The cloud native transformation for telcos

By Weaveworks
August 12, 2021

In the latest episode of our podcast, The Art of Modern Ops, host and Weaveworks CTO Cornelia Davis welcomes three leaders from the telco world, each with their own perspective on the transition from virtualized infrastructure to cloud native architectures. Cloud native technologies will become the foundation for the 5G connectivity in the near future.

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With the specification of 5G actually assuming that containerization will play a big part in this transformation, all three guests had lots of insights, both on why they were undertaking the shift and what aspects they feel are particularly important.

Cornelia’s guests included Deutsche Telekom’s Vuk Gojnic, Orange Business Services CTO Phillippe Ensarguet and Ericsson’s Torsten Dinsing. Vuk works for Deutsche Telekom Technik, the network technology arm of Deutsche Telekom, where he leads an SRE team responsible for building and maintaining the company’s cloud native platform. Phillippe is focused on his company’s global technology strategy – a strategy that has put cloud native technology at the heart of its transformation. Torsten, meanwhile, is responsible for Ericsson’s automation strategy and CICD pipeline – especially where it is necessary to assist the company’s product organizations in the shift to cloud native. While all three have different roles in their organizations, it is that shift from virtualization to cloud native that links them all.

First, a little history

Cornelia began the discussion by summarizing the most important transitions in the last two decades of telco business - the move from P (physical network infrastructure) to V (virtual machines assuming most of the networking functionality). Since the introduction of Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) in 2012, physical network functions (PNFs) have been gradually replaced by virtual network functions (VNFs) via virtual machines (VMs.) But like all new technology, the advent of virtualization was accompanied by some reluctance.

As Cornelia points out, despite initial skepticism around virtualization, it wasn’t long before every telco in the world had an official P to V strategy. Fast forward another decade to the cloud age, and we are now seeing a second stage of infrastructure evolution, which can be seen as V to C (where the C could mean cloud, cloud native or containers). But even with the arrival of 5G and its assumption that containerization would be involved as workloads move to the edge, this latest transition can take many forms.

Because ultimately, it’s not just about the network infrastructure itself. Much of the transformation these companies are currently undergoing concerns the wealth of digital services they provide for their customers, which in many cases are not specific to telcos. Then there is the way in which these services are actually created - the CI/CD pipelines that support their delivery. After all, a cloud-native strategy will accelerate the development and deployment of new services by enabling practices such as DevOps – alongside the ability to rapidly scale up or scale down those services, in response to spikes in demand.

Virtualization was not the destination

As Vuk pointed out in this episode, the shift to virtualization gave rise to problems around centralization as services scaled. Because the telco industry never aligned around a single orchestration system, it worked best when it was vendor-led. What the cloud native era brings is the ability for telcos to orchestrate everything using the system that works best for them. As he went on to explain, “...the 5G standard already took into account that the functions need to be run as containers, need to be built as a microservices – and guess what’s the best approach to manage those microservices? It's Kubernetes.”

The arrival of Kubernetes and the cloud native ecosystem that surrounds it has provided telcos with a huge opportunity – and not just in terms of ‘cloudifying’ network functionality. They can now enjoy all the generic benefits of containerized infrastructure. And because many of the services they provide to their customers compete with similar services from businesses outside of the telco sphere, they need these new powers if they are going to remain competitive. They need to be able to develop and deploy features faster than before. They need to be able to centralize and automate those CI/CD pipelines. They need to be able to react faster than they did in their old, virtualized world. (Learn more about deploying at 5g speed.)

Kubernetes and the cloud native future

The discussion went on to encompass development and deployment in more detail, focusing on the benefits of automation and how DevOps and GitOps can help. The participants shared examples that show how these principles play out in the real world, before considering other key operational issues, including changes to tooling and skillsets. Ultimately, the conversation concluded with the question of another transition that has taken place in the telco world: the shift from proprietary software to open source platforms like Kubernetes. 

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