This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Rick Hamilton, Senior Vice President, Blue Planet Software
Where is ‘the edge’? It may sound obvious: the network edge is at the edge of the network. But where this is in relation to other network components — and how it will interact with this infrastructure, which vendors should be used for the kit, which technologies it’ll require, and what use cases it will enable — are open to debate.
The telco industry is still in the process of clearly defining where and what ‘the edge’ is, with multiple parties competing and cooperating in the race to deploy and monetize edge cloud networks and services. On top of trying to define the edge and edge cloud, network providers must manage demands for new services. And that’s not all. They’re also trying to understand and leverage new technologies—including 5G, cloud-native, containerized network functions (CNFs), network functions virtualization (NFV), and SD-WAN—and navigate a landscape populated by a growing number of stakeholders. However, CSPs, cloud operators, edge application providers, equipment vendors, and others are now coming together to ensure that on-demand edge cloud services are delivered successfully, while meeting the new requirements of end customers.
The journey begins
The journey to the edge is inevitable. Compute and processing must be moved closer to the end user to support a new generation of enterprise and consumer applications and ensure the success of the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). How are network providers beginning to make this journey and ensure their networks can support edge services? They’re starting at the end: with the end user. They are identifying and understanding what the end customer wants from edge services and the opportunities available in the edge cloud ecosystem. They’re identifying exactly what this will demand of their networks, and finally, they are adopting a framework for network and service management that will meet these needs.
This requires a new way of thinking, which can be summed up in two words: openness and automation. We’ll get to that later. First, let’s begin with the end user. Whether business or consumer, expectations of connectivity are changing. Think of home broadband: last year, for many of us, our house became our office, our kids’ school, our entertainment hub, and more. Customers expect services on demand using self-service capabilities, and they expect consistently flawless performance, which network providers must deliver—or suffer churn.
The demands of on-demand
At the same time, we’re seeing the emergence and commercialization of a new generation of cloud-native applications. These go beyond basic connectivity, delivering on-demand digital experiences and use cases such as business AR/VR, industrial automation, and gaming that are compute intensive and latency sensitive. Network providers are expected to meet the demands of all these use cases, with service-level agreements (SLAs) in place that dictate specific requirements to ensure quality of experience.
Network providers are under pressure to deliver more at an ever-lower cost. The usual way of managing the service lifecycle – from design to ordering, fulfilment, and assurance – has been complex and expensive. Traditional ways of thinking and traditional approaches for network planning, instantiating, and assuring edge services are no longer adequate. This brings us to the second stage of the network provider’s journey to supporting edge cloud: understanding how network operations need to change.
The new connectivity environment requires providers to own the end-to-end service, manage thousands of endpoints, oversee the scaling of edge compute and storage resources across multiple domains, and optimize the underlying connectivity. While some work has been done to virtualize network functions and digitalize customer engagement, many network systems remain customized, siloed, and dependent on manual processes for their management. Traditionally, it takes months for a network provider to bring a new service to market. Compare this with the speed and agility of the new breed of digital and cloud service providers such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud. Hyperscalers are nudging into the telco world, and network providers are readying their networks and approaches to compete.
Fortunately, this doesn’t require a challenging, costly transformation. Instead, network providers are taking an evolutionary approach to digitizing and automating the service delivery lifecycle, from design to activation and assurance, without requiring extensive (and expensive) customization. Which brings us to the final stage of the road to edge cloud: adopting a framework for network and service management that meets the needs of end users.
Automation and openness
Edge cloud services must be delivered at speed and scale, something that can only be achieved by automating network operations. This approach is being applied across the entire service lifecycle, from the time a customer order is received, to orchestrating the service, and assuring it from end to end. Customers are used to on-demand, instantly accessible services, and digital-first providers have the flexibility to deliver this. Network providers are now starting to do the same, keeping up to date and delivering edge services that meet the demands of their customers.
In addition to applying an automation solution to the complete lifecycle of the network, service providers are also ensuring they have real-time visibility, giving them the flexibility and control to manage rapidly changing operating environments. That same level of digital service provider–style flexibility can also be achieved by taking an open approach to both software and standards. Network providers are avoiding vendor lock-in (and the burden on evolution that this causes) by choosing only open, vendor-agnostic software that can be quickly and easily integrated with other network components.
Open APIs and standard reference architectures are also important here—the likes of the TM Forum and ETSI, for instance, are working to bring the diverse connectivity environment together with open toolkits and frameworks. Finally, this openness should be reflected in flexible deployment options. As such, solutions are being designed and optimized as cloud-native applications, meaning network providers can choose to deploy them on premises or in public or private clouds.
Telcos might not know every detail about the what and the where of the edge. But the industry knows the journey to deploying and supporting edge cloud applications is inevitable. Network providers are now equipping themselves for this journey and adopting open approaches that allow for the intelligent automation of the lifecycle management of edge cloud services, delivering services better and faster.
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