Setting the pace with software

Carriers are exploring ways to transform their operations through the power of software. Guy Matthews examines what software can do for wholesale telecoms

The power of software is steadily transforming the whole telecoms industry, whether in the form of software-defined networking, the virtualisation of network functions or the availability of services in the cloud.  

The benefits of software appear at first sight to be a particularly good fit with the needs of international wholesalers. Given their ever-present reality of tight margins amid a tough competitive landscape, anything that results in greater efficiency and improved flexibility in network infrastructure should be a no-brainer.

And yet many wholesalers are still stuck in the old ways, dependent on manual processes and the burden of managing a physical network. For these laggards, interoperable equipment and limited in-house know-how are confining their deployment of today’s agile automated solutions to a limited number of use cases around the fringes of their business. 

As ever there are certain pace-setters, generally but not always the more disruptive challengers rather than the established names, showing what can be achieved with a progressive mindset. There’s plenty up for grabs for those ready for something new. “The softwarisation of telecoms signals a huge change for wholesalers,” believes Carl Grivner, CEO of Colt Technology Services. “The transition to layered architectures has already enabled a shift whereby the future carrier environment integrates software components, as well as related development and management processes. SDN goes one step further in revolutionising the packet layer, enabling user control of the network through a self-service portal. This introduces the concept of ‘on demand’ network services, which is a key component in the deployment and adoption of high bandwidth services.”

Grivner points out that the widening of the spectrum in one part of the ecosystem will tend inevitably to displace the bottleneck elsewhere, that bottleneck currently being the optical layer. “The big question for wholesalers over the next 12 months will be how the optical networks they rely on will stretch to support ultra-high bandwidth of over 400Gbps,” he says. “Forward-thinking providers are helping wholesalers make this leap by applying some of the same thinking from the software-defined packet network to the optical layer. In doing so, this elasticity can create dynamically configurable optical channels that can be managed across the entire network.” 

Duncan Ellis, director for EMEA with Wave2Wave Solution Corporation, a vendor in the data centre connectivity space, agrees that the carrier softwarisation process has hit a limit: “One layer in particular – the physical layer – has stubbornly resisted the move to software definition or automation.” He adds: “While operators must now be able to support burstable networking services and bandwidth-on-demand, the reality is, at the optical layer at least, an engineer is still required to plug and unplug connections in the meet-me room. Not only is this expensive, time consuming and prone to human error, it’s completely out of step with a market gearing up to deliver anything-as-as-service.”

Ellis expects 2018 to be the year when the power of software reaches this elusive physical layer: “We’ll see carriers actively exploring how software can drive robots that are capable of automatically provisioning and reconfiguring fibre-optic connections.” He believes: “An automated, dynamic physical layer will mean that architectures can adapt to service changes, fibre additions or deletions, and new technologies, as they happen, rather than the carrier trying to anticipate future needs in the initial design. This allows a more reactive and cost-effective network where configurations across all network layers can achieve the optimal setup.”  

It is surely at the level of the wide area network (WAN) where carriers should be enjoying the dividend of software-driven automation today. Atchison Frazer is worldwide head of marketing with Talari Networks, a pioneering vendor in the field of SD-WAN solutions. He believes that carriers are already breaking with past practices in this area. “The real power of SD-WAN is the controller, the software that provides the brains,” he says. “That’s the big disruption to the traditional model where several different devices from different vendors are deployed on premise with no ability to change the architecture or respond to real-time events. Very static, very expensive. What we’ve done is unlock the value of all of that. All that different functionality is now in the software layer.” 

As enterprise customers migrate applications and infrastructure to the cloud, they are increasingly re-evaluating traditional router-centric WAN architectures in favour of deploying SD-WAN solutions, says Nav Chander, senior director of service provider marketing at Silver Peak, a vendor of SD-WAN solutions. “These offer the flexibility to connect users to applications using any combination of underlying transport, including: MPLS, broadband and LTE,” he says. “This softwarisation of the WAN presents a new opportunity for managed service providers to accelerate service revenues by offering tiered managed SD-WAN services. These managed services effectively extend hybrid WAN or SD-WAN services beyond the service providers’ own physical footprint.”

He says these managed service providers can deliver SD-WAN services with service-level agreements to remote branch locations using broadband connectivity, extending SD-WAN services beyond the existing MPLS-based customer footprint to smaller enterprises, thereby expanding the addressable market for managed services. “What’s more, managed service providers can enable value-added tiered services such as WAN optimisation,” he adds. “By deploying an advanced SD-WAN solution, enterprises benefit from direct cloud connectivity with predictable application performance, particularly for remote users accessing SaaS applications, thereby eliminating the need to backhaul traffic to the data centre. Without managed service providers included within the SD-WAN mix, many enterprises would struggle to fully embrace cloud-based services.”

Setting the pace

Those with the least legacy investment to hold them back naturally tend to be the earliest to enjoy the dividends of a software-driven on-demand market. Chad Milam is president and chief operating officer of US-based network-as-a-service provider PacketFabric, which he points out is in the position of having recently built a ground up greenfield network: “From a start in 2015, we’ve now got 150 US points of presence (PoPs) in major metros,” he says. “Customers can provision an end-to-end service across the country on our network in 15 seconds. This allows us to pursue innovation rather than play catch up. We can form interesting partnerships easily with others, such providers of DDoS mitigation services, or add in additional IP transit providers. Others will have to go back and rewrite the control plane on an existing network before they can do that, which can be painful. It can take a lot of changes and downtime, and that’s not something that all networks can suffer.”

The connectivity industry, he says, is currently going through changes that the compute industry has been through over the last seven to 10 years: “I think in three to five years’ time the shape of telecoms will look vastly different,” he predicts. “Just look at how enterprises buy compute and storage today.”

Eric Troyer, chief marketing officer with Brisbane-based network-as-a-service provider Megaport, also attributes his company’s growth to its lack of dependence on historic infrastructure. “We’ve taken what was traditionally the network stack and put a software layer on top of that,” he says. “This takes away what was the very telco-oriented provisioning process with its long cycles.”

For those that are clearly not disruptive challengers, there is the dilemma of how to proceed. As those at the more traditional end of the carrier sector seek to keep themselves relevant through the power of software enablement, they are pursuing various means to this end.  

AT&T, for example, as well as investing heavily to modernise its own assets is also now in partnership with Equinix with the aim of providing on-demand networking at Equinix’s International Business Exchange (IBX) data centres. The deal delivers AT&T’s switched Ethernet service closer to where enterprise customers actually operate, the companies say.

PCCW Global, by contrast, has chosen the route of acquisition through its recent purchase of the licensing and brand name of software-defined interconnect pioneer Console Connect. By this means, says CEO Marc Halbfinger, the carrier can achieve an automated environment in place of the legacy manual environment that has sustained it and other carriers for many years.

PCCW Global, he explains, felt the need to move its network from a physical component ‘towards a software delivery’ to ensure that it can get to an automated software-based capability for delivery of interconnect services.

Carriers however, he says, are playing catch up in this area. 

He says the wholesale sector too often views OTTs as disruptors, when they would be better off trying instead to emulate their example: “We’re the ones who aren’t evolving fast enough and we need to organise ourselves towards automation to provide accessibility,”  maintains Halbfinger.

So where to now?

Even the most far sighted and progressive carriers need a plan for where software will take them next. Once headway is made in virtualising the network through SDN and NFV it will be time to address the next potential bottlenecks, looking beyond SDN on the packet layer. There’s work to be done on cross-carrier automated network provisioning. Wholesalers need autonomous control of multiple networks to realise the concept of letting the customer control their own network needs.

“The aim should be to replace the long and expensive bilateral and proprietary implementation projects currently necessary when two operators want to bring about a level of automated interaction between their networks.”

Beyond that, he believes the industry should be working towards orchestrated, on-demand, API-driven control of network, cloud and on-premise infrastructure from a single enterprise controller, allowing for finer cost control and improved customer experience. A step for some, a quantum leap for others. 

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