The evolution of network functions in the Coordination Age

Services are driving the evolution from end-to-end physical networks, to seamlessly bridged virtual and physical worlds

network functions evolution

The above graphic illustrates our view of how:

  • At the beginning, telecoms was pre-computerised and analogue: its core function was as a physical means to achieve a geographical extension of real-world, social interaction – communicating verbally and transmitting documentation from point to point.
  • In the Information Age, the telecoms network is computerised and digitised: it becomes an IT / data network optimised for transmitting and processing vast volumes of digitally encoded information (apps, workloads, content, voice, text, etc.). The telco remained in charge of the network functions that facilitated this, but the value shifted to those apps, workloads, content, etc. NFV / SDN was the attempt to replicate those network functions in software form. This was primarily to enable the telco to perform the core function of the telecoms network in the Information Age (transmitting and processing ever vaster volumes of data) more a more cost-effective and scalable way. But NFV did not change the value equation or the fundamental economics.
  • In the Coordination Age, rather than seeing cloud-native as a means to achieve the goals of NFV as defined above more effectively still, we should see it as the key change that enables telco network functions to be comprehensively computerised: to be programmable and adaptable to the specific operational and data-processing requirements of any given use case. But what actually delivers that compute-driven functionality are the physical characteristics of the network, e.g. ultra-low-latency and ultra-reliable radio located geographically close to the physical application supported.

In this sense, the telco network – cloud-native network functions, plus physical functions and geographical distribution – becomes the bridge between compute and the physical world. Hence, the core function and business of telecoms has evolved from being – in the Communications Age – the delivery of ubiquitous communication to that of enabling ubiquitous computing for the Coordination Age: the ability to deliver compute-driven, real-world processes and responses anywhere, at any time.

In our research report Why and how to go telco cloud native: AT&T, DISH and Rakuten we discuss how telecoms operations are becoming increasingly softwarised and how networking functions are getting broken down into their individual components and reassembled as an essential part of the IT stack for industry-specific applications and services. The report explores the effect this disaggregated telco value chain has on telcos.