Lack of resources and cloud-native DNA the big SDN/NFV challenge for telcos

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A divide is building in the world of SDN and NFV where traditional IT functions meet with telecoms technology providers: Tier 1 telcos hiring the best and brightest talent and giving them the labs and backing to virtualize their networks … and everyone else who simply cannot afford the resources to do it themselves. That is where Dell EMC hopes to play, offering a helping hand to telcos so they can at least get the network part of the equation sorted quickly and cost-effectively.

Ken Lee, product marketing director for Service Provider Solutions at Dell EMC’s Infrastructure Solutions group, was in Bangkok this week where he talked to Disruptive.Asia on his views on the telco path to digital transformation and creating a cloud-native DNA to enable 5G and IoT to replace traditional telco engineering mindsets.

“The model of network functions is going cloud-native – disaggregation of thousands of microservices into a container environment and moving them to the edge. You cannot move [workloads] to the edge unless you disaggregate first. Many are talking [edge computing] but are not yet going to microservices,” he said.

Pivotal Software is Dell EMC’s PaaS provider of choice here. Instead of building NFV locally, which is what many telcos are doing, a cloud-native company would start by building NFV in the cloud out of microservices.

Lee pointed out that many operators today are taking OpenStack and pouring money into R&D to learn how to do OpenStack themselves – and it is many of these telcos who are now turning around and looking for a commercial technology partner.

“There is always the non-open source [solution] Vcloud Director. We have been operationalizing it for real world workloads for five years,” he said.

Dell-EMC partners with Verizon, where they have their own engineers using Dell EMC hardware and RedHat software. However, Lee said, the Tier 2 and Tier 3 operators simply do not have the resources to do something like that, and that is where he steps in – on one level with the Dell group’s preferred solution stack, and on another with Dell EMC validated systems from multiple vendors of their choice.

Lee noted that many telcos have a single NFV provider of choice – Ericsson, Nokia or Huawei, for example – which they then build their solutions around. That way, the telco will have one port of call for support instead of four or five.

But even for the larger Tier 1 telcos who have their own labs, many are learning that the DIY approach simply is not cost-effective and he would not be surprised to see many going for a more off-the-shelf approach when it’s time for 5G.

While Dell EMC seems to be well versed in OpenStack, the topic of OpenFlow didn’t come up until we asked.

“I am not sure OpenFlow is as open as it needs to be, unlike OpenStack which has a track record,” he said.

With OpenStack there is so much code being contributed by operators and vendors such as sister company VMWare upstream that everyone in the ecosystem benefits. OpenStack is commercial-grade network ready. OpenFlow is still relatively new and its R&D model is still not yet clearly developed, Lee said.

That said, Lee notes that the real challenge for telcos isn’t open source vs commercial offerings, but digital transformation.

“The world of 5G IoT will be intertwined with containers in the cloud. It is not about OpenStack and OpenFlow. It’s about Kubernetes [open source production-grade container orchestration]. It’s about going cloud native, and you can already do that with VMWare or Docker,” he said.

Lee observed that when he goes to OpenStack summits, he sees two groups of people – the cloud people and the telco people. On the telco side these days, there are so many delegates from the Tier 1s like Verizon, AT&T, Telstra or DoCoMo.

“The Tier 1s are able to attract the PhDs out of Stanford and MIT to be cloud native. But why are they coming to work at AT&T when they could work at Uber?” Lee said. “That is where the battle will be won – are you able to attract talent? And that is very different from telco DNA.”

Today other telcos are trying to build up the DNA for the digital transformation journey, he continued. “Five years from now, the operators who do not have the talent will be so far behind. How are they going to catch up?”

That’s the Dell-EMC view from Santa Clara, where Lee is based. As for the street-level view in Asia-Pacific, Joey Khoon, Dell’s OEM Solutions NFV Business Development Manager based in Singapore, gave a quick demo of some of the actual hardware equipment on offer, and said that Japan and China were already rolling out Dell NFV solutions in earnest. However, apart from those two markets, there is only interest rather than traction. That said, Khoon said he has been pushing NFV for five years now and is glad that things are at least starting to move forward.

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