Disaggregation is the New Competitive Edge for Telecom

This article was published in Voice and Data on 26 February, 2021. You can read the original article here

Since the pandemic changed the way many people in the world live their lives, there have been radical shifts in consumer behaviors towards content usage. Whether it’s streaming films rather than going to a theatre, playing games online or making video calls on a smartphone in lieu of seeing friends and family in-person, the massive increase in data consumption has challenged telecom operators’ perspectives on building future-ready network infrastructures.

Telecom operators are now forced to rethink how data moves across the internet, including the way in which private, public and hybrid clouds function to deliver it. On top of this, they also need to rethink and redesign the deployment and management of their infrastructure, to accommodate the convergence of data across wired and wireless networks.

The ability to deliver low latency at mass scale and linking users to compute and storage, has driven operators in search of new ways to simplify implementation, and provide some level of resource cost control. One way in which to do this is through re-evaluating the network at the edge. By deploying merchant silicon platforms together with the latest networking software, telco operators now have another option in enabling new edge services.

Telecom: Network Edge Explained

The edge is where the action is. The term ‘network edge’ refers to edge compute locations, which are physical sites or points of presence (PoPs) owned by an operator. This can mean a central office hosting a mobile network resource or an ISP’s node.

The network edge reduces the physical proximity between the user and resources thus migrating compute resources to the edge of networks. This distributes workloads for faster operations, with the aim to eliminate latency or data congestion issues and improve application performance. Additionally, it can enhance network security, lead to cost-efficiency and improve scalability.

For a regular user streaming their favorite TV show on Netflix in HD this isn’t of much use, as they wouldn’t notice the tenth of a second it takes to load up the content. However, from an operator’s point of view, there are certain applications that have better scalability when they are distributed around the network edge.

The telecom industry is very particular about managing edge computing technologies and their underlying infrastructure. The world’s largest network operators have begun to slowly migrate parts of their network functions closer to the edge. The aim is to create new vertical business opportunities, shorten provisioning, and make networks more agile. But telco operators also have the responsibility for their end-user network infrastructures, not just their own.

Although telecom operators are facing an inevitable growth in data traffic, consumers don’t want their costs of services to increase. Further, even if it’s the source content that is at fault, they often blame poor service and poor quality on the network operator. The key issue here is that many operators still rely on legacy infrastructures, reducing flexibility and raising costs. For instance, device implementation and maintenance prove to be time-consuming and costly as workers tend to face manual configuration of individual systems. And manual processes eventually lead to human errors and issues with the network.

So, what can you do to improve your network?

Disaggregation at the Edge

The price equipment and high operating costs, along with the amount of time needed to deploy new infrastructures are the main factors bringing operators closer to cloud-native solutions. It is no longer feasible to wait years before changing network infrastructure to react to unexpected traffic needs. Rebuilding the network using a cloud-native approach through disaggregating software and hardware is the best solution for operators who are keen to follow a more future-oriented approach. Such systems are more cost-efficient and enable zero-touch provisioning with highly granular remote management.

Disaggregation means deploying network software separately from the hardware. This allows the use of ‘merchant silicon’, which offers the same capabilities on high-volume, low-cost networking chips that the traditional network equipment vendors used to have in their customized systems. It enables operators to build networks from a new category of powerful cost-efficient ‘bare-metal’ switches, turning them into IP/MPLS switches.

As both hardware and software can be deployed using zero touch provisioning, there’s no need for human configuration. Once installed, IT and operations staff can deal with a single homogeneous equipment and operating environment. This happens irrespectively of which software is running on it, rather than needing to be trained in multiple vendors’ systems and processes. It is then possible to improve the capacity of any dimension of the system within minutes.

The entire system becomes automated and future-proofed by adding API’s, enabling operators to control individual switches as well as entire networks. In addition, these REST-based interfaces allow the management of different types of systems and equipment from multiple vendors. This creates countless opportunities for the operators, such as programming individual switches or entire networks, accessing underlying systems with complete granularity, unifying network and IT operations via a consistent REST-based approach, and operating disaggregated components alongside other equipment using the same higher-level systems.

Additionally, the access to a community of open Web 2.0 tools gives the opportunity to expand the functionality, all as part of deploying web-scale solutions. This includes:

  • Grafana – a visualisation tool
  • Graylog – a log management system
  • Prometheus – a monitoring tool
  • SNMP and GNMi

Considering the individual requirements of customers are growing in complexity, telecom operators will inevitably face very particular scenarios where off-the-shelf controllers are not desirable. As a result, management teams need to become capable of developing their own in-house controllers to customize infrastructures to their own demands, as opposed to adjusting to their vendors’ service model. This proves there’s no cookie cutter solution to best manage telco edge infrastructures, as differences and individualities to each system will always be present. Therefore, the tools and solutions of network management teams need to conform with the basic requirements of the operator and be highly flexible, compatible and, most importantly, open.


This article was contributed to V&D’s web portal by Hannes Gredler, CTO and founder of RtBrick.