Anuradha Udunuwara, from the BCS Internet Specialist Group, discusses the increasingly common conversion of Telco networks to platforms.

Networks are everywhere. There are different types of them. The information communications technology (ICT) industry, in general, and the Telcos, in particular, have used networks from their very inception. Networks have become part and parcel of the Telco business enablement. However, the time has come for us to view the networks and related systems in a different way. In today’s highly digitized business environment, where most of the workloads are processed in some sort of a cloud - private, public or hybrid - Telcos need to convert their networks to platforms to better align their businesses to the changing market dynamics.

The web scale companies (the likes of social media giants, e-commerce sites, etc.) have been the pioneers in building platforms instead of networks, in order to harness the open collaboration and to reap more business opportunities, focusing more on the end-to-end services. They have also opened their platforms to many other interested parties enabling collaborative businesses. But Telcos also need to transform themselves to become digital service providers (DSPs) from the current communication service providers (CSPs), to focus more on providing digital services in a more collaborative and open mindset.

Network as a cloud interconnect

The Telco industry used to follow different network architectures - hierarchical, flat, etc. with one or more layers, domains and technologies. With customer service processing, and even with the Telco network functions, both now mostly happen in data centres (DCs) or clouds, and the network has actually become simple in expected functions - interconnecting DCs.

As traditional central offices (COs) of Telcos transform to DCs, using concepts like central-office-re-architected-as-a-DC, which uses tools like software defined networking, network functions virtualization and cloud (altogether sometimes referred to as ‘softwarization’), the future network will actually form more of a platform than a network.

Inside a DC we have severs and high speed switch fabrics that interconnect the servers. Similarly the future network has to facilitate the function of a switch fabric for the DCs, speared across multiple geographical locations.

Simple platform architecture

Ethernet is one of the main technologies for interconnect and carrier ethernet (a much hardened version of the conventional local area network (LAN) Ethernet), and has now become the most widely used technology for this purpose. An optical backbone network, using dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM), and often with optical transport network (OTN), provides the underlying transport for the carrier ethernet wide area switch fabric, and the DCs are interconnected through the fabric. The conventional Layer 3 functions (eg: Multi-protocol label switching provider edge (MPLS PE) routers, boarder gateway protocol (BGP) routers, etc.) together with many others network functions will become virtual network functions (VNFs) inside the DC. DCs and carrier ethernet wide area switch fabric will ultimately become the platform supported by the optical backbone network.

While the industry has identified the necessity to view, architect, plan, design, engineer and treat future Telco networks as platforms, the adoption of such changes will take a while for multiple reasons. The question really is not what and how, but when? Let’s wait and see. Interesting times are surely ahead...