How much DevOps should telcos take on?

A culture of engineering. That’s how an IT decision maker I recently spoke with characterized DevOps. It’s a definition that resonates very well with me because it really is about having the right mindset, one that transcends the entire business throughout the complete software development and deployment life cycle. A culture that accommodates the continuous and rapid evolution of the features and capabilities consumers now expect in every aspect of their daily lives. And doing this in a seamless, automated manner makes software development—and the services they enable—an exciting process that leverages collaborative innovation and purposeful automation.


Striking the right balance of DevOps at telcos

Going back a few decades, the manufacturing industry went through a similar evolution when the automated, continuous production in the assembly line was introduced. DevOps is, fundamentally, the same concept applied to the art of software and services development, deployment and management. The extent to which DevOps is adopted as a concept, can vary by the enterprise, and more importantly by the industry that enterprise belongs to.

I recently discussed this very topic with Red Hat’s global chief architect, Ian Hood, and I asked his thoughts on whether the concept of DevOps is applicable to the business of telecommunications service providers (telcos).

“To some extent…,” explained Ian.

To determine whether DevOps can be applied to a telco business, we must first set the context for the type of services telcos provide and what they are in the business of selling. Telcos sell communications services in the form of “pipes and bandwidth” for Internet, mobile, video and business services that are now being consumed from anywhere with the advent of mobile internet and cloud technologies. Telcos also package value-added security, voice over IP (VOIP) and application acceleration capabilities into managed services for a business where they take over the secure operation of the communications infrastructure, in addition to providing basic connectivity.

The services that consumers can procure from a telco are directly dependent on the availability and flexibility of the underlying infrastructure. Telcos can take months to spin up new services when consumers are looking to leverage them in hours or even minutes! Remember the structured software development methodology where it would take up to six months for the next release of the software? When it comes to provisioning these services, telcos are today where software development was decades back. Remember our earlier assertion: Telcos need a different mindset to ramp up cloud-ready network functions virtualization (NFV).

Enter DevOps.

A DevOps approach can be a catalyst to instill a new style of thinking and a new approach that would allow telcos to rapidly spin up new services and also personalize their consumption model. If it could be done for manufacturing decades back and has been done for software development in recent times, then why not DevOps for telco?

“Why not?” asks a pensive Ian. “There are some characteristics unique to the telco deployment model that do not align with the DevOps approach. Telcos do not quickly back out of service capabilities that have been deployed and made available to their customers.”

Backing out a deployed solution has significant impact to the service level agreements (SLAs) expected by the consumer base. Intriguing as it is, reversal of a deployment if something does not work as expected is a typical behavior that DevOps accommodates.

Thus, it may not be practical for all aspects of DevOps to be wholly adopted across all operational aspects of every telco business. Based on the SLA expectations and reliability levels demanded by their business customers and public safety regulations, telcos must have safeguards in place that may impose some constraints on the always-on DevOps approach.

Telecommunications service providers, therefore, must strike a balance. Some portions of a telco’s business must consider the ability to reverse out selected components of the deployed solution. Development of new communications services and applications can certainly take advantage of a DevOps approach, while other operational and management aspects of the telco may have to adopt a hybrid or lighter version of DevOps better suited to their specific business needs.

The extent to which DevOps is adopted across a telco in their digital transformation journey could very well define the speed and variety of services offered to their end consumers. After all, it is all about managing customer expectations.

What say you? What are other factors that would determine the extent to which DevOps applies to a telco’s business? How much DevOps do you think telcos should take on?

Please let us know in the comments field below.

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