Network disaggregation: The key ingredient to building your modern Telco Stack

This article was published in technology Dispatch on March 8, 2023. You can read the original article here  

By Hannes Gredler, CTO at RtBrick

The pandemic is still having residual effects on the telecoms industry. Many of the restrictions on movement we experienced during COVID have stuck, such as working from home, with most companies adopting hybrid working. As a result, communication traffic has drastically increased and put enormous pressure on our telco infrastructure. And this pressure isn’t ending anytime soon. With developments such as the metaverse in the works, the demand on telcos will only continue to rise. So, it’s time to ask yourself, is your telco tech stack fit for purpose to cope with today and tomorrow’s challenges?

Telcos are facing three key challenges

The first is high network traffic and an intolerance for downtime. Since March 2020, we’ve seen a 50% increase in voice traffic, and 30% in data traffic. Whilst these numbers may seem great for business, they are rarely matched by increases in revenue and put immense pressure on providers – and a poor network can stain a telco’s image. To try and manage or improve performance, telcos can invest in more infrastructure. But unfortunately, adding capacity in one area often just results on congestion in another part of the network.

The second challenge is supply chain shocks – including hardware, labour, and equipment shortages. Currently, these are causing significant delays to 5G network upgrades, which depend on a huge range of hardware – chips, radio equipment and 5G towers to name a few. Unfortunately, with current zero-Covid policy in China, Russia’s continuing invasion of Ukraine and a whole host of other geopolitical factors, we’re likely to experience supply chain disruption for the foreseeable future.

The final challenge is the digital skills gap. As telcos move from traditional hardware to cloud native strategies, they require the adoption of a new skills set from engineers who are familiar with cloud technologies. Two years ago, the telecoms cloud market was valued at $25B and is expected to be valued at $74B by 2026. The challenge that comes with this is the fact that particular skills and training are required to meet the current and future needs of this growing industry, yet there is a growing skills gap for both in-house and outsourced staff. The supply of technicians who can install power, fibre, and radio equipment on telco sites is already low, and as you can imagine, an engineer who is also cloud knowledgeable is a rare find.

Luckily there’s a solution – network disaggregation

Network disaggregation is the foundation of a modern, future-proof telco tech stack. Put simply, it hinges on splitting networking equipment into components which function and can be deployed independently. And crucially, network disaggregation separates hardware and software to run independently from one another – the polar opposite to monolithic legacy telco infrastructure.

There are different types of network disaggregation: management plane disaggregation, system disaggregation, services plane disaggregation, silicon disaggregation and control plane disaggregation. Regardless of the form it takes, telcos’ motivations for adopting network disaggregation remain the same – more flexibility and lower costs; lower to the tune of 40% to be precise.  

The flexibility aspect of disaggregated networks is a game changer. Up until now, the evolution of traditional telco infrastructure has been limited by fixed software and hardware combinations. 

Network disaggregation solves this. Contrasting to traditional monolithic systems, disaggregated networks combine low-cost off-the-shelf hardware with ‘cloud native’ disaggregated routing software. This enables carriers to implement a ‘cloud native’ method to structuring their networks. This makes network disaggregation a robust, easier to source and cheaper option, even saving users 40%+ (CAPEX and OPEX) over five years.

Network disaggregation is what it is today because of low-cost, high-volume networking chipsets referred to as ‘merchant silicon’. Merchant silicon chipsets are used to build a new calibre of powerful and cheap ‘bare-metal’ switches. These bare-metal switches are structured like traditional router systems but are lower-cost than comparable standard telecommunications apparatus.

Disaggregated networks also alleviate the problem of skills shortages. Thanks to the simplicity of adopting common operating systems, and advanced capabilities of the software, less human labour is required to manage or expand the network. Yes, existing technicians will require some training on how to build and manage networks using this approach. But when it comes to the benefits of disaggregated networks, (scalability, flexibility, cloud compatibility, no vendor lock-in and cost efficiency) this certainly seems worthwhile.

How does network disaggregation impact security?

Due to ongoing geopolitical tensions across the globe, telcos have to be more sensitive than ever to security threats. Hostile states often attack their adversaries’ telco infrastructure in order to implement covert surveillance. Even unfounded claims of breaches can severely impact telcos’ customer relationships. Telcos are a popular target because they transmit the data of millions of customers. An example of a data provoked telco attack is the recent Optus attack on the Australian telecom company, which led to the leak of 10 million customer records.

Disaggregation allows telcos to purchase white-box hardware from sellers and use independent software from a reliable supplier. Should a security concern arise, the disaggregated nature means it can be replaced without hassle and without affecting the physical infrastructure. White-box hardware makes security less of a worry, as the hardware itself is a blank canvas. Software is how you use disaggregated systems, which converts bare-metal-switches into IP/MPLS switches used in telco networks.

Network disaggregation is undisputedly the future of the telco industry – expanding the capacity of infrastructure on demand and providing flexibility without vendor lock-in. Looking forward, disaggregation is already becoming standard practice for telcos, rather than the disruptive tech it was once perceived to be.