Autonomous vehicles. Gigabit wireless broadband. Massive Internet of Things (IoT) installations with real-time decision-making at the edge. We don’t need to rehash all the reasons why 5G is a big deal; most service provider executives and network teams could likely recite them in their sleep. And yet, in all the digital ink spilled about 5G, some big parts of the story aren’t getting talked about at all.
At this stage in 5G network evolutions, communications service providers (CSPs) are learning a lot of new lessons. Assumptions made months or years ago (for example, that you won’t have to worry about legacy physical infrastructure) are proving ill-founded. And some challenges we all saw coming—like skills gaps as network operations become an exercise in software development—are proving even tougher than imagined.
At Lumina Networks, we’ve been helping CSPs around the globe work through these and other issues. We’ve put together an in-depth picture of this journey in our new eBook, Digital Transformation for 5G in the Real World. Want to know the biggest lessons our customers are learning? Here’s a sneak peek at five overlooked factors that can make or break your 5G rollout.
Factor 1: Physical Legacy Matters
With network slicing, new edge architectures, new vertical applications and more, 5G makes CSP networks a lot more complicated than they used to be. Add to that sky-high customer expectations, and most CSPs have reached the same conclusion: almost every aspect of service provisioning and network operations need to be automated. That means software-defined networking (SDN) is now a core requirement for CSP networks.
The good news is that CSPs have more options for SDN controllers, orchestrators, and virtualized network function (VNF) managers than ever. The bad: all those “new world” network technologies don’t really talk to the old—the billions of dollars’ worth of purpose-built equipment in CSP networks.
Initially, some CSPs thought they’d get around this problem by just building 5G as a separate network or overlay. Many now recognize though that trying to ignore legacy infrastructure doesn’t make economic sense. They’re also realizing that many basic 5G network operations, like provisioning network slices, will need to work over brownfield infrastructures, which means automating both virtualized/containerized network resources and legacy physical routers.
Factor 2: Unified Orchestration Matters
Along the same lines, most CSPs now recognize that the future of their networks lies in software. And they now see more clearly that software-based network functions and virtualized resources will still need to operate in brownfield environments. The question is, how to make it all work.
More CSPs are now looking to open-source projects to provide the “glue” that links the legacy world with modern software paradigms. Using “SDN adaption” tools like the OpenDaylight Container Orchestration Engine (COE), they’re building a common control plane for orchestrating all the various physical and virtual network resources in a unified way.
Factor 3: Intent Matters
To deal with runaway complexity and keeping customers happy, it’s not enough to just automate legacy processes. There’s just no way to script out step-by-step instructions for every possible eventuality in 5G services—at least, not without making network teams crazy and, most likely, constantly breaking things as the network changes.
Instead, CSPs need to embrace true “intent-based networking.” They need a network provisioning model where changes can be expressed as a high-level imperative, i.e., “bring up an SD-WAN service at this customer’s branch office at this location.” And they need the network to then be able to assemble all the pieces to make that happen, without having a human declaratively spell out how to do it.
Intent-based networks are a core foundation of flexible service deployment—and ultimately, CSP competitiveness. But many CSPs are still in the early stages of figuring out how to implement them.
Factor 4: Open-Source Matters
Open-source projects (OpenDaylight, ONAP, and many others) will play a big role in future 5G networks. For CSPs, there’s really no other choice. If they want to compete and differentiate, they simply can’t lock themselves into one vendor’s ecosystem (and pricing, and features roadmap). By pushing for open-source—and demanding that network vendors support open interfaces and control planes—CSPs can break free from those constraints. They can embrace what Lumina calls “Network Enlightenment,” and create a network that’s much more flexible, interoperable and cost-effective.
Fortunately, the industry is investing more resources and expertise into open source than ever before. No matter what CSPs need to do in 5G networks, there is likely an open source project to help them do it. But working with open source is a big change from how CSPs have done things in the past. Network design, management—even the basic RFP process—often mean very different things than they used to. And many CSPs are just starting to get their heads around the implications.
Factor 5: Culture and Talent Matter
It’s no surprise that network organizations will need new skills to support the heavy focus on software paradigms that comes with 5G. What many CSPs overlook though is just how significant those changes can be.
For years, most CSPs have run completely independent teams for network operations and Layer-4-7 services. Now, those walls need to be torn down. If network engineers want to be full participants in tomorrow’s 5G networks, they need to build new muscles in agile development, DevOps, and CI/CD. Getting there will take time and investment on a level that many CSPs still haven’t fully grasped.
Is Your Organization Really Ready for 5G?
Each of these factors is significant, and each is turning out to be more complex than many CSPs initially anticipated. Fortunately, there are ways to successfully navigate them all. Lumina is helping CSPs do it—right now, in real-world 5G networks. For details, download the full eBook now.