The shift to software-based networks means a workforce shift as well

This article was published in RCR Wireless News on April 30, 2021. You can read the original article here

Back in 2017, an EY telecom survey asked telecommunications CIOs and CTOs what they thought were the biggest opportunities and obstacles facing them in the next three years. Virtualization was already seen as one of the most important enablers of innovation. The two biggest barriers to telco digital transformation initiatives? Legacy IT platforms and architectures, and their workforces’ lack of skills and expertise in digital domains.

In the years since, network operators have increasingly moved to embrace software-centric, cloud-native and disaggregated networks, from the Radio Access Network to the core. They have also invested in hiring and upskilling their existing workforce to gain more of the necessary skills to navigate this network sea-change. But technology can often change faster than organizations.

Richard Brandon, VP of marketing at cloud-native routing software company RtBrick, says that it’s important to recognize that workforce issues are a limiting factor on carriers’ ability to adopt new software-based approaches, in spite of desire to do so — and not to assume that if they move ahead, things will somehow work themselves out.

“We speak to a lot of big carriers that have an appetite for disaggregation, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, we get it, we see how it’s going to save us a load of money, we can see how it’s going to give us more flexibility, we can see how we can roll out whatever services without waiting for the two years for the next feature.’ So they get the case for it. And then they sort of look at it and go ‘But, we have thousands of operational staff and they know how to do what we do today, and this is different, and therein lies our challenge.’

“I think it’s really important to recognize and not just kind of sweep that under the carpet and go yeah, well, some guy in operations will sort that out for you further down the road,” he continues.

RtBrick provides routing software that, as Brandon describes it, turns bare-metal switches into a telco MPLS IP router, rather than the traditional route of buying an integrated chassis with routing software on it. “The same approach that people are looking to take for an open RAN, people are also looking to put actually into their network behind the RAN. … But I think it’s a much wider trend than just any specific part of the network,” Brandon says. “It’s the kind of thing that we as an industry have been talking around for a few years, and it’s really kind of starting to feel very tangible now.”

RTbrick’s cloud-native, full-stack Broadband Network Gateway solution recently went live in Deutsche Telekom’s broadband network. The BNG terminates broadband subscriber traffic and provides other functions such as quality of service, lawful intercept and IPTV. Hans-Joerg Kolbe, chief product owner Access 4.0 at Deutsche Telekom, said in a statement at the time that “Disaggregation represents a new era for our network.” Meanwhile, Hannes Gredler, founder and chief technology officer at RtBrick, was using similarly lofty language about the importance of the move toward open software-based networks. “The shift to building networks using open software, rather than proprietary systems, is probably the most important development the industry has seen since the arrival of the Internet, and this deployment is proof that cloud-native networks are ready for the mainstream,” Gredler said.

“We wanted to embrace a new cloud-native approach to building and running our network. Disaggregation allows us to independently select the best hardware and software for any job, it’s simpler to automate and it’s more flexible and open than using traditional systems,” Kolbe added.

But disaggregation also demands a very different skillset when it comes to testing, integration and management.

“There is no way [operators]should be starting on a disaggregation project without also saying to themselves, ‘The long-term benefit here is worth us changing our skillset,'” Brandon says. Deutsche Telekom, he adds. “had definitely done that. They knew they had to sort of rip up the rulebook when it came to operational staff.” That’s not to say that many of the same networking skills and protocol knowledge aren’t needed, he says. But in a world of a limited number of network vendors, it often was sufficient to learn just those vendors’ proprietary inner workings. In a world where operators can actually do that independent selection of hardware and software that Kolbe references, Linux knowledge and workflows for cloud and cloud-based tools become a crucial expertise.

More broadly, Brandon says, when networks are purchased as an integrated system, that means vendors have done the integration for you. In a disaggregated network, there’s more responsibility for that on the folks who run the network. “There’s a little bit of an obligation of, you ought to have more integration skills than you’ve had before,” he says — and adds that the differences also extend beyond network teams, to procurement. He gives an automotive example: “We all know how to go and buy a car. Imagine the electric car industry came along and said by the way, [here’s a car] but you have to buy your batteries from somewhere else. That’s a bit like what we’re doing here. We’re going, ‘Yeah, we’ve got this great new thing, it’s really cool, it’s an electric car — but oh yeah, we don’t sell batteries. We don’t sell the engine.’ People aren’t used to buying cars that way, and they’re not used to buying networks this way.”

His advice to workers and companies? Use the network technology changes as an opportunity to learn, and recognize that it’s going to take quite a bit of work to get to where you need to be. Pick a project and give everyone involved a chance to learn along the way, individually and operationally.

“The companies that we’re engaging with successfully are saying to themselves, ‘There’s going to be some effort required. There’s going to be some pain along the way, we’re going to have to do some thing differently but we have to recognize that with a skill set just as much as we do with the technology,'” Brandon says. Individual employees who are already good at what they do may balk at having to start over with a challenging skillset — or they can see it as a chance to differentiate themselves. Telecom companies can try to hire from cloud companies — but Brandon notes that for the size of the networks they run, cloud companies don’t actually have that many people running them. “I think this is a world where you re-train and of course you need to get an initial seed skill-set in, but there’s a lot of clever, bright young engineers out there that will pick this stuff up if they’ve got the opportunity to. And I think that’s really where these things go hand-in-glove,” he says. “You need to define a project, say let’s have a go at something, whether that’s open RAN or whether that’s a project in the edge but you need to say to yourself, we’re going to run some pilots, we’re going to do that and part of that pilot is, let’s address the skill-set as we go.

While both high-level and technical training or certification programs are increasingly available, “I don’t think it will ever be as simple as, ‘Go on these three training courses and then you’re fine,'” says Brandon — because the difference is about operational processes as much as specific technical knowledge. “It’s not just, do I understand now how to drive Linux? It’s, ‘What does that mean for me as a product manager?’ Which is quite different. It’s, ‘What does this mean for me if I’m provisioning engineer?’ Which is different again from perhaps being a more senior manager,” he says.

“I think this subject … is almost the elephant in the room, with what’s happening in networking at the moment,” Brandon concludes. “There’s this massive opportunity and this is probably the only barrier between us having the opportunity and realizing it, so it’s really important. And again … pick a project, have a go, whatever it is. if you’re going to keep waiting, you’re never going to get the skill set.”