Digital Transformation begins with Network Transformation  The recently released results of the TM Forum’s bi-annual Digital Transformation Tracker serve as another reminder to CSPs to fast track their transformation initiatives. This third report in the tracker series, highlights the importance of network transformation and its role as a growth driver for telcos.

It is a well established fact that digital transformation is the need of the hour for telcos amidst the fast changing dynamics of the telecom market. However, if digital transformation is the stated goal, then network transformation is surely the first step.
 
Network transformation requires a roadmap for telcos to enhance their network infrastructure with new elements in the core network, backbone network and access network, in order to support the digital delivery methods brought on by digital transformation. These changes are needed to achieve cost effectiveness, performance optimisation and cloud compatibility.  
 
In view of the growing business needs, network transformation is both an opportunity and a challenge for the telcos.

Digital Transformation Tracker

While most communications services providers (CSPs) are slowly deploying Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) and embracing Software Defined Networking (SDN), the transformation hasn’t been fast enough to elicit excitement. According to the latest results from the TM Forum Digital Transformation Tracker (DTT), 44% of the surveyed CSPs agree that network transformation is a critical step needed to achieve digital transformation. Ironically though, 48% of the CSPs have still not found a solid business use case for network virtualisation.
 
However, some efforts in this space are starting to emerge. Around 32% of CSPs are deploying NFV in the packet core while 36% are deploying it at the mobile edge or have implemented virtual customer premises equipment (vCPE). Interestingly, only 23% of respondents this year admitted to having no timeframe for virtualisation as against the 30% figure in the first DTT survey. These numbers are an indicator that CSPs are slowly coming around to the fact that network transformation is indeed the way forward.

So, what’s holding back network transformation for CSPs?

Why should they do it?

Telcos don’t see an immediate and compelling business case to pursue network transformation full throttle. They are wary of following this path considering the CAPEX and OPEX involved and the uncertainty about the benefits it will bring in the future. Unless there are clear, tangible benefits in sight, telcos do not want to undergo this paradigm change.

What is the impact on OSS/BSS?

CSPs are finding it difficult to reset existing OSS/BSS to a more agile cloud-based environment. The main inhibitor is the requirement to build a new set up to support the revamped OSS/BSS in accordance with the transformation goal. TM Forum has come up with a reference architecture for future OSS/BSS called the Open Digital Architecture (ODA), which is touted as a replacement for traditional OSS/BSS. ODA offers a standardised roadmap to enable CSPs to design reusable solutions for common business challenges. However, it is still very early days in terms of adoption.

Will it be safe?

The challenge to protect the system and data security remains a major barrier for CSPs considering network transformation. The threats of hacking, malware and other cyberattacks are an unfortunate reality of today’s times. CSPs must take into consideration the security requirements needed for a collaborative model where multiple partners might be involved in delivering a service. The processes for authentication and security management must be considered throughout, at both the component and system level. Also, in view of GDPR, the security around hosting and processing of personal data must also be taken into consideration very carefully.

What about the human resourcing cost?

Virtualising network operations and transitioning to the cloud can overlap the traditional functions of various departments. For example, the IT and Operations departments might need to be integrated within the organisation. However, CSPs might find it a difficult task to make these departments collaborate with each other considering the existing organisational silos and cultural differences.

Do we have standards?

Even if CSPs do start walking the long road, a lack of standards for network restructuring across the industry and the estimated time required for the existing standards to mature and reach the stage where future flexibility is also supported, is a big roadblock. The current standards for network migration are way behind and do not offer any clear migration route. CSPs are not confident to go ahead without having a proper standards roadmap.

Mitigating the risks

It is not an easy task for CSPs to adapt to a new way of enhancing and maintaining networks. To follow this evolutionary path, CSPs and their suppliers must adopt newer and more innovative approaches:

Microservices

Microservices are individual components that can be deployed and updated independently and continuously. The aim is to work towards individual component scalability which should be mutually exclusive, in order to achieve management flexibility and quick turnaround of network restructuring.

Automation

Automation is the key to optimising resources, both human and technical - improving operational efficiency, reducing human error, and bringing down the all-important OPEX. Automation is no more a ‘nice-to-have’, it’s a ‘must-have’ requirement for modern telecom networks. As the number of domains and network elements increases, so does the network management workload; therefore it is imperative for CSPs to automate their processes and workflows as much as possible. CSPs can identify workflows that need a high level of automation and those that need manual control, and then tie their automation requirements to the business outcomes accordingly.

DevOps

DevOps has traditionally been the domain of IT teams rather than network departments. However, DevOps is slowly beginning to be used within networks as well, also called NetOps. In fact, 31% of CSPs in the DTT survey are in the early stages of adopting DevOps within networks, but this requires a change in the way vendors and operators work together. The new approach requires CSPs to partner with vendors and deliver cloud-native software that can be modified and easily integrated with other solutions by leveraging methods such as Open APIs.

Architecture

Automation isn’t the only solution to the network transformation puzzle; architectures are just as critical in successfully realising an agile network. Future networks will have to support a mix of various levels of application infrastructure and architectures, so they need to be made virtual and software-defined for optimum performance and deployment flexibility. The SDN and NFV approach can help CSPs accommodate varied requirements as they sit on top of the existing network. Using Open APIs also fits in smoothly in an SDN and NFV environment and opens up a plethora of business and service opportunities.
 
As cloud is seen as the future for all applications, the network is bound to undergo transformation. With 5G networks and the Internet of Things (IoT) upon us, more solid use cases for NFV and SDN are starting to emerge. Many operators believe that NFV and SDN will be necessary to create the network slices needed to support use cases with specific requirements for latency and throughput. Telcos will need to quickly adopt NFV and SDN if they are to offer advanced network services and compete with other big platform players. If digital business has to evolve, it has to evolve from the network upwards!