Avoiding public cloud? Telcos are running out of excuses
The need for telecoms operators to digitally transform isn’t just being stressed by outsiders. Telcos themselves are making a significant push toward becoming more nimble, digital businesses to improve subscriber experiences and drive higher revenues. This push toward digitalisation is, says Tim McElligott, senior analyst at TM Forum, driving telcos to consider significant infrastructure changes.
The public cloud is still a relatively unknown entity to telcos. This would have typically been a red flag for the risk averse telco of the past but priorities have changed and increasingly, telcos are moving more elements of their network to the public cloud. The most notable instance of this, perhaps, came in the summer of last year when AT&T signed a US$2 billion (€1.8 billion)deal to move its non-networking workloads to Microsoft Azure by 2024.
Going against the grain and refusing to embrace public cloud is becoming increasingly difficult for telcos. But with so much CapEx going into 5G and upgrading legacy infrastructure, it’s important that operators are wise in their cloud investments. So, what should operators consider before making the jump to the cloud?
Weighing up the pros and cons
One area of telcos’ network that is seemingly perfect for the cloud is BSS. And that’s been recognised for some time, back in 2017, operators reported in a TM Forum survey that they were adopting a software as a service (SaaS) model for some business support systems (BSS) applications. Indeed, at the time nearly half of respondents predicted that more than 50% of all BSS would be in the cloud by 2020.
With 2020 now upon us, it’s clear to see that there’s still a long road ahead before we reach cloud-native BSS nirvana. But making such an important technology shift consideration and should be based on an evaluation of the pros and cons.
One of the major benefits of the public cloud is its scalability. Scaling applications economically and on-demand is vital to operators’ efforts to optimise and automate networks. Other key benefits of the public cloud for telcos include lower operational costs than those associated to traditional networks, and the ability to bring services to market quickly.
Leveraging the public cloud also holds some more future-facing potential benefits. Moving BSS applications to the public cloud is an opportunity to test the waters for the next generation of OSS and BSS solutions. Through cloud deployments, particularly where managed services are concerned, some telcos hope to be able to automate more services and applications, and to perform maintenance tasks without needing to take components out of service, bringing much anticipated predictive maintenance closer to reality.
Embracing public cloud doesn’t just bring benefits, it covers cracks. The majority of telcos will admit that they don’t have the necessary software skills internally to deploy and manage cloud environments alone. A public cloud partner can be brought on to handle the unfamiliar language, components, technologies and culture of cloud networking that isn’t in the average telco’s locker.
The downsides of using the public cloud for telcos often boils down to a reduction of control. With servers and systems in the cloud, telcos are handing security and operational control over to a public cloud provider. This can be an uncomfortable trade-off. When it comes to data protection, telcos have a strong reputation to guard and it can be difficult entrusting this reputation with a new public cloud provider partner.
Telco hesitations very much hinge on the idea that public cloud providers are potentially unsuitable partners, but this notion is flawed. Enterprises large and small, across a range of verticals, are getting the benefits out of effective public cloud partnerships including telecoms operators like AT&T. With every successful case study, the telco argument for not embracing public cloud is diminished.
Traditional workloads are just the start
Where BSS is concerned, any telco undertaking cloud migrations will most likely be moving traditional workloads one by one into the cloud this is called the “lift and shift” approach. While this is the accepted way of doing things today, many foresee a more ambitious cloud-native approach in the future. Cloud-native means creating container-based environments populated by “containerised” applications created to exist in the cloud.
Containers isolate an application and dependencies into a self-contained unit that can run anywhere. Everything is virtualised, even hardware and operating systems. By being software-defined and load-balanced, all resources necessary to run any workload or application can expand dynamically to support workloads as they scale up or down. This helps fulfil the true promise of the cloud for telcos reduced operational costs.
It’s worth noting that the “lift and shift” approach is a good starting point for cloud migration. Traditional applications shifted to the cloud will eventually be phased out or redesigned to be cloud-native. For the time being, however, “lift and shift” is a means to remove dependence on legacy infrastructure an important stepping stone toward a cloud-native environment.
Forward thinking vision
Really making a success of cloud requires telcos to ditch short-sighted intuitions. Telcos must eventually go beyond the standard “lift and shift” of traditional workloads to truly realise the benefits of cloud-native environments, and the sooner they do this, the better.
The good news for operators is that there’s clear blueprints for applying the cloud. The multi-access edge computing (MEC) functions behind the mobile edge are cloud-native by default. This gives telcos a great opportunity to experiment with cloud-native technologies to support the edge functionalities that are essential to the delivery of 5G networks. Blueprints have also been set out by the big operators; AT&T, China Unicom, Telefonica, Verizon and others have all entered public cloud partnerships. This is a testament to the fact that such partnerships can work for any telco.
Telcos are understandably protective of their networks, but they shouldn’t underwrite their own ability to manage networks once removed. Expertise and experience make telcos perfectly placed to monitor the performance of networks and hold public cloud providers to account when they’re not delivering on their end. The worries of today shouldn’t hold telcos back from embracing the inevitable cloud-native future. Hesitation risks telcos being left in the dust.
The author, Tim McElligott is senior analyst at TM Forum
About the author
Tim McElligott is senior analyst at TM Forum. McElligott joined TM Forum in January 2019, after working as senior analyst at Frost & Sullivan, editor in chief of Billing & OSS World (B/OSS magazine), and senior editor at Telephony. He is currently focused on industry transformation and collaboration, open architectures, digital service delivery and monetisation, automated service development and assurance, and network, customer, and business intelligence. Read more on the topic in “Public cloud: An essential but not singular solution for CSPs”.