems in their organization.
Strong API design in secure and non-secure environments is the basis for uniform exposure that enables the creation of 5G services and simplified operations. The design of applications needs to start with open API catalogs. East/west and north/south interactions between applications must be based on RESTful APIs with established consumer/producer relationships. The web scale industry has mature design and run-time API frameworks that must be used.
Design for highly complex lifecycle interdependencies
Cloud-native designs increase complexity at the application and sub-domain levels. Microservices have enormous lifecycle management interdependencies, particularly in the areas of installation, configuration, upgrades, and resiliency and redundancy.
Furthermore, when automation overlaps with a hybrid private/public cloud strategy, real-time application complexity and lifecycle management needs are enormous compared to a simple web application. There are additional application interdependencies across control-plane, user-plane and subscriber data management, along with overlay/underlay networks.
Careful software design needs to take advantage of Helm charts, network service descriptors and Kubernetes’ operator frameworks to help resolve the dependencies.
Build a service intent network that meets market needs
Service intent driven network orchestration is vital for the design of 5G slicing and agile 5G vertical services. Essentially this calls for a service demand to be attached to a QoS and SLA metric across the network, and for the dynamic creation of that service intent to achieve closed loop service assurance.
This is not an overnight journey and calls for design to use data-flow models and work-flow engines across network, operations and assurance. Core, radio and routing must be tightly connected to deliver the required SLAs and QoS. The orchestration and assurance of these designs is complex.
Meanwhile, the network’s continuous data feeds and interworking with an assurance data model can provide the basis for applying machine learning to create proactive self-healing and self-scaling models. These then become foundational building blocks for NaaS operational practices.
Build a continuous delivery framework
CSPs work with multiple vendors that feed software into their extensive landscape of network and operations. Imagine 80+ cloud-native applications, each with a microservices framework, and with every new feature on a specific microservice requiring validation of the end-to-end service. Conventional process models cannot support such a continuous feed of new software releases being introduced as often as every four weeks.
The software delivery pipeline must be mature enough to handle multi-vendor environments, and it must be secure and continuous in both building and testing frameworks. All integration points must be automated and secure. This is a new landscape for CSPs and requires detailed strategic and execution plans.
Put security first in the design of applications
Security is an ever-present and ever-evolving challenge. Threat analysis, vulnerability management and software validation are essential considerations when designing and delivering applications.
Applications must be built with a “design for security” practice, including detailed security risk assessment and the disciplined application of co-sharing name space, access control in pods, and multi-tenancy’s secure environment in the cloud-native world. The risk is that with hundreds of microservices and co-sharing of multi-tenant environments, one bad cloud-native application could damage the entire secure ecosystem.
Security must be end-to-end and continuous across applications, endpoints, management access points and APIs. After all, security threats are everywhere and continuous in a software world, calling for a disciplined approach to safeguard workloads in a NaaS environment.
By thinking through these seven design principles and building freedom into their 5G network and operations, CSPs can achieve the full business value of 5G in their journey to NaaS.
— Jitin Bhandari is CTO and Vice President, Core Networks at Nokia, with 20-plus years' experience in diverse roles as technologist, portfolio leader and strategic consulting with corporations of all sizes.
This content is sponsored by Nokia.
Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK)