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The big prize in enterprise managed services today is supporting industries' digital transformation. With the growing 'softwarisation' of networking, this creates more impetus for vendors to compete with telcos as part of a shifting ecosystem. But does vendor software risk cannibalising the telco network?
Digital transformation is reshaping vendors’ and telcos’ offer to enterprises
What does ‘digital transformation’ mean?
The enterprise market for telecoms vendors and operators is being radically reshaped by digital transformation. This transformation is taking place across all industry verticals, not just the telecoms sector, whose digital transformation – desirable or actual – STL Partners has forensically mapped out for several years now.
The term ‘digital transformation’ is so familiar that it breeds contempt in some quarters. Consequently, it is worth taking a while to refresh our thinking on what ‘digital transformation’ actually means. This will in turn help explain how the digital needs and practices of enterprises are impacting on vendors and telcos alike.
The digitisation of enterprises across all sectors can be described as part of a more general social, economic and technological evolution toward ever more far-reaching use of software-, computing- and IP-based modes of: interacting with customers and suppliers; communicating; networking; collaborating; distributing and accessing media content; producing, marketing and selling goods and services; consuming and purchasing those goods and services; and managing money flows across the economy. Indeed, one definition of the term ‘digital’ in this more general sense could simply be ‘software-, computing- and IP-driven or -enabled’.
For the telecoms industry, the digitisation of society and technology in this sense has meant, among other things, the decline of voice (fixed and mobile) as the primary communications service, although it is still the single largest contributor to turnover for many telcos. Voice mediates an ‘analogue’ economy and way of working in the sense that the voice is a form of ‘physical’ communication between two or more persons. In addition, the activity and means of communication (i.e. the actual telephone conversation to discuss project issues) is a separate process and work task from other work tasks, in different physical locations, that it helps to co-ordinate. By contrast, in an online collaboration session, the communications activity and the work activity are combined in a shared virtual space: the digital service allows for greater integration and synchronisation of tasks previously carried out by physical means, in separate locations, and in a less inherently co-ordinated manner.
Similarly, data in the ATM and Frame Relay era was mainly a means to transport a certain volume of information or files from one work place to another, without joining those work places together as one: the work places remained separate, both physically and in terms of the processes and work activities associated with them. The traditional telecoms network itself reflected the physical economy and processes that it enabled: comprising massive hardware and equipment stacks responsible for shifting huge volumes of voice signals and data packets (so called on the analogy of postal packets) from one physical location to another.
By contrast, with the advent of the digital (software-, computing- and IP-enabled) society and economy, the value carried by communications infrastructure has increasingly shifted from voice and data (as ‘physical’ signals and packets) to that of new modes of always-on, virtual interconnectedness and interactivity that tend towards the goal of eliminating or transcending the physical separation and discontinuity of people, work processes and things.
Examples of this digital transformation of communications, and associated experiences of work and life, could include:
- As stated above, simple voice communications, in both business and personal life, have been increasingly superseded by ‘real-time’ or near-real-time, one-to-one or one-to-many exchange and sharing of text and audio-visual content across modes of communication such as instant messaging, unified communications (UC), social media (including increasingly in the work place) or collaborative applications enabling simultaneous, multi-party reviewing and editing of documents and files
- Similarly, location-to-location file transfers in support of discrete, geographically separated business processes are being replaced by centralised storage and processing of, and access to, enterprise data and applications in the cloud
- These trends mean that, in theory, people can collaborate and ‘meet’ with each other from any location in the world, and the digital service constitutes the virtual activity and medium through which that collaboration takes place
- Similarly, with the Internet of Things (IoT), physical objects, devices, processes and phenomena generate data that can be transmitted and analysed in ‘real time’, triggering rapid responses and actions directed towards those physical objects and processes based on application logic and machine learning – resulting in more efficient, integrated processes and physical events meeting the needs of businesses and people. In other words, the IoT effectively involves digitising the physical world: disparate physical processes, and the action of diverse physical things and devices, are brought together by software logic and computing around human goals and needs.
‘Virtualisation’ effectively means ‘digital optimisation’
In addition to the cloud and IoT, one of the main effects of enterprise digital transformation on the communications infrastructure has of course been Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) and SoftwareDefined Networking (SDN). NFV – the replacement of network functionality previously associated with dedicated hardware appliances by software running on standard compute devices – could also simply be described as the digitisation of telecoms infrastructure: the transformation of networks into software-, computing- and IP-driven (digital) systems that are capable of supporting the functionality underpinning the virtual / digital economy.
This functionality includes things like ultrafast, reliable, scalable and secure routing, processing, analysis and storage of massive but also highly variable data flows across network domains and on a global scale – supporting business processes ranging from ‘mere’ communications and collaboration to co-ordination and management of large-scale critical services, multi-national enterprises, government functions, and complex industrial processes. And meanwhile, the physical, Layer-1 elements of the network have also to become lightning-fast to deliver the massive, ‘real-time’ data flows on which the digital systems and services depend.
Virtualisation creates opportunities for vendors to act like Internet players, OTT service providers and telcos
Virtualisation frees vendors from ‘operator lock-in’
Virtualisation has generally been touted as a necessary means for telcos to adapt their networks to support the digital service demands of their customers and, in the enterprise market, to support those customers’ own digital transformations. It has also been advocated as a means for telcos to free themselves from so-called ‘vendor lock-in’: dependency on their network hardware suppliers for maintenance and upgrades to equipment capacity or functionality to support service growth or new product development.
From the other side of the coin, virtualisation could also be seen as a means for vendors to free themselves from ‘operator lock-in’: a dependency on telcos as the primary market for their networking equipment and technology. That is to say, the same dynamic of social and enterprise digitisation, discussed above, has driven vendors to virtualise their own product and service offerings, and to move away from the old business model, which could be described as follows:
▪ telcos and their implementation partners purchase hardware from the vendor
▪ deploy it at the enterprise customer
▪ and then own the business relationship with the enterprise and hold the responsibility for managing the services
By contrast, once the service-enabling technology is based on software and standard compute hardware, this creates opportunities for vendors to market their technology direct to enterprise customers, with which they can in theory take over the supplier-customer relationship.
Of course, many enterprises have continued to own and operate their own private networks and networking equipment, generally supplied to them by vendors. Therefore, vendors marketing their products and services direct to enterprises is not a radical innovation in itself. However, the digitisation / virtualisation of networking technology and of enterprise networks is creating a new competitive dynamic placing vendors in a position to ‘win back’ direct relationships to enterprise customers that they have been serving through the mediation of telcos.
Virtualisation changes the competitive dynamic
- Executive Summary: Digital transformation is changing the rules of the game
- Digital transformation is reshaping vendors’ and telcos’ offer to enterprises
- What does ‘digital transformation’ mean?
- ‘Virtualisation’ effectively means ‘digital optimisation’
- Virtualisation creates opportunities for vendors to act like Internet players, OTT service providers and telcos
- Vendors and telcos: the business models are changing
- New vendor plays in enterprise networking: four vendor business models
- Vendor plays: Nokia, Ericsson, Cisco and IBM
- Ericsson: changing the bet from telcos to enterprises – and back again?
- Cisco: Betting on enterprises – while operators need to speed up
- IBM: Transformation involves not just doing different things but doing things differently
- Conclusion: Vendors as ‘co-Operators’, ‘co-opetors’ or ‘co-opters’ – but can telcos still set the agenda?
- How should telcos play it? Four recommendations
- Figure 1: Virtualisation changes the competitive dynamic
- Figure 2: The telco as primary channel for vendors
- Figure 3: New direct-to-enterprise opportunities for vendors
- Figure 4: Vendors as both technology supplier and OTT / operator-type managed services provider
- Figure 5: Vendors as digital service creators, with telcos as connectivity providers and digital service enablers
- Figure 6: Vendors as digital service enablers, with telcos as digital service creators / providers
- Figure 7: Vendor manages communications / networking as part of overall digital transformation focus
- Figure 8: Nokia as technology supplier and ‘operator-type’ managed services provider
- Figure 9: Nokia’s cloud-native core network blueprint
- Figure 10: Nokia WING value chain
- Figure 11: Ericsson’s model for telcos’ roles in the IoT ecosystem
- Figure 12: Ericsson generates the value whether operators provide connectivity only or also market the service
- Figure 13: IBM’s model for telcos as digital service enablers or providers – or both