The Network Force Awakens

— Reflections on Architecture Transformation for Network 2020

ICT convergence has blurred the lines that once separated carriers from the world of IT, creating new service opportunities such as video, Internet of Things (IoT) and public cloud to meet user demands for a ROADS (Real-time, On-demand, All online, DIY, and Social) experience. The rapid development of these digital services and user expectations are also creating new challenges for carriers.

Take China's "Singles Day" online shopping festival as an example. During this period e-commerce website bandwidth requirements surged and e-commerce players requested short-term bandwidth upgrades to meet user demand. However, carriers were unable to meet their requests because their network infrastructure could not accommodate flexible, on-demand bandwidth upgrades. Only long-term bandwidth upgrade services were available if requested several months in advance. This is a prime example of how inflexible networks can impede carriers' business growth.

Carriers' operation models are shifting from network-oriented to user- and service-oriented. However, moving to a service-oriented operation model does not mean reducing the focus on the network. On the contrary, an intelligent, flexible and agile network infrastructure is critical to enabling digital services.

With this in mind, leading carriers have started to launch their own network 2020 transformation strategies. Global carriers have invested many years and trillions of dollars in the construction of their network infrastructure, which has become a valuable asset for future development of carriers' digital services and a source of innovation and competitive advantage.

Unlocking the enormous value of network infrastructure is at the core of network architecture transformation and carriers are now looking to Software Defined Networking and Network Functions Virtualization (SDN/NFV) and moving networks to the cloud to make their network architecture an efficient platform for services. The objectives of network architecture transformation are as follows:

Fast service provisioning: Commercial deployments so far have enabled voice services to be provisioned within hours, and enterprise leased-line services to be provided within minutes. When more ICT services are carried and provisioned in a unified manner, carriers will have service innovation capabilities as powerful as those of Internet vendors.

Agile Operations and Maintenance (O&M): Network O&M functions are experiencing tremendous changes, with manual configuration gradually being replaced with automated configuration. Using a large number of base stations in 5G RAN (Radio Access Network) scenarios as an example, the automatic deployment of backhaul network configurations significantly saves manpower costs and improves the service experience. Some other scenarios call for real-time adjustment of network resource allocation, such as Information Management System (IMS) scale-in or scale-out, which requires an NFV-based network architecture.

Reduced Total Cost of Ownership (TCO): Network 2020 architecture is based on distributed cloud Data Centers (DC), with all network and Commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) server resources managed in a unified manner. This can improve resource utilization and reduce O&M costs. In fact, Network 2020 architecture can reduce the 5-year TCO in a specific service model by 12 percent.

To achieve the goals outlined above, carriers need to address the following challenges in technical selection, network planning, integrated verification, deployment, and O&M:

An evolution from virtualization to cloud native: Architecture transformation includes four stages: silo, virtualization, virtualization+orchestration, and cloud native. So far, most vendors are providing virtualization solutions featuring software and hardware separation only. There is still a long way to go towards cloud native. An inter-heterogeneous cloud OS, service orchestration between public cloud and private cloud, in-depth decoupling of microservices based on Virtual Networks Function (VNF), and a distributed Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) layer — are all necessary steps for delivering a cloud-based architecture.

Unified architecture for the SDN controller: End users have one-stop requests for purchasing network resources, including network connections, data centers, and IT applications. Therefore, the SDN controller must be able to provide unified service provisioning capabilities for inter-domain multi-vendor devices in various scenarios. So far, the SDN controller provided by most vendors serves only a single scenario, such as an IP or DC service.

Universal COTS performance issues: As for data-plane network functions, the forwarding performance gaps of universal COTS needs to be addressed through hardware acceleration and service performance optimization.

Complex system integration: The hierarchical decoupling characteristic of SDN/NFV presents huge challenges for system integration. For example, ETSI has defined nine open interfaces for NFV, involving interworking of a wide array of protocols and multi-vendor devices. Many vendors provide only components, so carriers have to spend more time handling device interconnections which reduces the time available for service innovation.

Reliability and security issues: Carriers must take a proactive approach to protect against security threats on various levels, such as the network, OS and Apps. All these components need to have security policies deployed for security hardening, services isolation, and intrusion prevention. However, carriers need to avoid security policies and methods that make the network isolated and closed. 

Carriers need to be mindful of the complex challenges involved in network architecture transformation and select a qualified ICT partner that can demonstrate: long-term technical planning and continuous innovation capabilities for the transformation process; open source capabilities in IT, reliable performance in CT, and a balance of expertise between the two domains; and superior integrated delivery capabilities as a Prime System Integrator (PSI).

By adopting this approach, carriers can awaken the force of their networks and realize attractive growth opportunities in our new digital world.