To Make the Most of 5G Investments, Telcos Need a More Holistic View – Light Reading

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By Sam Lee, Robert Johnson.

How important is end-to-end visibility in cloud-native 5G networks? Ask most telco leaders, and they’ll say, “We’ll let you know when we get there.”

For many communication service providers (CSPs), this is still an abstract question, as most are still in early stages of moving to software-driven, cloud-native architectures. But the truth is that even those farther along in their 5G journeys aren’t focusing on observability as a top priority. Once they complete 5G Standalone (5G SA) and 5G Core (5GC) rollouts, even more advanced operators plan to deploy specialized toolsets for new cloud and container-as-a-service (CaaS) components. Meanwhile for legacy services, they’ll continue using the same static observability frameworks they’ve relied on for years.

This hybrid approach to monitoring and assurance makes sense, but it’s shortsighted. By adding dedicated cloud-native tooling to existing legacy tools, CSPs end up building yet another operational silo in an already fractured environment. Indeed, these proliferating operational silos, and the costs and complexity that come with them, are among the biggest barriers preventing CSPs from fully capitalizing on next-generation networks.

If CSPs want to monetize 5G, they need to operationalize those aspects of it that are truly transformative. The 5G services that can generate significant new revenues will be those that are genuinely differentiated, like the ability to deliver custom network slices under service-level agreements (SLAs). But such services depend on the ability to prioritize revenue-generating traffic in the network and assure SLAs. In short, they require holistic observability. That’s not possible if telcos continue relying on operational silos—and continue accepting an operational model where it’s impossible to understand the health of services end-to-end.

Barriers to Transformation

When 4G networks emerged, high-speed mobile broadband was enough to fuel rapid telco business growth. 5G, however, was always something different. For this latest network evolution, the real value was never about achieving slightly higher data rates. It was about giving telcos new tools to transform into “tech-cos” that can deliver more advanced and customized services, with the same speed and agility as other digital leaders.

This vision still offers the best path to monetize 5G investments and, more broadly, put telcos on a stronger economic footing for the future. However, the truly transformative aspects of 5G—network slicing, agile software methodologies, continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD)—require CSPs to adopt new cloud architectures and radically different operating models. That’s not possible when network data remains fractured across disparate operational silos.

Today, most operators have no single place where they collect all network data, and no single dashboard to view and understand it end to end. Instead, data is locked up in specialized domain- and vendor-specific toolsets. For some network data, like in radio access networks (RAN), telcos can’t even access all telemetry information, but license only a subset.

What happens when CSPs try to offer more specialized and lucrative services using cloud-native 5G architectures? They’ll have major challenges trying to monitor and assure them end-to-end. Legacy element management systems (EMS) will continue doing what they’re designed to do—manage network functions (NFs). But they’ll have no awareness of the underlying hardware or software infrastructure on which NFs are deployed, or how problems in those domains might be affecting service-level performance. The result is like watching a football match through a telescope. You can see individual players, but it’s extremely difficult to understand how they’re impacting the overall game.

Proliferating Silos

Despite these concerns, most CSPs continue to add specialized observability tools—and new operational silos—each time they update the network. Most telcos using Kubernetes and containerized NFs (CNFs) today, for example, use a hodgepodge of open-source tools to collect data on the cloud-native aspects of the network—yet another silo.

This trajectory of continually adding silos continues to slow telco transformation. First, the added complexity makes network operations more expensive, time-consuming, and harder-to-scale than they should be. But operational silos can also block more innovative change. Fractured network data and tooling can impede automation, limiting the potential for zero-touch provisioning or self-healing networks. Of greater concern, the process of creating, testing, deploying, and ultimately billing for new services is much slower and more complicated. Indeed, this is a major reason why most CSPs still struggle to move as quickly as modern cloud and software players.

Telcos will always have different teams specializing in network, data center, and other areas, with each requiring different kinds of visibility. But technology evolves quickly, and the pace of change keeps accelerating. CSPs will continue deploying new network components like 5GC, RAN interface controllers (RIC) and rApps, and new NFs from a variety of vendors. The coming 6G evolution will introduce even more change. If CSPs want to rapidly onboard new services and operational models, observability must be quickly adaptable and extensible. Ideally, it should be largely automated through a CI/CD pipeline.

Envisioning a New Approach

As CSPs progress through business and operational transformation, it’s time to start thinking differently about observability. This will require changes to mindset and processes, but a new approach to tooling as well. That starts with having a horizontal telco cloud platform that extends across all domains. It’s the only way to achieve a single data set for the network and a single source of truth for all network abstractions and tools. 

Once telcos have a platform for holistic visibility, they can:

  • Enabled closed-loop automation: With visibility across all domains and vendors, the network can now detect and remediate problems proactively and autonomously. This is a gamechanger for telco agility, operational expenses, and subscriber quality of experience, but it can’t happen in a siloed environment. 

  • Improve operational effectiveness across the board: Even when CSPs maintain certain areas of specialization, having a common source of network data and abstraction is extremely valuable. Kubernetes experts can better understand how the health and behavior of NFs affects the overall environment. RAN and 5GC experts can better understand Kubernetes. Now, everyone can speak the same language and more effectively collaborate when triaging issues.

  • Capitalize on network data: With end-to-end network observability, including in the RAN, CSPs gain a tremendously valuable data set. They can use that data to train new AI/ML models (for automation, statistical analysis, data-driven planning, and more), or even monetize data sets externally. Indeed, for the many companies now making massive investments into developing new AI tools, the lack of quality training data remains a core challenge.

  • Gain essential capabilities to monetize 5G: STL Partners found that enterprises will pay a premium for private networks and other next-gen 5G services that support mission-critical business operations—provided telcos can assure their performance under SLAs. For services where every millisecond matters, multi-layer real-time observability is essential.

CSPs are still in early stages of 5G transformation, and the possibilities for reimagining their business and operations remain practically unlimited. But the most compelling innovations can’t arise from fractured data and tooling. It’s time for a more holistic view.

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