Why and how to go telco cloud native: AT&T, DISH and Rakuten

The telco business is being disaggregated

Telcos are facing a situation in which the elements that have traditionally made up and produced their core business are being ‘disaggregated’: broken up into their component parts and recombined in different ways, while some of the elements of the telco business are increasingly being provided by players from other industry verticals.

By the same token, telcos face the pressure – and the opportunity – to combine connectivity with other capabilities as part of new vertical-specific offerings.

Telco disaggregation primarily affects three interrelated aspects of the telco business:

  1. Technology:
    • ‘Vertical’ disaggregation: separating out of network functions previously delivered by dedicated, physical equipment into software running on commodity computing hardware (NFV, virtualisation)
    • ‘Horizontal’ disaggregation: breaking up of network functions themselves into their component parts – at both the software and hardware levels; and re-engineering, recombining and redistributing of those component parts (geographically and architecturally) to meet the needs of new use cases. In respect of software, this typically involves cloud-native network functions (CNFs) and containerisation
    • Open RAN is an example of both types of disaggregation: vertical disaggregation through separation of baseband processing software and hardware; and horizontal disaggregation by breaking out the baseband function into centralised and distributed units (CU and DU), along with a separate, programmable controller (RAN Intelligent Controller, or RIC), where all of these can in theory be provided by different vendors, and interface with radios that can also be provided by third-party vendors.
  2. Organisational structure and operating model: Breaking up of organisational hierarchies, departmental siloes, and waterfall development processes focused on the core connectivity business. As telcos face the need to develop new vertical- and client-specific services and use cases beyond the increasingly commoditised, low-margin connectivity business, these structures are being – or need to be – replaced by more multi-disciplinary teams taking end-to-end responsibility for product development and operations (e.g. DevOps), go-to-market, profitability, and technology.

Transformation from the vertical telco to the disaggregated telco

3. Value chain and business model: Breaking up of the traditional model whereby telcos owned – or at least had end-to-end operational oversight over – . This is not to deny that telcos have always relied on third party-owned or outsourced infrastructure and services, such as wholesale networks, interconnect services or vendor outsourcing. However, these discrete elements have always been welded into an end-to-end, network-based services offering under the auspices of the telco’s BSS and OSS. These ensured that the telco took overall responsibility for end-to-end service design, delivery, assurance and billing.

    • The theory behind this traditional model is that all the customer’s connectivity needs should be met by leveraging the end-to-end telco network / service offering. In practice, the end-to-end characteristics have not always been fully controlled or owned by the service provider.
    • In the new, further disaggregated value chain, different parts of the now more software-, IT- and cloud-based technology stack are increasingly provided by other types of player, including from other industry verticals. Telcos must compete to play within these new markets, and have no automatic right to deliver even just the connectivity elements.

All of these aspects of disaggregation can be seen as manifestations of a fundamental shift where telecoms is evolving from a utility communications and connectivity business to a component of distributed computing. The core business of telecoms is becoming the processing and delivery of distributed computing workloads, and the enablement of ubiquitous computing.

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Telco disaggregation is a by-product of computerisation

Telco industry disaggregation is part of a broader evolution in the domains of technology, business, the economy, and society. This evolution comprises ‘computerisation’. Computing analyses and breaks up material processes and systems into a set of logical and functional sub-components, enabling processes and products to be re-engineered, optimised, recombined in different ways, managed, and executed more efficiently and automatically.

In essence, ‘telco disaggregation’ is a term that describes a moment in time at which telecoms technology, organisations, value chains and processes are being broken up into their component parts and re-engineered, under the impact of computerisation and its synonyms: digitisation, softwarisation, virtualisation and cloud.

This is part of a new wave of societal computerisation / digitisation, which at STL Partners we call the Coordination Age. At a high level, this can be described as ‘cross-domain computerisation’: separating out processes, services and functions from multiple areas of technology, the economy and society – and optimising, recombining and automating them (i.e. coordinating them), so that they can better deliver on social, economic and environmental needs and goals. In other words, this enables scarce resources to be used more efficiently and sustainably in pursuit of individual and social needs.

NFV has computerised the network; telco cloud native subordinates it to computing

In respect of the telecoms industry in particular, one could argue that the first wave of virtualisation (NFV and SDN), which unfolded during the 2010s, represented the computerisation and digitisation of telecoms networking. The focus of this was internal to the telecoms industry in the first instance, rather than connected to other social and technology domains and goals. It was about taking legacy, physical networking processes and functions, and redesigning and reimplementing them in software.

Then, the second wave of virtualisation (cloud-native – which is happening now) is what enables telecoms networking to play a part in the second wave of societal computerisation more broadly (the Coordination Age). This is because the different layers and elements of telecoms networks (services, network functions and infrastructure) are redefined, instantiated in software, broken up into their component parts, redistributed (logically and physically), and reassembled as a function of an increasing variety of cross-domain and cross-vertical use cases that are enabled and delivered, ultimately, by computerisation. Telecoms is disaggregated by, subordinated to, and defined and controlled by computing.

In summary, we can say that telecoms networks and operations are going through disaggregation now because this forms part of a broader societal transformation in which physical processes, functions and systems are being brought under the control of computing / IT, in pursuit of broader human, societal, economic and environmental goals.

In practice, this also means that telcos are facing increasing competition from many new types of actor, such as:

  • Computing, IT and cloud players
  • More specialist and agile networking providers
  • And vertical-market actors – delivering connectivity in support of vertical-specific, Coordination Age use cases.

 

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Three critical success factors for Coordination Age telcos
    • What capabilities will remain distinctively ‘telco’?
    • Our take on three pioneering cloud-native telcos
  • Introduction
    • The telco business is being disaggregated
    • Telco disaggregation is a by-product of computerisation
  • The disaggregated telco landscape: Where’s the value for telcos?
    • Is there anything left that is distinctively ‘telco’?
    • The ‘core’ telecoms business has evolved from delivering ubiquitous communications to enabling ubiquitous computing
    • Six telco-specific roles for telecoms remain in play
  • Radical telco disaggregation in action: AT&T, DISH and Rakuten
    • Servco, netco or infraco – or a patchwork of all three?
    • AT&T Network Cloud sell-off: Desperation or strategic acuity?
    • DISH Networks: Building the hyperscale network
    • Rakuten Mobile: Ecommerce platform turned cloud-native telco, turned telco cloud platform provider
  • Conclusion

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2020 in review and focus on North America: How should telcos do cloud?

Tenth update of the Telco Cloud Tracker

This report accompanies the tenth release of STL Partners’ ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of NFV (Network Functions Virtualisation), SDN (Software Defined Networking) and cloud-native network functions (CNFs) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. This analytical report focuses on trends in North America, set in global context.

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Scope and content of the Tracker

The data in the tenth update covers the period up to the end of January 2021, although reference is made in the report to events and deployments after that date. The data is drawn predominantly from public-domain information contained in news releases from operators and vendors, along with reputable industry media. However, it also includes a smaller set of deployment data disclosed to us confidentially by operators and vendors. This information is added to the aggregate data sections of the ‘Tracker’ spreadsheet, which do not refer to the specific solutions supplied or the operators where they were deployed.

We apply the term ‘deployment’ to refer to the total set of virtual network functions (VNFs), CNFs or SDN technology, and their associated management software and infrastructure, deployed at an operator – or at one or more of an operator’s opcos or natcos – in order to achieve a defined objective or support particular services (in the spreadsheet, we designate these as the ‘primary purpose’ of the deployment). For example, this could be:

  • to implement a virtualised mobile core
  • to launch a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) service
  • or to construct a ‘telco cloud’ or NFV infrastructure (NFVi): a cloud infrastructure platform on which virtualised network services can be introduced and operated.

Accordingly, some of the deployments contained in the database comprise multiple elements, which are listed separately, including details about the category of NFV / SDN / CNF, and vendor and product name where known.

In addition to these mainly public-domain deployments, there are many non-publicised deployments that are inevitably omitted from the ‘Tracker’. However, the ever-growing ‘Tracker’ database now constitutes a considerable body of research that in our view offers a reliable snapshot of the overall market and the main trends in the evolution of telco cloud. In addition, as the ‘Tracker’ contains details only of deployments in live, commercial telco networks (either completed or in progress), this provides a useful corrective to the hype of some vendors’ pronouncements about agreements with operators, which often relate only to collaboration arrangements and preliminary trials, rather than commercial roll-outs.

The one exception to this rule of including only deployments that are implemented to support commercial services is a limited set of data on some of the current live network trials of open and / or virtual RAN (vRAN). The reason for making this exception is the very high level of interest currently in open RAN.

In terms of the telcos included, we limit the database mainly to Tier-One international and national telecoms operators, along with national fixed and mobile operators in smaller markets. For subsequent updates, we may expand the range and types of service providers included, because telco cloud is opening up opportunities for new players to provide cloud- and CNF-based connectivity and related services that are competing strongly with classic telco services.

SD-WAN in focus

In this update of the Tracker we have included a deep dive on SD-WAN, which was one of the main early drivers of SDN/NFV deployments, particularly among North American operators. It is worth exploring in more detail because, as it evolves into an increasingly cloud-centric and cloud-native service, it is emerging as another battleground between operators, hyperscalers and vendors.

5G is driving deployments – but will it drive business model change?

This is the first update to the ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’ in 2021, which provides an opportunity to review 2020 and discuss the key trends in 2021.

Despite the global pandemic, the pace of virtualised network function (VNF) deployments has continued at a strong level.

Total deployments by region, 2016 to 2021

Our projection is that the final number of deployments in 2020 will be at around the same level as 2019 (182 in total). Many live deployments are confirmed some time after the event, swelling the totals for previous years. Accordingly, some of the deployments currently recorded as ‘in progress’ will be added to the tally for 2020.

5G core dominates the scene but is done largely via single-vendor, ‘vertical’ NFV

The main driver of deployments in 2020 was 5G network launches around the world, particularly in the second half of the year. This meant that many Non-standalone (NSA) 5G cores – the platform supporting almost all live 5G networks – also went live, as is illustrated below:

 Deployments by leading network function, 2016 to 2021

We recorded 76 completed deployments of NSA cores in 2020, up from 56 in 2019. A further ten deployments were either completed or pending in the first quarter of 2021.

Table of content

  • Executive Summary
    • 5G core drives deployments
    • SD-WAN: Telco value moves from the WAN to the edge
    • The industry is facing an existential question: How should telcos do cloud?
    • Conclusion from North America analysis: Can a brownfield MNO be more cloud-native than a greenfield one?
  • Introduction
    • Tenth update of the Telco Cloud Tracker
    • Scope and content of the Tracker
    • SD-WAN in focus
  • 5G is driving deployments – but will it drive business model change?
    • 5G core dominates the scene but is done largely via single-vendor, ‘vertical’ NFV
    • The industry faces an existential question: how should telcos do cloud?
    • Focus on North America: four divergent answers to the existential question
  • SD-WAN: While WAN moves to the cloud, new software-defined value migrates to the edge
    • SD-WAN was one of the success stories of the first phase of SDN / NFV
    • SD-WAN has been largely made in America
    • Changes accelerated by Covid favour SD-WAN vendors over telcos – but telcos retain strengths in key areas
    • Main opportunities currently for telcos in SD-WAN, and challenge from vendors
    • ‘SD’ moves towards the edge, while ‘WAN’ moves to the cloud
  • Conclusion: Can a brownfield MNO be more cloud-native than a greenfield one?

 

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Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: Updated April 2021

The NFV Deployment Tracker builds on an extensive body of analysis by STL Partners over the past two years on NFV and SDN strategies, technology and market developments.

This unique service is updated on a regular basis and provides a steadily growing database on live deployments of NFV and SDN by telcos worldwide. The data is presented as an interactive Excel spreadsheet, which can be used to drill down on trends by company and region.

The tracker covers only verified production deployments of NFV and SDN powering live services, where we can be confident that the data on the VNFs and IT components involved is accurate. The latest update, released in April 2021, contains details on 858 NFV/SDN deployments made up of around 1,600 sub-components.

Public-domain information is presented in full detail. Confidential information, obtained direct from operators, is included in an aggregated and anonymised data set.

Each new release of the tracker is global, but is accompanied by an analytical report which focusses on trends in given regions from time to time:

Logged-in subscribers can download the latest version of the NFV Deployment Tracker spreadsheet from this page.

The Telco Cloud Manifesto

Telco cloud: A key enabler of the Coordination Age

The Coordination Age is coming

As we have set out in our company manifesto, STL Partners believes that we are entering a new ‘Coordination Age’ in which technological developments will enable governments, enterprises, and consumers to coordinate their activities more effectively than ever before. The results of better and faster coordination will be game-changing for society as resources are distributed and used more effectively than ever before leading to substantial social, economic, and health benefits.

A critical component of the Coordination Age is the universal availability of flexible, fast, reliable, low-latency networks that support a myriad of applications which, in turn, enable a complex array of communications, decisions, transactions, and processes to be completed quickly and, in many cases, automatically without human intervention.  The network remains key: without it being fit for purpose the ability to match demand and supply real-time is impossible.

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How telecoms can define a new role

Historically, telecoms networks have been created using specialist dedicated (proprietary) hardware and software.  This has ensured networks are reliable and secure but has also stymied innovation – from operators and from third-parties – that have found leveraging network capabilities challenging.  In fact, innovation accelerated with the arrival of the Internet which enabled services to be decoupled from the network and run ‘over the top’.

But the Coordination Age requires more from the network than ever before – applications require the network to be flexible, accessible and support a range of technical and commercial options. Applications cannot run independently of the network but need to integrate with it. The network must be able to impart actionable insights and flex its speed, bandwidth, latency, security, business model and countless other variables quickly and autonomously to meet the needs of applications using it.

Telco cloud – the move to a network built on common off-the-shelf hardware and flexible interoperable software from best-of-breed suppliers that runs wherever it is needed – is the enabler of this future.

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Telco cloud: A key enabler of the Coordination Age
    • The Coordination Age is coming
    • How telecoms can define a new role
  • Telco cloud: The growth enabler for the telecoms industry
    • Telecoms revenue growth has stalled, traffic has not
    • Telco cloud: A new approach to the network
    • …a fundamental shift in what it means to be an operator
    • …and the driver of future telecoms differentiation and growth
  • Realising the telco cloud vision
    • Moving to telco cloud is challenging
    • Different operator segments will take different paths

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Telco Cloud Europe update: Open RAN approaching tipping point

Telco Cloud deployments on track for growth again in 2020

Ninth update of the ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’: from ‘NFV’ to ‘telco cloud’

This report accompanies the ninth release of STL Partners’ ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of NFV (Network Functions Virtualisation), SDN (Software Defined Networking) and cloud-native network functions (CNFs) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. This analytical report focuses on trends in Europe, set in global context.

For this update and hereafter, we have changed the name of the database from ‘NFV Deployment Tracker’ to ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’. The name change reflects STL Partners’ new focus on ‘Telco Cloud’ as both a research stream and consultancy practice. But the change also corresponds to the fact that the telecoms industry has now embarked on the second phase of its journey towards more integrally software-based networks – the first phase of which went under the banner of ‘NFV’. This journey is not just about a migration towards ‘software in general’, but cloud-native software: based on design principles developed by the cloud industry, which have the potential to bring cloud-scale economics, programmability and automation to connectivity and connectivity-dependent services.

The Tracker database is provided as an interactive Excel tool containing line-by-line analysis of more than 760 individual deployments of NFV, SDN and CNFs, which can be used to drill down on trends by company and region.

We will produce further research and reports on different aspects of cloud-native software and its impact over the coming months.

Growth in 5G core offset by declines in other areas

Telco cloud deployments so far

After a slight drop in the overall number of deployments in 2019, 2020 is set to be a year of modest growth, as is illustrated by the figure below:

Total number of deployments worldwide, 2014 to July 2020

Source: STL Partners

The data for 2020 is split up into completed, ‘pending’ and estimated additional deployments. We have recorded 63 completed deployments between January and July 2020. Pending deployments (totalling 72) are those previously announced that we are expecting to be completed during 2020 but which – to our knowledge – had not yet gone live in the commercial network by the end of July. The estimated additional deployments are derived from extrapolating to the full year 2020 from the total of completed implementations in the first seven months. This results in around 45 further deployments. On this basis, the total for the year as a whole would reach around 180 deployments: just above the previous record year of 2018 (178).

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Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: Telco cloud deployments on track for growth again in 2020
    • Ninth update of the ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’: from ‘NFV’ to ‘telco cloud’
    • Scope and content of the Tracker
  • 5G core drives new growth in 2020
    • Deployments are on the rise again
    • Growth has been consistent across almost all regions
    • Europe also on track to maintain its record of year-on-year growth
    • Deployments in Europe are still dominated by the major players, but smaller telcos are catching up
    • Vendors: Ericsson in close second place behind Cisco owing to strong presence in mobile core
  • Open RAN at a TIPping point in Europe
    • European telcos are playing a leading role in open RAN
  • Conclusion: Growth being driven by 5G – with open RAN waiting in the wings
    • Worldwide surge in NSA 5G core deployments
    • NSA 5GC is now nearly the leading VNF overall in Europe
    • … with cloud-native, SA 5GC coming down the pipeline
    • … and waiting in the wings: open RAN
    • These overlapping waves of innovation will make telco cloud mainstream

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End-to-end network automation: Why and how to do it?

Automation, analytics and AI: A3 unlocks value for operators

STL Partners has been writing about automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics for several years. While the three have overlapping capabilities and often a single use case will rely upon a combination, they are also distinct in their technical outcomes.

Distinctions between the three As

Source: STL Partners

Operators have been heavily investing in A3 use cases for several years and are making significant progress. Efforts can be broadly broken down into five different domains: sales and marketing, customer experience, network planning and operations, service innovation and other operations. Some of these domains, such as sales and marketing and customer experience, are more mature, with significant numbers of use cases moving beyond R&D and PoCs into live, scaled deployments. In comparison, other domains, like service innovation, are typically less mature, despite the potential new revenue opportunities attached to them.

Five A3 use case domains

Source: STL Partners

Use cases often overlap across domains. For example, a Western European operator has implemented an advanced analytics platform that monitors network performance, and outputs a unique KPI that, at a per subscriber level, indicates the customer experience of the network. This can be used to trigger an automated marketing campaign to customers who are experiencing issues with their network performance (e.g. an offer for free mobile hotspot until issues are sorted). In this way, it spans both customer experience and network operations. For the purpose of this paper, however, we will primarily focus on automation use cases in the network domain.  We have modelled the financial value of A3 for telcos: Mapping the financial value.

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The time is ripe for network automation now

Network automation is not new. In fact, it’s been a core part of operator’s network capabilities since Almon Strowger invented the Strowger switch (in 1889), automating the process of the telephone exchange. Anecdotally, Strowger (an undertaker by profession) came up with this invention because the wife of a rival funeral parlour owner, working at the local community switchboard, was redirecting customers calling for Strowger to her own husband’s business.

Early advertising called the Strowger switch the “girl-less, cuss-less, out-of-order-less, wait-less telephone” or, in other words, free from human error and faster than the manual switchboard system. While this example is more than 100 years old, many of the benefits of automation that it achieved are still true today; automation can provide operators with the ability to deliver services on-demand, without the wait, and free from human error (or worse still, malevolent intent).

Despite automation not being a new phenomenon, STL Partners has identified six key reasons why network automation is something operators should prioritise now:

  • Only with automation can operators deliver the degree of agility that customers will demand. Customers today expect the kind of speed, accuracy and flexibility of service that can only be achieved in a cost-effective manner with high degrees of network automation. This can be both consumer customers (e.g. for next generation network services like VR/AR applications, gaming, high-definition video streaming etc.) or enterprise customers (e.g. for creating a network slice that is spun up for a weekend for a specific big event). With networks becoming increasingly customised, operators must automate their systems (across both OSS and BSS) to ensure that they can deliver these services without a drastic increase in their operating costs.
    One  wholesale operator exemplified this shift in expectations when describing their customers, which included several of the big technology companies including Amazon and Google: “They have a pace in their business that is really high and for us to keep up with their requirements and at the same time beat all our competitors we just need to be more automated”. They stated that while other customers may be more flexible and understand that instantiating a new service takes time, the “Big 5” expect services in hours rather than days and weeks.
  • Automation can enable operators to do more, such as play higher up the value chain. External partners have an expectation that telcos are highly skilled at handling data and are highly automated, particularly within the network domain. It is only through investing in internal automation efforts that operators will be able to position themselves as respected partners for services above and beyond pure connectivity. An example of success here would be the Finnish operator Elisa. They invested in automation capabilities for their own network – but subsequently have been able to monetise this externally in the form of Elisa Automate.
    A further example would be STL Partners’ vision of the Coordination Age. There is a role for telcos to play further up the value chain in coordinating across ecosystems – which will ultimately enable them to unlock new verticals and new revenue growth. The telecoms industry already connects some organisations and ecosystems together, so it’s in a strong position to play this coordinating role. But, if they wish to be trusted as ecosystem coordinators, they must first prove their pedigree in these core skills. Or, in other words, if you can’t automate your own systems, customers won’t trust you to be key partners in trying to automate theirs.
  • Automation can free up resource for service innovation. If operators are going to do more, and play a role beyond connectivity, they need to invest more in service innovation. Equally, they must also learn to innovate at a much lower cost, embracing automation alongside principles like agile development and fast fail mentalities. To invest more in service innovation, operators need to reallocate resources from other areas of their business – as most telcos are no longer rapidly growing, resource must be freed up from elsewhere.
    Reducing operating costs is a key way that operators can enable increased investment in innovation – and automation is a key way to achieve this.

A3 can drive savings to redistribute to service innovation

Source: Telecoms operator accounts, STL Partners estimates and analysis

  • 5G won’t fulfil its potential without automation. 5G standards mean that automation is built into the design from the bottom up. Most operators believe that 5G will essentially not be possible without being highly automated, particularly when considering next generation network services such as dynamic network slicing. On top of this, there will be a ranging need for automation outside of the standards – like for efficient cell-site deployment, or more sophisticated optimisation efforts for energy efficiency. Therefore, the capex investment in 5G is a major trigger to invest in automation solutions.
  • Intent-based network automation is a maturing domain. Newer technologies, like artificial intelligence and machine learning, are increasing the capabilities of automation. Traditional automation (such as robotic process automation or RPA) can be used to perform the same tasks as previously were done manually (such as inputting information for VPN provisioning) but in an automated fashion. To achieve this, rules-based scripts are used – where a human inputs exactly what it is they want the machine to do. In comparison, intent-based automation enables engineers to define a particular task (e.g. connectivity between two end-points with particular latency, bandwidth and security requirements) and software converts this request into lower level instructions for the service bearing infrastructure. You can then monitor the success of achieving the original intent.
    Use of AI and ML in conjunction with intent-based automation, can enable operators to move from automation ‘to do what humans can do but faster and more accurately’, to automation to achieve outcomes that could not be achieved in a manual way. ML and AI has a particular role to play in anomaly detection, event clustering and predictive analytics for network operations teams.
    While you can automate without AI and ML, and in fact for many telcos this is still the focus, this new technology is increasing the possibilities of what automation can achieve. 40% of our interviewees had network automation use cases that made some use of AI or ML.
  • Network virtualisation is increasing automation possibilities. As networks are increasingly virtualised, and network functions become software, operators will be afforded a greater ability than ever before to automate management, maintenance and orchestration of network services. Once networks are running on common computing hardware, making changes to the network is, in theory, purely a software change. It is easy to see how, for example, SDN will allow automation of previously human-intensive maintenance tasks. A number of operators have shared that their teams and/or organisations as a whole are thinking of virtualisation, orchestration and automation as coming hand-in-hand.

This report focuses on the opportunities and challenges in network automation. In the future, STL Partners will also look to more deeply evaluate the implications of network automation for governments and regulators, a key stakeholder within this ecosystem.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • End-to-end network automation
    • A key opportunity: 6 reasons to focus on network automation now
    • Key recommendations for operators to drive their network automation journey
    • There are challenges operators need to overcome
    • This paper explores a range of network automation use cases
    • STL Partners: Next steps
  • Automation, analytics and AI: A3 unlocks value for operators
    • The time is ripe for network automation now
  • Looking to the future: Operators’ strategy and ambitions
    • Defining end-to-end automation
    • Defining ambitions
  • State of the industry: Network automation today
    • Which networks and what use cases: the breadth of network automation today
    • Removing the human? There is a continuum within automation use cases
    • Strategic challenges: How to effectively prioritise (network) automation efforts
    • Challenges to network automation– people and culture are key to success
  • Conclusions
    • Recommendations for vendors (and others in the ecosystem)
    • Recommendations for operators

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NFV goes mainstream: How cloud-native is contributing to growth

This report accompanies the latest update of the NFV Deployment Tracker (June 2020).  It provides an analysis of global tracker findings and covers deployments from 2011 until March 2020.

About the NFV Deployment Tracker

The NFV Deployment Tracker is a regularly-updated database of commercial deployments of Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) and Software-Defined Networking (SDN) technologies by leading telcos worldwide. It builds on an extensive body of analysis by STL Partners over the past five years on NFV and SDN strategies, technology and market developments.

The Tracker is provided as an interactive Excel tool containing line-by-line analysis of nearly 700 individual deployments of NFV and SDN, which can be used to drill down on trends by company and region.

The NFV Deployment Tracker

Overview of STL Partners NFV Deployment Tracker

Source: STL Partners

Previous reports have focussed on trends in specific regions, in addition to global findings. These include:

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NFV/SDN continues to grow at different speeds in different regions

NFV deployments continue to grow…

In total, our database now contains information on 689 NFV and SDN deployments comprising 1,401 individual functional elements, i.e. an average of just over two components per deployment. As has been the case since we began collecting data, the number of deployments (as defined by STL Partners) continues to grow year on year; although the trend as illustrated below requires some explanation:

Deployment growth continues – despite an apparent slowdown

Source: STL Partners

Pending deployments are those regarding which there is uncertainty surrounding completion.  STL Partners expects some of these will be allocated to 2019 as it discovers that they were completed in that year. 2019 could yet emerge as a growth year, and if not, 2020 looks set to exceed the totals for 2018 and 2019.

…but the rate and drivers of growth vary by region

If we make a more meaningful comparison – between 2019 and the first three months of 2020 (including pending deployments), on the one hand, and 2018, on the other – we see that the number of deployments has continued to grow in each region, apart from North America, where the market is maturing and the pace of new deployment has subsided.

Regional deployment growth, with the exception of North America

Source: STL Partners

Overall, the Asia-Pacific region has accounted for the largest number of deployments across all years: 232 (33.7%) of the total – just ahead of Europe on 226 (32.8%). North America has generated 135 deployments (19.6%), followed by the Middle East with 57, Latin America on 30, and Africa with 15.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • About the NFV Deployment Tracker
    • Scope
    • Definitions
  • Introduction: NFV/SDN continues to grow – but at different speeds in different regions
    • NFV deployments continue to grow…
    • …but the rate and drivers of growth vary by region
  • In detail: understanding the growth
    • 5G ushers in Phase 2 NFV in developed markets…
    • …while Phase 1 core virtualisation spreads to other markets
    • SD-WAN also goes global
    • SDN was a critical component in longhaul network upgrades
    • vRAN and open RAN enter the stage
    • A second wave of telco cloud deployments is also underway
    • NFV MANO deployments were geared to supporting multi-vendor VNFs over telco clouds
  • In detail: deployments by operator
    • Vodafone, & Telefónica: telco cloud builders innovate at the core and edge
    • China, Japan (& Finland): leading cloud-native deployment
    • AT&T & Verizon: virtualisation programmes near completion
  • In detail: deployments by vendor
    • Cisco & Nokia: generalists leading overall and in 2019/20 respectively, boosted by 5G cores
    • VMware: thriving on telco cloud and SD-WAN
    • Ericsson: leading on 5G cores
    • Huawei: real position is unclear
  • Conclusion: NFV’s first phase has delivered, but tougher challenges lie ahead
    • NFV has become a more and more integral part of telcos’ service portfolios and infrastructure
    • NFV has proven its worth in addressing the challenges of today…
    • … while cloud-native NFV is also getting underway, and may help address the challenges of tomorrow
    • Phase 2 NFV: innovating our way out of the crisis
    • What next?
  • Appendix: Glossary of terms

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A3 for telcos: Mapping the financial value

What is analytics, AI and automation worth to telecoms operators?

This report is the second in a two-part series mapping the process and assessing the financial value of automation, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) in telecoms. In the first report, The value of analytics, automation and AI for telcos – Part 1: The telco A3 application map, we outlined which type of technology was best suited to which processes across a telco’s operations.

In this report, we assess the financial value of each of the operational areas, in dollar terms, for an average telco. Based on our assessment of operator financials and operational KPIs, the figure below outlines our assumptions on the characteristics of an “average” telco used as the basis for our financial modelling. The characteristics of this telco are as shown below, with a slight skew towards developed market operator characteristics since this is currently where most industry proof points used in our modelling have been implemented.

The characteristics of an average telco

characteristics of an average telco

Source: STL Partners, Charlotte Patrick Consult

The first report in the series analysed how each A3 technology could be applied similarly across different functional units of a telecoms operator, e.g. machine learning or automation each have similar processes in network management, channel management and sales and marketing.

Evaluating AI and automation use cases in four domains

To measure financial impact, this report returns to a traditional breakdown of value by functional unit within the telco, breaking down into four key areas:

  1. Network operations: Network deployment, management and maintenance, and revenue management
  2. Fraud: Including services, online, and internal fraud risks
  3. Customer care: Including all assisted and unassisted channels
  4. Marketing and sales: Understanding customers, managing products, marketing programs, lead management and sales processes.

Through an assessment of nearly 150 individual process areas across a telecoms operator’s core operations, we estimate that A3 can deliver the average telco more than $1 billion dollars in value per year, through a combination of revenue uplift and opex and capex savings, equivalent to 7% of total annual revenues.

As illustrated below, core network operations management accounts for by far the greatest proportion of the value.

The relative value of automation, AI and analytics across telco operations

The relative value of AI, automation and analytics across telco operations

Source: STL Partners, Charlotte Patrick Consult

This likely still underrepresents the total, long term potential value of A3 to telcos, since this first iteration does not model the value of A3 processes in areas less unique to telecoms, including supply chain, finance, IT and HR. No doubt that even within the core area of operations, there are potential process areas that have yet to be discovered or proven, and which we have overlooked in our initial attempt to model the value of A3 to telcos. Meanwhile, this is focused purely on telco’s internal operations so also excludes any potential revenue uplift from new A3-enabled services, such as data monetisation or development of AI-as-a-service type solutions.

That said, operators cannot implement all of these processes at once. The enormous challenge of restructuring processes to be more automated and data-centric, putting in place the data management and analytics capabilities, training employees and acquiring new skills, among many others, means that while many leading telcos are well on their way to capturing this value in some areas, very few – if any – have implemented A3 across all process areas. As a benchmark, Telefónica is an industry leader in leveraging automation and AI to improve operational efficiency, and in 2019 it reported total operational savings of €429mn across the entire group. While this is primarily focused on customer facing channels, so likely excludes the value of A3 in many network operations processes, for instance energy efficiency which is delivering significant value to Telefónica and others, it suggests there remains lots of value still to capture.

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Methodology

The financial modelling for the value of A3 was done through an individual assessment of each of the 150+ process areas to understand the main activities within that area of operations, and how automation, analytics and/or machine learning and other AI technologies could be used within those activities. From there, we assess the value of integrating these technologies to existing operational functions to make them more efficient and effective. This means that we do not attribute any additional value to telcos from implementing new technologies that include A3 as a core element of their functionality, e.g. a multi-domain service orchestrator, implemented as part of software-defined networking.

Our bottom up assessment of each process is also validated through real-world proof points from operators or vendors. This means that more speculative areas of A3 application in operators are calculated to offer relatively limited value. As more proof points emerge, we will incorporate them into future iterations.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Where is the largest financial benefit from A3?
    • What should telcos prioritise in the short term?
    • How long will it take for telcos to realise this value?
    • What next?
  • Introduction
    • Methodology
  • Breaking down the value of A3 by operational area
    • Network, OSS and BSS
    • Fraud management
    • Care and commercial channels
    • Marketing and sales
  • Conclusions and recommendations

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Open RAN: What should telcos do?

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Related webinar: Open RAN: What should telcos do?

In this webinar STL Partners addressed the three most important sub-components of Open RAN (open-RAN, vRAN and C-RAN) and how they interact to enable a new, virtualized, less vendor-dominated RAN ecosystem. The webinar covered:

* Why Open RAN matters – and why it will be about 4G (not 5G) in the short term
* Data-led overview of existing Open RAN initiatives and challenges
* Our recommended deployment strategies for operators
* What the vendors are up to – and how we expect that to change

Date: Tuesday 4th August 2020
Time: 4pm GMT

Access the video recording and presentation slides

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For the report chart pack download the additional file on the left

What is the open RAN and why does it matter?

The open RAN’ encompasses a group of technological approaches that are designed to make the radio access network (RAN) more cost effective and flexible. It involves a shift away from traditional, proprietary radio hardware and network architectures, driven by single vendors, towards new, virtualised platforms and a more open vendor ecosystem.

Legacy RAN: single-vendor and inflexible

The traditional, legacy radio access network (RAN) uses dedicated hardware to deliver the baseband function (modulation and management of the frequency range used for cellular network transmission), along with proprietary interfaces (typically based on the Common Public Radio Interface (CPRI) standard) for the fronthaul from the baseband unit (BBU) to the remote radio unit (RRU) at the top of the transmitter mast.

Figure 1: Legacy RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

This means that, typically, telcos have needed to buy the baseband and the radio from a single vendor, with the market presently dominated largely by the ‘big three’ (Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia), together with a smaller market share for Samsung and ZTE.

The architecture of the legacy RAN – with BBUs typically but not always at every cell site – has many limitations:

  • It is resource-intensive and energy-inefficient – employing a mass of redundant equipment operating at well below capacity most of the time, while consuming a lot of power
  • It is expensive, as telcos are obliged to purchase and operate a large inventory of physical kit from a limited number of suppliers, which keeps the prices high
  • It is inflexible, as telcos are unable to deploy to new and varied sites – e.g. macro-cells, small cells and micro-cells with different radios and frequency ranges – in an agile and cost-effective manner
  • It is more costly to manage and maintain, as there is less automation and more physical kit to support, requiring personnel to be sent out to remote sites
  • It is not very programmable to support the varied frequency, latency and bandwidth demands of different services.

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Moving to the open RAN: C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN

There are now many distinct technologies and standards emerging in the radio access space that involve a shift away from traditional, proprietary radio hardware and network architectures, driven by single vendors, towards new, virtualised platforms and a more open vendor ecosystem.

We have adopted ‘the open RAN’ as an umbrella term which encompasses all of these technologies. Together, they are expected to make the RAN more cost effective and flexible. The three most important sub-components of the open RAN are C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN.

Centralised RAN (C-RAN), also known as cloud RAN, involves distributing and centralising the baseband functionality across different telco edge, aggregation and core locations, and in the telco cloud, so that baseband processing for multiple sites can be carried out in different locations, nearer or further to the end user.

This enables more effective control and programming of capacity, latency, spectrum usage and service quality, including in support of 5G core-enabled technologies and services such as network slicing, URLLC, etc. In particular, baseband functionality can be split between more centralised sites (central baseband units – CU) and more distributed sites (distributed unit – DU) in much the same way, and for a similar purpose, as the split between centralised control planes and distributed user planes in the mobile core, as illustrated below:

Figure 2: Centralised RAN (C-RAN) architecture

Cloud RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

Virtual RAN (vRAN) involves virtualising (and now also containerising) the BBU so that it is run as software on generic hardware (General Purpose Processing – GPP) platforms. This enables the baseband software and hardware, and even different components of them, to be supplied by different vendors.

Figure 3: Virtual RAN (vRAN) architecture

vRAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

Open-RANnote the hyphenation – involves replacing the vendor-proprietary interfaces between the BBU and the RRU with open standards. This enables BBUs (and parts thereof) from one or multiple vendors to interoperate with radios from other vendors, resulting in a fully disaggregated RAN:

Figure 4: Open-RAN architecture

Open-RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

 

RAN terminology: clearing up confusion

You will have noticed that the technologies above have similar-sounding names and overlapping definitions. To add to potential confusion, they are often deployed together.

Figure 5: The open RAN Venn – How C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN fit together

Open-RAN venn: open-RAN inside vRAN inside C-RAN

Source: STL Partners

As the above diagram illustrates, all forms of the open RAN involve C-RAN, but only a subset of C-RAN involves virtualisation of the baseband function (vRAN); and only a subset of vRAN involves disaggregation of the BBU and RRU (open-RAN).

To help eliminate ambiguity we are adopting the typographical convention ‘open-RAN’ to convey the narrower meaning: disaggregation of the BBU and RRU facilitated by open interfaces. Similarly, where we are dealing with deployments or architectures that involve vRAN and / or cloud RAN but not open-RAN in the narrower sense, we refer to those examples as ‘vRAN’ or ‘C-RAN’ as appropriate.

In the coming pages, we will investigate why open RAN matters, what telcos are doing about it – and what they should do next.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • What is the open RAN and why does it matter?
    • Legacy RAN: single-vendor and inflexible
    • The open RAN: disaggregated and flexible
    • Terminology, initiatives & standards: clearing up confusion
  • What are the opportunities for open RAN?
    • Deployment in macro networks
    • Deployment in greenfield networks
    • Deployment in geographically-dispersed/under-served areas
    • Deployment to support consolidation of radio generations
    • Deployment to support capacity and coverage build-out
    • Deployment to support private and neutral host networks
  • How have operators deployed open RAN?
    • What are the operators doing?
    • How successful have deployments been?
  • How are vendors approaching open RAN?
    • Challenger RAN vendors: pushing for a revolution
    • Incumbent RAN vendors: resisting the open RAN
    • Are incumbent vendors taking the right approach?
  • How should operators do open RAN?
    • Step 1: Define the roadmap
    • Step 2: Implement
    • Step 3: Measure success
  • Conclusions
    • What next?

5G: Bridging hype, reality and future promises

The 5G situation seems paradoxical

People in China and South Korea are buying 5G phones by the million, far more than initially expected, yet many western telcos are moving cautiously. Will your company also find demand? What’s the smart strategy while uncertainty remains? What actions are needed to lead in the 5G era? What questions must be answered?

New data requires new thinking. STL Partners 5G strategies: Lessons from the early movers presented the situation in late 2019, and in What will make or break 5G growth? we outlined the key drivers and inhibitors for 5G growth. This follow on report addresses what needs to happen next.

The report is informed by talks with executives of over three dozen companies and email contacts with many more, including 21 of the first 24 telcos who have deployed. This report covers considerations for the next three years (2020–2023) based on what we know today.

“Seize the 5G opportunity” says Ke Ruiwen, Chairman, China Telecom, and Chinese reports claimed 14 million sales by the end of 2019. Korea announced two million subscribers in July 2019 and by December 2019 approached five million. By early 2020, The Korean carriers were confident 30% of the market will be using 5G by the end of 2020. In the US, Verizon is selling 5G phones even in areas without 5G services,  With nine phone makers looking for market share, the price in China is US$285–$500 and falling, so the handset price barrier seems to be coming down fast.

Yet in many other markets, operators progress is significantly more tentative. So what is going on, and what should you do about it?

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5G technology works OK

22 of the first 24 operators to deploy are using mid-band radio frequencies.

Vodafone UK claims “5G will work at average speeds of 150–200 Mbps.” Speeds are typically 100 to 500 Mbps, rarely a gigabit. Latency is about 30 milliseconds, only about a third better than decent 4G. Mid-band reach is excellent. Sprint has demonstrated that simply upgrading existing base stations can provide substantial coverage.

5G has a draft business case now: people want to buy 5G phones. New use cases are mostly years away but the prospect of better mobile broadband is winning customers. The costs of radios, backhaul, and core are falling as five system vendors – Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, and ZTE – fight for market share. They’ve shipped over 600,000 radios. Many newcomers are gaining traction, for example Altiostar won a large contract from Rakuten and Mavenir is in trials with DT.

The high cost of 5G networks is an outdated myth. DT, Orange, Verizon, and AT&T are building 5G while cutting or keeping capex flat. Sprint’s results suggest a smart build can quickly reach half the country without a large increase in capital spending. Instead, the issue for operators is that it requires new spending with uncertain returns.

The technology works, mostly. Mid-band is performing as expected, with typical speeds of 100–500Mbps outdoors, though indoor performance is less clear yet. mmWave indoor is badly degraded. Some SDN, NFV, and other tools for automation have reached the field. However, 5G upstream is in limited use. Many carriers are combining 5G downstream with 4G upstream for now. However, each base station currently requires much more power than 4G bases, which leads to high opex. Dynamic spectrum sharing, which allows 5G to share unneeded 4G spectrum, is still in test. Many features of SDN and NFV are not yet ready.

So what should companies do? The next sections review go-to-market lessons, status on forward-looking applications, and technical considerations.

Early go-to-market lessons

Don’t oversell 5G

The continuing publicity for 5G is proving powerful, but variable. Because some customers are already convinced they want 5G, marketing and advertising do not always need to emphasise the value of 5G. For those customers, make clear why your company’s offering is the best compared to rivals’. However, the draw of 5G is not universal. Many remain sceptical, especially if their past experience with 4G has been lacklustre. They – and also a minority swayed by alarmist anti-5G rhetoric – will need far more nuanced and persuasive marketing.

Operators should be wary of overclaiming. 5G speed, although impressive, currently has few practical applications that don’t already work well over decent 4G. Fixed home broadband is a possible exception here. As the objective advantages of 5G in the near future are likely to be limited, operators should not hype features that are unrealistic today, no matter how glamorous. If you don’t have concrete selling propositions, do image advertising or use happy customer testimonials.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • 5G technology works OK
  • Early go-to-market lessons
    • Don’t oversell 5G
    • Price to match the experience
    • Deliver a valuable product
    • Concerns about new competition
    • Prepare for possible demand increases
    • The interdependencies of edge and 5G
  • Potential new applications
    • Large now and likely to grow in the 5G era
    • Near-term applications with possible major impact for 5G
    • Mid- and long-term 5G demand drivers
  • Technology choices, in summary
    • Backhaul and transport networks
    • When will 5G SA cores be needed (or available)?
    • 5G security? Nothing is perfect
    • Telco cloud: NFV, SDN, cloud native cores, and beyond
    • AI and automation in 5G
    • Power and heat

Telco Cloud: Why it hasn’t delivered, and what must change for 5G

Related Webinar – 5G Telco Clouds: Where we are and where we are headed

This research report will be expanded upon on our upcoming webinar 5G Telco Clouds: Where we are and where we are headed. In this webinar we will argue that 5G will only pay if telcos find a way to make telco clouds work. We will look to address the following key questions:

  • Why have telcos struggled to realise the telco cloud promise?
  • What do telcos need to do to unlock the key benefits?
  • Why is now the time for telcos to try again?

Join us on April 8th 16:00 – 17:00 GMT by using this registration link.

Telco cloud: big promises, undelivered

A network running in the cloud

Back in the early 2010s, the idea that a telecoms operator could run its network in the cloud was earth-shattering. Telecoms networks were complicated and highly-bespoke, and therefore expensive to build, and operate. What if we could find a way to run networks on common, shared resources – like the cloud computing companies do with IT applications? This would be beneficial in a whole host of ways, mostly related to flexibility and efficiency. The industry was sold.

In 2012, ETSI started the ball rolling when it unveiled the Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) whitepaper, which borrowed the IT world’s concept of server-virtualisation and gave it a networking spin. Network functions would cease to be tied to dedicated pieces of equipment, and instead would run inside “virtual machines” (VMs) hosted on generic computing equipment. In essence, network functions would become software apps, known as virtual network functions (VNFs).

Because the software (the VNF) is not tied to hardware, operators would have much more flexibility over how their network is deployed. As long as we figure out a suitable way to control and configure the apps, we should be able to scale deployments up and down to meet requirements at a given time. And as long as we have enough high-volume servers, switches and storage devices connected together, it’s as simple as spinning up a new instance of the VNF – much simpler than before, when we needed to procure and deploy dedicated pieces of equipment with hefty price tags attached.

An additional benefit of moving to a software model is that operators have a far greater degree of control than before over where network functions physically reside. NFV infrastructure can directly replace old-school networking equipment in the operator’s central offices and points of presence, but the software can in theory run anywhere – in the operator’s private centralised data centre, in a datacentre managed by someone else, or even in a public hyperscale cloud. With a bit of re-engineering, it would be possible to distribute resources throughout a network, perhaps placing traffic-intensive user functions in a hub closer to the user, so that less traffic needs to go back and forth to the central control point. The key is that operators are free to choose, and shift workloads around, dependent on what they need to achieve.

The telco cloud promise

Somewhere along the way, we began talking about the telco cloud. This is a term that means many things to many people. At its most basic level, it refers specifically to the data centre resources supporting a carrier-grade telecoms network: hardware and software infrastructure, with NFV as the underlying technology. But over time, the term has started to also be associated with cloud business practices – that is to say, the innovation-focussed business model of successful cloud computing companies

Figure 2: Telco cloud defined: New technology and new ways of working

Telco cloud: Virtualised & programmable infrastructure together with cloud business practices

Source: STL Partners

In this model, telco infrastructure becomes a flexible technology platform which can be leveraged to enable new ways of working across an operator’s business. Operations become easier to automate. Product development and testing becomes more straightforward – and can happen more quickly than before. With less need for high capital spend on equipment, there is more potential for shorter, success-based funding cycles which promote innovation.

Much has been written about the vast potential of such a telco cloud, by analysts and marketers alike. Indeed, STL Partners has been partial to the same. For this reason, we will avoid a thorough investigation here. Instead, we will use a simplified framework which covers the four major buckets of value which telco cloud is supposed to help us unlock:

Figure 3: The telco cloud promise: Major buckets of value to be unlocked

Four buckets of value from telco cloud: Openness; Flexibility, visibility & control; Performance at scale; Agile service introduction

Source: STL Partners

These four buckets cover the most commonly-cited expectations of telcos moving to the cloud. Swallowed within them all, to some extent, is a fifth expectation: cost savings, which have been promised as a side-effect. These expectations have their origin in what the analyst and vendor community has promised – and so, in theory, they should be realistic and achievable.

The less-exciting reality

At STL Partners, we track the progress of telco cloud primarily through our NFV Deployment Tracker, a comprehensive database of live deployments of telco cloud technologies (NFV, SDN and beyond) in telecoms networks across the planet. The emphasis is on live rather than those running in testbeds or as proofs of concept, since we believe this is a fairer reflection of how mature the industry really is in this regard.

What we find is that, after a slow start, telcos have really taken to telco cloud since 2017, where we have seen a surge in deployments:

Figure 4: Total live deployments of telco cloud technology, 2015-2019
Includes NFVi, VNF, SDN deployments running in live production networks, globally

Telco cloud deployments have risen substantially over the past few years

Source: STL Partners NFV Deployment Tracker

All of the major operator groups around the world are now running telco clouds, as well as a significant long tail of smaller players. As we have explained previously, the primary driving force in that surge has been the move to virtualise mobile core networks in response to data traffic growth, and in preparation for roll-out of 5G networks. To date, most of it is based on NFV: taking existing physical core network functions (components of the Evolved Packet Core or the IP Multimedia Subsystem, in most cases) and running them in virtual machines. No operator has completely decommissioned legacy network infrastructure, but in many cases these deployments are already very ambitious, supporting 50% or more of a mobile operator’s total network traffic.

Yet, despite a surge in deployments, operators we work with are increasingly frustrated in the results. The technology works, but we are a long way from unlocking the value promised in Figure 2. Solutions to date are far from open and vendor-neutral. The ability to monitor, optimise and modify systems is far from ubiquitous. Performance is acceptable, but nothing to write home about, and not yet proven at mass scale. Examples of truly innovative services built on telco cloud platforms are few and far between.

We are continually asked: will telco cloud really deliver? And what needs to change for that to happen?

The problem: flawed approaches to deployment

Learning from those on the front line

The STL Partners hypothesis is that telco cloud, in and of itself, is not the problem. From a theoretical standpoint, there is no reason that virtualised and programmable network and IT infrastructure cannot be a platform for delivering the telco cloud promise. Instead, we believe that the reason it has not yet delivered is linked to how the technology has been deployed, both in terms of the technical architecture, and how the telco has organised itself to operate it.

To test this hypothesis, we conducted primary research with fifteen telecoms operators at different stages in their telco cloud journey. We asked them about their deployments to date, how they have been delivered, the challenges encountered, how successful they have been, and how they see things unfolding in the future.

Our sample includes individuals leading telco cloud deployment at a range of mobile, fixed and converged network operators of all shapes and sizes, and in all regions of the world. Titles vary widely, but include Chief Technology Officers, Heads of Technology Exploration and Chief Network Architects. Our criteria were that individuals needed to be knee-deep in their organisation’s NFV deployments, not just from a strategic standpoint, but also close to the operational complexities of making it happen.

What we found is that most telco cloud deployments to date fall into two categories, driven by the operator’s starting point in making the decision to proceed:

Figure 5: Two starting points for deploying telco cloud

Function-first "we need to virtualise XYZ" vs platform-first "we want to build a cloud platform"

Source: STL Partners

The operators we spoke to were split between these two camps. What we found is that the starting points greatly affect how the technology is deployed. In the coming pages, we will explain both in more detail.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Telco cloud: big promises, undelivered
    • A network running in the cloud
    • The telco cloud promise
    • The less-exciting reality
  • The problem: flawed approaches to deployment
    • Learning from those on the front line
    • A function-first approach to telco cloud
    • A platform-first approach to telco cloud
  • The solution: change, collaboration and integration
    • Multi-vendor telco cloud is preferred
    • The internal transformation problem
    • The need to foster collaboration and integration
    • Standards versus blueprints
    • Insufficient management and orchestration solutions
    • Vendor partnerships and pre-integration
  • Conclusions: A better telco cloud is possible, and 5G makes it an urgent priority

5G network slicing: How to secure the opportunity

Network slicing is central to unlocking the 5G opportunity

There has understandably been a lot of talk and hype about 5G and network slicing in the telecoms industry. It promises to bring greater speeds, lower latency, greater capacity, ultra-reliability, greater flexibility in the network operations and more. It also pledges to support high device densities and to enable new services, new business and operational models as well as new vertical opportunities.

Given that the rollout of 5G networks is expected to involve a significant investment of hundreds of billions of dollars, there is a need to look at how it might address new business opportunities that previous generations of cellular networks could not. Many, including us, have argued that the consumer business case for 5G is limited, and that the enterprise segment is likely to represent the greater opportunity.

One highly anticipated aspect of 5G is that it will be built on virtualised infrastructure. Network functions will run as software in datacentres, rather than on dedicated appliances as in the past. This will mean that operators can deploy and make changes to functions with far greater flexibility than ever before. It also offers the promise of enabling multiple logical end-to-end networks – each intended to meet specific needs – to be “spun-up”, operated and retired as required, over the same shared hardware. Traditionally, achieving such a multi-service outcome would have required building dedicated stand-alone networks, which was rarely a viable proposition.  This capability is the essence of network slicing.

Figure 1: Diagram of network slicing

5G network slicing diagram

Source: STL Partners

This report will explore the concept of network slicing and what it means for enterprise customers. It will have a particular focus on one aspect of network slicing through the enterprise perspective, that being security. The first section will cover how we define network slicing whilst the second will dive into what the enterprise security-related concerns are. We will then assess the implications of these concerns in the third section, before identifying ways that telcos can address these concerns in order to accelerate the adoption of network slicing.

Our findings in this report are informed by a wider STL Partners research programme that STL Partners has conducted with telcos and enterprises across several verticals, including transport, defence, utilities, logistics and smart cities.

Enterprise security concerns with network slicing are rooted in the fear of the new and unknown

Network slicing is inherently complex. Multiple networks being created over common infrastructure, each serving different customers, use cases and devices means that management and orchestration of network slices is something that telcos are still grappling with. It not only represents a change in technology but also a shift in the way that the network lifecycle is managed, which is new and unfamiliar to telcos and their enterprise customers. Current security protocols will not necessarily be equipped to cover many of the new dimensions that network slicing brings. This new shift in the way things work will result in various enterprise security concerns. Changes in the network architecture with slicing, with multiple logical networks each having their own resources and sharing others, also poses questions of how the security architecture needs to evolve in order to address new risks.

Enterprise customers define security as not only about preventing services being compromised by intentional malicious attacks, but also about preventing service degradation or disruption due to unintentional operational or technical failures and/or negligence, unplanned breakdowns etc. Due to the interdependence of slices, even if a fault occurrence happens, it could consume resources in one slice, just like an attack would, which would affect the reliability or lifecycle of other network slices that share the same resources. Regardless of how the performance of a slice gets affected, whether it is by a malicious attack, a natural disaster, a bug or unintentional negligence, the consequences are ultimately the same. These are all, in some way, related to security. Therefore, when considering security, we need to think beyond potential intentional malicious attack but also unintentional negligence and unplanned events.

What if my network slice gets compromised? What if another slice gets compromised? What if another slice is eating up resources?

We outline these three key questions that enterprises have around their security concerns, as potential tenants of network slices, in the body of the report.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
    • Network slicing is central to unlocking the 5G opportunity
    • Dynamic, virtualised, end-to-end networks on shared resource
    • Slicing might come about in different ways
    • Slicing should bring great benefits…
  • Enterprise security concerns with network slicing are rooted in the fear of the new and unknown
    • What if my network slice gets compromised?
    • What if another network slice is compromised?
    • What if another network slice is eating up resources?
  • Security concerns will slow adoption if not addressed early and transparently
    • Concerns and misconceptions can be addressed through better awareness and understanding
    • As a result, enterprises project concerns about public networks’ limitations onto slicing
    • The way that network slicing is designed actually enhances security, and there are additional measures available on top.
  • Telcos must act early and work more closely with customers to drive slicing adoption
    • Ensure that the technology works and that it is secure and robust
    • Organise and align internally on what network slicing is and where it fits internally before addressing enterprise customers
    • Engage in an open dialogue with enterprise customers and directly address any concerns via a ‘hand holding’ approach
    • Don’t wait for maturity to start testing and rolling out pilots to support the transition and learning process
  • Conclusion

NFV Deployment Tracker: Asia-Pacific points to the future of NFV

About the NFV Deployment Tracker

The NFV Deployment Tracker is a quarterly-updated database of commercial deployments of Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) and Software-Defined Networking (SDN) technologies by leading telcos worldwide. It builds on an extensive body of analysis by STL Partners over the past four years on NFV and SDN strategies, technology and market developments.

The Tracker is provided as an interactive Excel tool containing line-by-line analysis of nearly 600 individual deployments of NFV and SDN, which can be used to drill down on trends by company and region.

Figure 1: The NFV Deployment Tracker

Overview of STL Partners NFV Deployment Tracker

Source: STL Partners

Each new release of the Tracker is global, but is accompanied by an analytical report which focusses on trends in a given region. Previous analysis includes:

This report accompanies the seventh update of the NFV Deployment Tracker, providing an overview of global trends, and a deep-dive on what’s happening in the Asia-Pacific region.

Scope and definitions

The NFV Deployment Tracker covers verified, live deployments of NFV and SDN in commercial telco networks. We do not include proofs of concept, commercial trials or mere agreements to deploy, unless these eventually result in a full commercial deployment.

The data derives mainly from public-domain sources, such as press releases by operators and vendors, or reputable industry media. We also include undisclosed deployments that the operators concerned have informed us about on a confidential basis. These are subsumed within the aggregate data sets analysed in this report but are not itemised in the detailed information contained in the Excel spreadsheet.

We include only telecoms operators, and not other types of company that rely on communications infrastructure and services to deliver their own services (such as cloud providers, internet exchange and hub operators, vendors, systems integrators, etc.).

The telcos included are mainly Tier One providers: those that rely on their own national and international, end-to-end facilities to deliver B2C or B2B services. However, we also include information on incumbent or dominant operators for smaller countries – which are not big enough to be defined as Tier One – as well as particularly innovative deployments by smaller or start-up players in significant markets.

Data in this report covers deployments from 2011 until August 2019.

Global context: NFV is definitely not dead

Global NFV deployments still growing; Asia-Pacific in the lead

We have gathered data on 572 live, commercial deployments of NFV and SDN technology worldwide between January and August 2019. These deployments include 1,161 VNFs, software sub-components and infrastructure elements for which information is available. Overall, the volume of new deployments worldwide has increased every year since 2011.

Figure 2: NFV deployments are picking up speed

NFV deployments by region and year 2011-2019

Source: STL Partners NFV Deployment Tracker

The total of 132 deployments for 2019 in the above chart includes both completed and pending implementations (we define pending as ongoing deployments that have not yet been verified as completed, but which we expect to be concluded in 2019). In addition, the 2019 total shown here runs only up to the end of August 2019; so we are confident that the full-year total for 2019 will exceed the 147 deployments recorded in 2018.

In fact, the number of deployments in Europe and the Middle East in 2019 to date has already exceeded the total for each of these regions for 2018 as a whole. In Asia-Pacific, the volume for the first eight months of 2019 (38) is already around 80% of the 2018 total (49) – meaning that the region is likely to show growth overall by the end of 2019. It must be noted that, by contrast, deployments in North America have declined significantly.

When measured purely in terms of deployments, Europe led the world for the first time in the first eight months of this year. However, in the previous three years – and overall – the Asia-Pacific region has deployed more than any other. We have gathered data on 203 live, commercial deployments of NFV and SDN technology in the Asia-Pacific region between January 2012 and August 2019 – 35.5% of the global total. This means that Asia-Pacific is the largest market for NFV and SDN.

Figure 3: Asia-Pacific leads in total NFV deployments worldwide

Asia-Pacific leads in global NFV deploymentsSource: STL Partners

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • About the NFV Deployment Tracker
  • Scope and definitions
  • Global context
    • Global NFV deployments still growing; Asia-Pacific in the lead
    • Growth in 2019 driven by virtualised 5G mobile cores
    • Mobile core virtualisation is the dominant driver of NFV overall
    • SDN retains its dominant role in Asia-Pacific
    • Vendors of mobile network cores performing strongly
  • Asia-Pacific in focus: leading on innovatio
  • More Asia-Pacific operators are embracing NFV and SDN
  • Pushing the boundaries of mobile core architecture
  • Winning the race to operationalise the 5G standalone core
  • Innovating on SDN-based, on-demand networking services
  • Ambition to innovate for economic and social development
  • Conclusion: Asia-Pacific both leads on past deployments and points the way ahead
    • Asia-Pacific leads the NFV/SDN market in two main ways
    • The region also points the way ahead for the industry
  • Appendix: Glossary of terms

Predicting the future: Where next for SD-WAN?

Introduction

This document is the third in a mini-series of three reports which seek to explore SD-WAN technology from an enterprise perspective, covering the challenges that SD-WAN is designed to address, the differing types of SD-WAN product on the market today, and how we envisage SD-WAN-type services evolving in future.

The first two reports in the series are:

Future evolution of SD-WAN

Any decision made about SD-WAN aspects or management must be taken not just in context of enterprises’ current networking challenges, but also in context of how those challenges, as well as networking technology, are likely to evolve. This report assesses where we expect the industry to go next.

At STL Partners, we believe that SD-WAN under its current definition is not an end in itself. All indications are that enterprises are becoming increasingly cloud-centric, and we see no sign of this trend reversing. SD-WAN will no doubt be a key component of the multicloud ecosystem – but it will require an evolution beyond the confines of what is currently being packaged and sold.

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In short, existing SD-WAN services are just the first step on a longer journey towards integrated, software-driven WAN operations and networking on a broader scale. Enterprises and vendors planning SD-WAN rollout would do well to consider how that evolution could unfold.

As with any new technology, there are multiple pathways that this evolution could follow – none of which are yet well-understood. STL Partners has identified three emerging evolution pathways, which we explain in detail below. The options are:

  1. SD-WAN used as the first step towards SD-Branch: SD-WAN is deployed as a stepping stone technology towards more advanced, integrated management of enterprises’ LANs and branches alongside the WAN.
  2. SD-WAN sold “as a Service”: SD-WAN starts to be offered as a more fully cloud-based software service, free from vendor or hardware-based constraints.
  3. SD-WAN used as an enabling component of edge/IoT platforms: SD-WAN features and infrastructure are integrated with service providers’ edge computing and Internet of Things (IoT) platforms, with sales focus on enterprise automation and process optimisation, rather than the SD-WAN component itself.

These options are of course not mutually exclusive and are likely in practice to be adopted in some combination of the different elements. It is quite feasible, for example, that some service providers will start to “upsell” their existing SD-WAN customers onto a more integrated “SD-Branch” offering (#1) – and to sell a flavour of this same offering as a cloud-based software option (#2). Indeed, we have already seen this happening in the marketplace.

In addition, all three options share two things in common:

  • A move towards cloud-centricity: Their focus is on the LAN and branch, WAN (delivered in an even more flexible, cloud-native way), the edge (and edge computing and IoT), respectively.
  • Increasing use of AI technology: Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are pouring into all areas of technology and network infrastructure is no exception. The dynamic nature of traffic patterns over SD-WAN make it a prime candidate for this kind of tech to enable, say, security threat detection or traffic routing optimisation. Whichever direction SD-WAN takes, it is sure to make use of AI/ML.

In this report, we detail each of the three options, with particular reference to how they might benefit both enterprise customers, and those who will provide such SD-WAN services.

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Flavours of SD-WAN: What’s on offer and which work?

Introduction

This is the second in a mini-series of three reports which seek to explore SD-WAN technology from an enterprise perspective, covering the challenges that SD-WAN is designed to address, the differing flavours of SD-WAN product on the market today, and how we envisage SD-WAN-type services evolving in future.

The first and third reports in the series are:

This report examines the role that different types of SD-WAN solutions can play in helping digital enterprises address their growing networking challenges.

SD-WAN as a solution to the networking challenges of digital enterprises

In the first report, we discussed some of these challenges. These revolve around the need to carry a growing range and volume of mission-critical, application-specific data flows – reliably and securely – across a hybrid multi-cloud, multi-domain and distributed WAN environment. This includes different types and sizes of enterprise sites, branches, campuses and remote workers served by diverse access networks on a 24/7 basis.

We highlighted seven main networking challenges that SD-WAN products and services are designed to address, as follows:

  1. Managing the costs of WAN links
  2. Improving control of hybrid WAN and multi-cloud environments
  3. Assuring service and prioritising business-critical traffic
  4. Introducing new sites and capabilities
  5. Preventing attacks and mitigating security risks
  6. Managing different network domains and services across the whole enterprise
  7. Future-proofing enterprises’ advancing requirements while reducing complexity.

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In the present report, we look at SD-WAN in the context of the different flavours currently available on the market, and explore how current offers differ across several aspects:

  • Use of Customer Premises Equipment (dedicated appliance, uCPE or cloud?)
  • Networks used to deliver SD-WAN (overlay, hybrid or dedicated?)
  • Network topologies employed (hub and spoke, partial or full mesh?)
  • Security functions integrated
  • Extension across multiple geographies and domains

Throughout the report, we differentiate between these aspects of SD-WAN and the management requirements and features associated with them.

We also identify some of the leading vendor and service provider products and services that correspond to each of the types we discuss. This is intended for illustration and guidance only and does not constitute a recommendation.

What are the aspects of different SD-WAN deployments?

As set out in the introduction, we are differentiating in this report between aspects of SD-WAN and the management requirements and features associated with each aspect and with SD-WAN as a whole. These are:

Aspects of different SD-WAN deployments

aspects of SD-WAN deployments: CPE, networks, topology, security and extensions across geographies and domains

Source: STL Partners

In the rest of this report we highlight which management elements we regard as more specific to each individual aspect.

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Enterprise networking challenges: How can SD-WAN help?

Introduction

This document is the first in a mini-series of three reports which seek to explore SD-WAN technology from an enterprise perspective, covering the challenges that SD-WAN is designed to address, the differing types of SD-WAN product on the market today, and how we envisage SD-WAN-type services evolving in future.

The next two reports in the series are:

What networking challenges are faced by today’s digital enterprises?

Enterprises throughout the world are rapidly digitising their operations. Increasingly, the digital strategies they are adopting include the transition of business tools, applications and processes to a ‘multicloud’ environment: involving a hybrid combination of applications and data hosted in one or more public clouds alongside the company’s own private data centres.

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Digital enterprises require secure access to their applications and data from any location, at any time, via any device and over any network. At the same time, they need to ensure that their end users – both employees and customers – have the same application quality of experience as they did when the tools, applications and processes were hosted in the company’s own private data centre.

Unfortunately, existing WAN architecture models often do not provide the scale, flexibility or agility required to support this transition. These legacy WAN architectures typically leverage a hub and spoke network topology, where the hub is in the corporate data centre and static, point-to-point circuits that often require manual provisioning for deployment, moves, adds and changes connect the hub site to the branch offices. As these organisations transition to multicloud, the corporate data centre, hub site, becomes a bottle neck. Additionally, their static, manually provisioned circuits can’t keep pace with the dynamic nature of multicloud traffic flows.

Consequently, these businesses need to look for a new, simplified and automated approach to managing and transforming their WAN. Additionally, as enterprises look to leverage broadband internet to simplify and manage the cost of the WAN, they need to maintain the same SLA levels, ensure application quality of experience (QoE), and to be mindful of the security implications and risks in doing so.

SD-WAN platforms and services represent a response to these networking challenges that is being adopted more and more by enterprises of all sizes – from SMBs through to the largest multi-nationals – across all regions worldwide.

In this report, we highlight the main networking challenges that SD-WAN is designed to address, and outline in brief some of the ways it does so.

In a subsequent report, we will discuss the main types of SD-WAN platforms and services available on the market today, along with the leading vendors and communications service providers that provide them. And in a third report, we discuss some of the ways in which we expect SD-WAN technology and services to develop over the next few years as it expands to encompass more and more aspects of enterprise information and communications technology, and to meet the needs of new applications and automated processes

Which networking challenges does SD-WAN address?

In this section, we discuss the main problems faced by network engineers and operations personnel managing the WAN, and evolving its architecture and functionality, in response to the rapidly changing, digital requirements of their enterprise. At the same time, network operations are under increasing pressure to reduce costs while maintaining, and indeed improving, quality of service and experience.

With these pressures in mind, we have identified seven key networking challenges faced by enterprises:

7 key enterprise networking challenges

7 enterprise networking challenges

Source: STL Partners

In the rest of this report, we explore each of these challenges in detail, and how SD-WAN helps to address them.

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Three new telco business models: Soft-net, Cloud-net, Compute-net

Introduction

This report outlines three new telecoms business models that builds on previous research where we have outlined our vision of an emerging third age of telecoms called the Coordination Age. This is based on a global need to improve the efficiency of resource utilisation is manifesting in industries and individuals as a desire to “make the world work better”. We discuss this concept in detail in the following reports:

We believe that three new business models for telcos are emerging as part of the Coordination Age.

  • The Soft-Net: the core business remains connectivity, but the softwarisation of the network through SDN / NFV enables the network to adapt and scale to support new, advanced connectivity services. This includes third-party digital and networked-compute services that depend on the physical network connectivity the Soft-Net provides.
  • The Cloud-Net: also connectivity-focused, but with the production, delivery and consumption of services increasingly effected via the cloud (i.e. cloud-native). SDN and virtualisation enable capacity and services to be spun up, managed and delivered on demand over any physical network and device.
  • The Compute-Net: the core business is to provide distributed, networked, compute- and software-based services, often for specific enterprise verticals. These depend on SDN and NFV to deliver the ultra-fast, low-latency compute, throughput and routing capabilities required.

The three new models represent distinct strategic options for telcos looking to either: optimise and evolve their existing connectivity business; create new value from cloud-based, ‘horizontal’ platforms; or expand into new vertical markets – or a combination of all three approaches. This is illustrated here:

Interdependence between the three future telco business models

Source: STL Partners

In other words:

  • The Soft-Net operates the physical and virtualised infrastructure that delivers flexible, advanced connectivity in support of Cloud-Net and Compute-Net services (as well as well as legacy communications and connectivity services, delivered in a more scalable and cost-effective way)
  • The Cloud-Net delivers flexible, on-demand connectivity over hybrid infrastructure (including that owned by multiple Soft-Nets) in support of the increasingly complex and variable networking requirements of globally distributed, digital enterprises
  • The Compute-Net delivers vertically focused, compute-enabled processes and outcomes across all areas of industry and society. In doing so, it relies on networking and cloud platform services supplied by the Soft-Net and Cloud-Net, which may or may not be vertically integrated as part of its own organisation.

The three telecoms business models link to NFV / SDN strategies

One of the distinguishing features of these models is the different modes of telco engagement in NFV and SDN they are potentially driven by. In previous analyses, we have identified three pathways towards NFV and SDN deployment. This is how they link to the three business models:

Figure 1: The three future telco business models and corresponding NFV pathways

Source: STL Partners, NFV / SDN deployment pathways: Three telco futures

In the rest of this report, we define these telecoms business models in more detail and illustrate how they present a pragmatic framework for telcos to focus their technology investments and develop valuable new Coordination Age services.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Three telco futures and Telco 2.0
  • Chapter 1: Three telecoms business models for the Coordination Age
  • Three new business models: but why ‘telco’?
  • Business model analysis: Telcos’ vs competitors’ strengths
  • Relationship between the Soft-Net, Cloud-Net and Compute-Net business models
  • Chapter 2: Roles of the Soft-Net, Cloud-Net and Compute-Net in a ‘driverless car-as-a-service’ ecosystem
  • A driverless car-as-a-service business involves coordination of data, processes and events across a broad supply chain
  • Soft-Nets provide the mainly wireless connectivity
  • Cloud-Nets provide the hybrid, on-demand wide-area networking
  • Compute-Nets design and coordinate the ecosystem
  • Conclusions
  • The Coordination Age: A new purpose for telecoms, and three models for realising it
  • Key takeaways for telcos

Figures:

  1. The three future telco business models and corresponding NFV pathways
  2. The Telco 2.0 infrastructure and service stack
  3. Interdependence between the three future telco business models
  4. Two examples of the three new business models
  5. The three new business models overview
  6. Telcos face some fierce competition as they move up the stack
  7. Telco expansion across the three business models
  8. Advantages and disadvantages of vertical integration
  9. Mapping the Soft-Net, Cloud-Net and Compute-Net roles in a driverless car environment
  10. Types of data and corresponding compute-based services in a driverless car-as-a-service ecosystem