What does cloud-native really mean for operators?

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Dominik Pacewicz, Chief Product Manager for BSS at Comarch examines the term ‘cloud-native’ and asks what it signifies.

Cloud-native services are disrupting many industries. The telecoms industry however has long been outstripped by other sectors in the adoption of new technology. At the same time, service providers see a great opportunity to catapult themselves into the digital age through a spirited combination of cloud-nativeness, 5G networks and virtualization.

The term “cloud-native” is two-faceted. It entails both the technology used as well as the more strategic design aspect, signifying the direction many enterprises want to take with their applications. This strategy would require a broader look at the meaning of cloud-nativeness, going beyond the usual cloud-native “triad” or microservices, containers, and PaaS (Platforms as a Service) to include 5G and network virtualization.

Focus on microservices for consistent quality

Microservices are a set of autonomous and loosely-coupled services. It is often contrasted with rigid siloed architecture, but microservices are self-contained. They have their own data models, repository and functions, which can be accessed only through their own API. Microservices essentially break down applications into their core functions. In the case of a hypothetical cloud-based streaming platform, these microservices could fulfil separate functions such as search, customer rating, recommendations and product catalogue.

The practice of using microservices comes from the realization that today’s users expect flexible yet consistent experience across all devices, which entails high demand for modular and scalable cloud-based architecture.

Use containers for service peaks and troughs

Containers are the frameworks used to run individual microservices. They can hold different types of software code, allowing it to run simultaneously over different runtime environments such as production, testing, and integration. Containers make microservice-based applications portable, since they can be created or deleted dynamically. Performance can be scaled up or down with precision to treat bottlenecks – for instance, during Black Friday, a CSP can predict the increased demand for its online and offline sales, which can affect the domain but will have a negligible impact on all others.

Containers are an essential part of cloud-native architecture because the same container, managed with exactly the same Open Source tools, can be deployed on any cloud. It will not impact the operator’s virtual servers or computing systems.

Utilize PaaS for different capabilities

PaaS provides the foundation for software to be developed or deployed – somewhat similar to the operating system for a server or an entire network. All of this happens online and PaaS provides an abstraction layer, for networking, storing and computing, for the network infrastructure to grow and scale. PaaS creates an environment in which the software, the operating system and the underlying hardware and network infrastructure are all taken care of.  The user only has to focus on application development and deployment.

Using PaaS enables the harmonization of all elements of the cloud environment by integrating various cloud services. This in turn leads to virtualized processes of web application development, while developers still retain access to the same tools and standards.

5G is the cloud on steroids

The traditional “triad” of cloud-nativeness is not enough for the perfect, uninterrupted cloud application experience. There’s one asset missing – the 5G network. One reason why 5G is important for cloud-native environments, particularly for mobile cloud app development, is that striking the right balance between efficiency and the number of functionalities is a tough nut to crack. This is due to the high latency and the unreliable connectivity of some mobile devices.

Apart from LAN-like speeds for mobile devices, 5G can deliver lower battery consumption, broader bandwidth, greater capacity (1000 times that of 4G), and a substantial reduction in latency (even 50-fold). This is the main limiting factor when working with client-server architectures. What could follow is improved wireless range, increased capacity per cell tower and greater consistency.

The ‘cloud experience’ for mobile devices will be completely reshaped as a result of the adoption of 5G technology and mobile cloud applications will rival – or even surpass – their versions relying on corporate LAN connectivity to the desktop in terms of the number of offered functionalities.

Bridging the Gap with Network Virtualization

A key innovative element of NFV is the concept of VNF (Virtual Network Functions) forwarding graphs which enable the creation of service topologies that are not dependent on the physical topology. Network virtualization allows operators to allocate resources according to traffic demand. Operators can exert control over the network while managing “slices” of the network, without having to spend on infrastructure upkeep.

For this reason, NFV is leading the evolution of the 5G network ecosystem. Virtualizing the Evolved Packet Core (EPC) has emerged as a leading use case and one of the most tangible examples of the advantages of virtualization. The vEPC abstracts and decomposes the EPC functions, allowing them to run in combinations as COTS software instances. This approach allows CSPs to design networks in new ways that drastically reduce costs and simplify operations. Perfect conditions for 5G.

On the access side, the Cloud Radio Access Network (C-RAN) is a highly complementary technology to vEPC. C-RAN deployment, virtualizing many of the RAN functionalities on standard CPUs is seen as an important technology enabler for reducing the total cost of ownership (TCO) associated with RAN. The amount of investment and the operational costs are expected to decrease fast thanks to maturing cloud technologies and deployment experience. The C-RAN approach facilitates faster radio deployment, drastically reducing the time needed for conventional deployments.

In the race to 5G, telcos are steadily introducing function virtualization to gain software control over their networks. C-RAN and vEPC both help to create bespoke data pathways that meet highly specified network requirements of applications – staying true to 5G‘s vision.

The power of now

So, what does ‘cloud-native’ mean for operators? All the interdependencies between the cloud and the enabling technologies make it necessary for the true cloud-native experience to involve not only just traditional “triad” of microservices, containers, and PaaS. Network virtualization and 5G are key elements in the search for efficient, uninterrupted and feature-rich cloud-based services and applications. This will make previously impossible cloud-native use cases easier feasible.

Thanks to operators who experimented with virtualization and conducted early 5G trials, telcos will be the first to have all the necessary technology in place to succeed in the cloud. Will operators take full advantage of this head start – or will they will once again be beaten to the finish line – and fail to capitalize on the technology they championed?

 

Dominik PacewiczDominik Pacewicz is the head of BSS product management at Comarch. He has been with Comarch for over 6 years and works with a number of mobile operators helping them to simply and automate their networks.

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