There is no question that, as both fixed and mobile network operators continue to contend with the burdens of an application-centric world, their ability to compete will be defined by network flexibility. To that end, with the rest of the communications world having been moving in a software-centric direction already, operators’ road to success will be paved by their recognition that the same hardware-to-software migration is a necessity.
But, just as with any other major market change – and the switch from proprietary purpose-built hardware to software on COTS servers is certainly that – it takes time, and it will be a process, not a wholesale forklift migration. It’s far too early to understand how long this process may take, but the time is ripe for the changes to start.
A strong believer in the concept of a software-based operator, Steve Gleave, SVP of marketing at Metaswitch Networks, took the time to explain his views on the subject, including why the model is imperative as the future of operators and its impact. Steve has been discussing the software telco concept for quite a while and is a featured keynoter at this week's Software Telco Congress in Santa Clara. In fact, Steve had separate conversations with Rich Tehrani and me on the same day -- on two separate continents. Here's our exchange.
TMC: What benefits/advantages does a software telco have over a legacy telco?
Steve Gleave: Compared to traditional network operators, software telcos are more agile and can create new services for their customers more quickly. They have greater flexibility in network infrastructure and business decisions, shorter development cycles for innovative services, and leaner cost structures. As a result, they are much better equipped to compete with over-the-top (OTT) service providers and keep pace with changes in subscribers’ buying behavior and data usage patterns. The good news is that all telcos can be on this path. Software telcos are simply telcos that have fully embraced the power of software, virtualization and the cloud to transform the way they build networks and deliver services. Free from the encumbrance of dedicated, proprietary hardware and open to exposing all manner of network application programming interfaces (APIs) to developers, software telcos have the potential to generate unprecedented innovation in the communications industry.
TMC: How does SDN facilitate NFV?
SG: The goals of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) are, in many ways, aligned. SDN provides the flexible networking infrastructure that NFV needs and it also introduces network programmability to foster service innovation. In other words, SDN can make the carrier network more fit for virtualization and the software telco evolution. When control and data planes are separated in certain network elements, it is easier to virtualize network functions because the network itself is more flexible. And being able to use software to control certain parts of the network means telcos no longer need to be tied to many different service-specific appliances and all the costly, time-consuming operational processes those entail.
TMC: Are there any drawbacks to the software telco revolution?
SG: It’s important to remember that we’re talking about a major transformation. It’s not going to happen overnight – a legacy telco won’t wake up one morning and bask in the glory of its cloud-based, software-centric, virtualized network. Even if this were possible, it would be far too overwhelming to attempt to virtualize the entire network all at once in order to maximize the potential cost-saving and efficiency gains. Rather, this is a learning process that will take a long time. The best way for network operators to make the transition to software telco is in small steps. For example, operators can start by thinking about how much NFV they want to implement and where it makes the most sense for them. Then, they can start to virtualize just one application to get some experience with what’s really involved. In this way, carriers can start learning and begin the journey to becoming software telcos.
TMC: Can you successfully compete with OTT if you aren’t a software telco?
SG: Today’s telcos might find they’re not even running in the same race with OTT players if they don’t evolve to software telcos. Network operators can maintain the status quo, but they will probably be left in the dust by OTT players, who will be more nimble when it comes to developing services to meet their customers’ ever-changing needs. Becoming a software telco at least gives network operators a fighting chance against OTT companies because they will have flexible, software-driven networks. The intent of NFV is to ensure that by building real-time communications into public or private clouds, “telcos” can, at a minimum, leverage the same competitive cost basis that OTT operators have enjoyed. Network operators need to be as agile and quick to change as their customers, and evolving to software telcos gives them that capability.
TMC: What BSS/OSS changes will be needed in a rapid service deployment software telco world?
SG: There will be a greater need for better network analytics. In order to deliver good customer experiences and ensure that services have the best possible quality, back-office systems will need to provide more accurate and insightful data on what’s going on in the network. Our Service Assurance Server, as an example, can provide diagnostics on every single call and over any protocol. With such detailed call traces, technicians can find problems in the network more quickly. That’s the kind of rigor and sophistication that software telcos require from network analytics. Naturally, there is also going to be big demand for Management and Network Orchestration (MANO) capabilities, which will be native to the cloud, instantiating and acquiescing virtual machines as requirements scale or contract.
TMC: What role does the cloud play in NFV and software telco?
SG: Cloud computing is at the heart of NFV and the transition to software telco. Now that it’s possible for high-performance network functions to be moved onto commercial, off-the-shelf servers or virtualized in data centers, network operators need to take the cost effectiveness and dynamic programmability that happens in the data center and apply them to their wide area networks. For example, we designed Project Clearwater from the ground up for the cloud, using the same programming techniques and software architectures as the so-called Internet giants. As the first IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) solution that delivers on the promise of NFV, it combines efficient use of resources with resilience and effectively unlimited dynamic elastic scalability. Clearwater shows just how integral the cloud is to NFV and telcos’ future business.
TMC: How should proprietary network equipment vendors react to the move toward NFV and SDN?
SG: Network vendors really need to have the right software experience to be effective in the development of NFV and SDN. If not, they risk disappointing their carrier customers who are hungry for guidance and support in the software telco transformation. Metaswitch has always been a software company, and that gives us a head start with NFV. Many of our products already operate in cloud-based environments. For example, we deliver Class 4/5 switch alternatives, hosted business services, session border control, multi-layer transport SDN solutions and access to core IMS technology that can be deployed in a virtualized implementation. Software expertise is really the best capability a network vendor can offer as telcos move away from infrastructure that tightly couples software with proprietary hardware and strive for more rapid and responsive service creation.
TMC: How will the move to software-based telcos facilitate new ecosystems and partnerships?
SG: We’re already starting to see operators express a need for different capabilities and a willingness to work with new suppliers to help them navigate the way to NFV and SDN. It’s likely that operators will forge new vendor relationships for NFV or SDN implementations. But the need for expertise in both old and new ways of designing networks will be a driver for partnerships among equipment and software suppliers. CloudNFV is a great example of the new ecosystems that can be established, and thrive, in the era of the software telco.
TMC: What will the software telco world look like in three years?
SG: NFV and SDN will go from high-level strategy visions to some actual implementations and deployments among operators that are leading the charge to cloud-based, software-centric architectures. There will be better consensus around standards and which network functions are most suited for virtualization. There is also likely to be some consolidation activity among vendors through partnerships or acquisitions. But really, three years is a short time in the software telco world. The evolution is in its infancy and it has a long way to go.
Edited by Rory J. Thompson
Group Editorial Director
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