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Cloud technology is changing the way telecom operators function. Today’s networks demand faster and more reliable access to a growing number of resources, applications, and services. The increasing data traffic trend has given way to virtualized mobile core networks instead of on-premise infrastructure even as the rapid rollout of 5G deployments is underway globally.

Indeed, Cloudification offers a great prospect to modernize IT infrastructure and gain operational efficiency through cloud-native design practices, DevOps, containers, and more. However, the transition to the cloud-native environment is not a straightforward one.

Enter telco cloud

Migration to the cloud involves overcoming a whole lot of challenges. However, an objective perspective on the common cloud migration challenges and tricky areas can help telcos better manage the shift to a cloud-native environment with telco cloud services that help operators achieve improved agility, flexibility, and scalability on their networks. But first, what are the gains from the implementation of telco cloud?

Under virtualized network core, the foremost advantage of telco cloud is that resources can be scaled up or out instantly which translates to massive savings in capital expenditure (CAPEX). In contrast, normally in a CapEx model, IT can easily spend 80 % of the budget on equipment, leaving a small portion for innovation as maximum utilization must be planned for and provisioned, which is financially taxing.

Secondly, freedom from basic network and maintenance, hardware inventories, automation and elasticity, and space for innovation to make IT better to drive business value and growth are the hallmarks of telco cloud.

Cloud offers the Opex model that allows paying for use on-demand, meaning if the resources are not needed, they can be removed or deleted. Moreover, if operations fail, organizations need not sit on unused equipment and waste money as the Capex model involves a one-time purchase of equipment with many years of depreciation.

Cloud platform makes it easy to add new technological services and create new revenue streams. At a time when hyperscalers are eating up much of the communication service provider (CSPs) pie, being cloud-native savvy will help telcos to adjust to new requirements swiftly. With cloud technologies (SaaS, CaaS, NaaS, IaaS etc,), telcos can launch and test new services in a matter of minutes rather than months accelerating innovation and being first to market.

The challenges remain

Legacy or monolith applications: Legacy operations involve manual intervention. This hinders quick response to immediate customer requirements to add new features as the entire single unit needs to be updated. It is also difficult to keep up with the rapid increase in operational activities that come with cloud and 5G’s many devices, services, and slicing. Existing solutions are yet to be open and vendor-neutral. Monitoring, optimizing and modifying systems still require constant supervision.

Lack of vendors providing elasticity: While vendors can deliver some cloud-native applications, problems at the level of establishing genuine interoperability at the application level persist, requiring new integrations that could mean high operational expenses. Vendors need to advance the software architecture to make auto elasticity a reality. 

Security in cloud architecture: Along with the benefits of cost-efficiency and improved agility, security lapses have become synonymous with virtualization and distributed cloud-based architecture. The flexibility to quickly create and ramp down applications from the data centers creates additional layers of security gaps.

4G/5G networks: Last but not the least, 4G and 5G are complex architectures to manage. A great amount of time and effort is lost in setting up, integrating, and upgrading the system. 

Way to cloud-native network functions (CNFs)

Despite the challenges, telecom operators must find ways to explore the cloud and software ecosystem through careful planning, participation with upstream communities to learn about what to expect versus what is available in terms of CNFs. Relooking at the existing architectural constraint for a specific service and understanding how to build an end-to-end system architect using these components to achieve the delivery goal can greatly improve business and employee productivity, and the overall customer experience.

Virtual network functions (VNFs) have enabled the push towards cloud-native applications, however, upgrading VNFs is a slow process and scaling difficult as applications are transported into cloud environments using a “lift-and-shift” approach. In contrast, cloud-native applications address these setbacks using a microservices architecture that supports dynamic elasticity and scalability.

Microservices packaged into containers support the developers’ ability to make changes to only a select group of microservices for a particular application. Developers can limit work and contain changes to microservices in a single container. Cloud-native applications promise dynamism with an ability to be changed easily and quickly by updating its microservices in containers and moving from cloud to cloud format with ease, as well as scale in or out fast. Telcos will have a lot to gain from CNFs to undergo cloud migration for their legacy applications.

Conversely, in recent developments, heavy-weight carriers such as AT&T Inc will run core parts of their 5G wireless network on Microsoft's cloud computing platform. The carrier’s newer generation of networks is designed to rely more heavily on software and data centers for routing traffic rather than telecommunications-specific gear.  Clearly, the tailwinds for the telcos to transition to a cloud-native environment are more than palpable already.

Also read: Data centers in the cloud computing era

Also read: In the post-epidemic era, cloud computing will accelerate the digital transformation of global industries

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