From the days of slow video buffering, limited storage capacity, and signal coverage limitations to recording live TV with just the push of a button, who would have imagined from the times of waiting for days, even months for your favourite show to be telecasted on a single screen, you will now have on-demand content anywhere, anytime, and on any screen. We even have apps that make suggestions for us based on our streaming habits. Technology has transformed our lives massively. Wireless networks built in the past decades have got us here. But will they take us to the future? At the start of the 2000s, there were 740 million cell phone subscriptions worldwide. Now it has surpassed the 8 billion mark. Now, there are more cellphones in the world than people.
Going forward, connected devices will reach almost 75 billion globally by 2025. These connected devices will generate approximately 79.4 zettabytes of data by 2025.
In the future, will the legacy networks be able to cope up with the demand posed by such humongous data?
Greater Efficiencies Will be Required for Networks of The Future
Future networks need to deliver only what we can imagine today. They must be scalable, automated, disaggregated, open and easy to manage, self-aware and self-healing. For instance, intent-based networking, built on the back of machine learning, software-defined networking and advanced automation, will have the potential to respond to a variety of network events and conditions.
Such networks must be conceptualised and built on a foundation of scalability and flexibility instead of compromise. Our current legacy networks are unable to adapt quickly enough to changing market conditions and customer needs. Legacy telco networks were proprietary, built from standards but not interoperable using black-box highly customised hardware. This proprietary approach drove costly “rip-and-replace” efforts to upgrade the network. For instance, CAPEX to switch even from 2G to 3G cost billions of dollars.
Traditional network designs require hardware upgrades to release new capacity. In addition, the cost of purchasing, deploying and commissioning new hardware for every new service is a challenge for telcos. Altogether, OPEX of operating and maintaining legacy networks is eating into a provider’s margins. Other specific challenges include vendor-specific solutions, closed networks, proprietary management software, specialized training and skill sets by vendor equipment, and ecosystem inertia to adapt to open networking.
Moving Towards Open Networking is The Key
Open source software-centric networking is being created and deployed in data centers and in networks around the world. The advantages of open networking solutions are many.
The last couple of years have seen significant moves towards the Open RAN model, a new way of building radio networks based on a software-centric and open infrastructure, disaggregating hardware from software in the network.
The push was coming from the Telco operator ecosystem, demanding open, disaggregated networking solutions. In 2019, Vodafone opened up their European operations to O-RAN by floating a tender that covered more than 100,000 sites and 400 million people across 14 countries. Rakuten has built the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized, cloud-native mobile network, which is an implementation of Open RAN, utilizing a multi-vendor approach incorporating virtualization technologies.
When the demand from telecom service providers grew, then two industry bodies, TIP and O-RAN Alliance, realised the need for a more organised alignment of Open RAN processes. They announced partnerships agreements to ensure their alignment in developing and deploying interoperable Open RAN solutions. This allowed sharing of information, referencing specifications and conducting joint testing and integration efforts. This big move ensured that both the organisations develop RAN solutions in such a way so that there is no duplication, resources are shared, and costs are kept low.
Opting for Community-Based Innovations
The future of open networking looks bright. Software-defined open networking is both scalable and secure. Scalable, since it is based on cloud-native principles; secure, since it is open and has “many eyes” reviewing and progressing its efforts.
Open networking is being leveraged as a major component to create the technology that will drive the evolution of the next generation of mobile networking.
As we move towards the 5G era, we will need networking technology that is intelligent, flexible, energy-efficient and software-defined. This is encouraging telecom operators to collaborate on open source projects that will accentuate existing networks and also shape them to support future communications technologies. Telco operators understand this and are taking some instrumental steps in their transformational journey towards openness.
Transformational Journey Towards Openness Begins
Now that telcos have realised the importance of having open networks, they are taking some firm steps for its graded implementation.
Collaboration projects - Linux Foundation Networking (LFN) has 8 major open source projects on technologies relating to Network Virtualisation and orchestration. One such example is the OPNFV (Open Platform for Network Function Virtualisation) project, which aims to develop a platform to integrate virtual network functions with cloud services. Apart from bringing together thousands of contributors, open-source projects are redefining the way in which future networks are being created.
Setting standards – Open source networking also helps to create shared industry efforts by ensuring common standards and uniformity across telecommunications technology. This way, service providers are able to overcome challenges they encounter in sharing hardware and software. One such example is the Open Networking Automation Platform (ONAP) project. Companies like AT&T, Verizon and Bell Canada have a shared voice when prompting suppliers to integrate technology into their products. ONAP ensures better automation in future 5G networks
By developing technologies with a de facto standard, open-source is creating readiness for telecom services providers for underlying challenges and helping everyone in the value chain to develop more efficient networks.
Open source offers possibilities for upgrading and improving existing platforms without too much constraint. It is a way of democratising wireless networks, which is the need of the hour. As a next step, telcos will now focus on innovations and engagements in open architecture.
By - Christopher W. Rice, CEO - Access Solutions, STL.