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What is telco cloud?

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Telco cloud is a software-defined, highly resilient cloud infrastructure that allows telecommunications service providers (telcos) to add services more quickly, respond faster to changes in network demand, and manage central and decentralized resources more efficiently. It is one of the key foundational components in a successful digital transformation.

Early telco clouds applied virtualization concepts from the datacenter into the networks. With 5G at first, the scope of telco clouds expanded beyond the use of network function virtualization (NFV) and began using newer technologies such as containers and microservices, as well as hybrid cloud architectures. As they are deployed into telco clouds, containers and microservices still have to coexist with older virtualized network functions (VNFs).

As telecos reshape their networks and operations to support the full potential of 5G, their cloud infrastructure requirements have shifted.

The cloud-native transition from VNFs to CNFs

The initial move of workloads to the cloud came with NFVs, which took functions that were traditionally handled by specific hardware (such as routers and load balancers) and moved them to virtual, software-based equivalents. Also commonly referred to as "lift and shift."

However, these NFVs did not take a cloud-native approach.

Instead, the early implementations recreated embedded software systems designed around specific hardware functions and moved them wholesale into one large and sometimes unwieldy virtual machine (VM). While this had the cost-benefit of allowing the telco to move from specific proprietary hardware to commodity hardware, the move to the cloud did little to optimize these VNFs, and the VMs created were often still inefficient, single-purpose, and hard to maintain.

As the need to deploy innovative, differentiated offers increased, newer technologies were built into containers to provide the network agility required. With more agility, containers can package applications, functions, or microservices more efficiently while providing more granular shared access to server resources. 

This approach evolves VNFs into cloud-native network functions (CNFs) by separating complex VNFs into multiple disaggregated microservices, which then run in containers that can work across different cloud environments more efficiently.

Deploying CNFs from the private cloud to the public cloud

When the telco cloud consisted primarily of traditional VNFs focused on performance-sensitive network functions, most of the network functions were kept on private clouds. Since these early telco VNFs were largely just software replications of proprietary hardware-based approaches, this made sense because they work monolithically, have high performance and data throughput requirements, and require specific knowledge to maintain.

As these monolithic VNFs became containerized CNFs running microservices, the need to keep the entire environment on a private cloud became less important compared to the business advantage of public clouds: lower costs and easier operations. The disaggregation of network functions can cause parts of those functions that have high-performance and data requirements to be kept on private clouds, while less performance- and data-intensive functions could be moved to public clouds.

Since telco clouds are moving away from specialized VMs and toward more container-based architectures, those clouds are used more and more to run operational support systems (OSS), business support systems (BSS), and IT workloads that an enterprise cloud traditionally handles. With this, workloads expand in capabilities and start moving between private and public clouds. As a result, the boundaries of the traditional telco cloud start expanding beyond private clouds to hybrid and mulitcloud environments. 

Since telco clouds are typically focused on running more restrictive network functions that require higher levels of observability, control, fault tolerance, and availability, the transition away from these proven monolithic VNFs has been relatively slow. In fact, many telco clouds still have important functions governed by monolithic VNFs in private clouds that consistently interact with containerized CNFs in public clouds.

The multicloud and hybrid cloud reality for telecommunications

As more and more workloads move to the cloud, cloud resources are being mixed between legacy VNFs and containerized CNFs for running disaggregated network functions (with additional OSS, BSS, and IT workloads). The time of a single cloud for telco is over, and the need for maximum flexibility and workload portability is vital. 

The present and future of the telco cloud is one that runs natively and efficiently in both multicloud and hybrid cloud environments. Therefore, a key tool for success in building a telco cloud are tools, platforms, and services that are built for the hybrid cloud and run in a consistent manner wherever they are implemented.

The primary business benefits of telco cloud are improved customer satisfaction, greater business agility, and cost reduction, as capital expenditures (CapEx) and operational expenditures (OpEx) are lowered through the use of non-specialized hardware and automation.

Telcos today use telco cloud to:

  • Create differentiation through new services and capabilities that cannot easily be replicated by competitors. Cloud-native architecture and application development methodologies such as agile and DevSecOps allow telcos to dramatically reduce time-to-deploy and improve time-to-revenue by quickly integrating cloud-based applications and features targeted to specific customer segments while keeping security focused.
  • Deliver new, customized business-to-business solutions. Telcos can quickly and economically bring highly-customized enterprise solutions to market. Telco cloud makes it easy to co-create with enterprise service partners using public cloud services’ anytime-anywhere-any device access.
  • Build new 5G revenue streams. Effectively monetizing 5G network capabilities requires the new core and edge network capabilities that telco cloud provides.
  • Protect customers and margins from competitors. Telco cloud allows service providers to quickly adapt business models to pilot innovations like new products, services, and pricing plans. It also streamlines the process of standing up new customer experiences and communications channels. In addition, telco cloud’s reduced CapEX and OpEX requirements, improved service resilience, and ability to quickly respond to faults and demand fluctuations allows operators to maintain service levels and competitive pricing.
  • Build stronger digital relationships with customers. Service providers with hybrid telco cloud deployments can take advantage of best-in-class data analytics and artificial intelligence available in the public cloud domain to better meet and predict customer preferences and requirements. They can also centralize their customer data in the cloud to eliminate siloed databases, create a 360-degree view of the customer, and deliver an engaging omnichannel customer experience.

Enterprise clouds run internal, administrative functions and can have customer-facing portals—all delivered in a mix of public, private, and hybrid configurations. Traditionally, telco clouds are focused on running more restrictive network functions and essential business applications that require much higher levels of observability, control, fault tolerance, and availability.

For example, virtual radio access networks (vRAN) and open RAN require a real-time environment that extends out to the edge of the network and meets stringent throughput, latency, and resiliency requirements that are beyond the capabilities of the typical enterprise cloud. 

The telco cloud can extend to access resources outside of the operator’s own private clouds to take advantage of public cloud capabilities and build a hybrid cloud environment. While datacenters have fixed physical and logical boundaries, telco clouds logically cross datacenters, central offices, and even edge locations. With a telco cloud, network functions and other workloads are run wherever they can best optimize efficiency, performance, latency, and customer experience.

Read more about edge computing for telecommunications.

Redefining carrier-grade network performance

One of the defining characteristics of a telco cloud is its ability to provide a carrier-grade level of availability or quality of experience to an end user. Usually, this is defined as the expectation of an uninterrupted level of service, often with a guarantee or service level agreement (SLA) of 99.999% reliability, as a percentage of availability or uptime. This equates to no more than 5.26 minutes of downtime per year.

In the past, telcos required most network functions to stay within a tightly controlled private cloud in order to maintain a carrier-grade network. Enterprise clouds were not tethered by tight carrier-grade requirements and could move to more agile public clouds.

However, as the reliability of multicloud and hybrid cloud tools increased, more and more of the telco cloud has been moved to public clouds while still maintaining carrier-grade status.

While greenfield operators (those who build infrastructure where none existed before) can build a completely cloud-native environment from the ground up, established operators must build their telco cloud to work with legacy network environments. Legacy and cloud-native networks need to coexist for some period, allowing operators to migrate network functions, services, and applications in a way that makes the most sense for their organization.

When migrating to a cloud-native architecture, a holistic approach is key. The migration might be implemented one network function or service at a time, but the process should start with a comprehensive cloud readiness assessment that encompasses infrastructure, applications and service portfolios, organization, and processes.

Other considerations include: 

  • Doing everything internally, building a partner ecosystem, working with an overarching systems integrator, or a combination of the three.
  • Acceptable levels of up-front investment, risk, and time-to-market. 
  • Best KPIs for success.

A cloud readiness assessment guides operators through key decisions, including:

  • VNF migration strategy: This defines which network functions may need to remain as VMs and which can be rearchitected as cloud-native microservices. 
  • Application migration strategy: This defines which applications can be migrated to cloud-native infrastructure and rearchitected as microservices.
  • Management and automation strategy: This strategy outlines the tools used to orchestrate and manage the environment efficiently, lays out the tools for automation, and defines priorities and plans for automating processes.
  • Private/public cloud mix: This defines the cloud mix based on parameters like ecosystem strategy, economics, operational capacity and capability, architecture, and time-to-market requirements—as well as how these things may change over time.
  • Ecosystem partners: This process requires defining a pool of potential partners, based on the quality of their products, services, and support, as well as their ability to collaborate. This strategy should recognize that certain partners might currently be or later become competitors in some geographies or product and service categories.

Containerized applications can be migrated from private to public cloud when appropriate without the need for resource-consuming integrations. Multiple public clouds can increase the capacity available for resiliency if resources beyond the capacity of a single cloud service provider are required. Applications that do not produce greater value or are poorly supported in a public cloud environment can be easily migrated back to the private cloud or datacenter.

A cloud-native telco service provider’s network requires a level of robustness, reliability, and speed to deliver a carrier-grade experience beyond what’s normally expected from an enterprise cloud. That’s why those service providers need tools that can support any workload on any footprint at any location.

Red Hat’s open, cloud-native application platform and infrastructure tools offer a rich set of capabilities, combined with a verified and certified ecosystem of network functions and applications. With this support, service providers have a reliable cloud-native foundation for delivering that carrier-grade experience.

Red Hat provides feature-rich distributions of open source projects with value-added hardening and integration to improve usability, automate administrative functions, and increase the focus on security. Red Hat customers benefit from the company’s industry expertise and knowledge gained from serving telecommunications and other customers around the globe.

Red Hat’s telco cloud solution provides carrier-grade cloud platforms that support virtual and cloud-native network functions.

Red Hat solutions

OpenStack has become an open source NFV infrastructure standard, and Red Hat® OpenStack® Platform is a leading commercial distribution.

Kubernetes is the dominant container infrastructure orchestration technology, and Red Hat® OpenShift® is a leading commercial Kubernetes solution.

Red Hat OpenStack and Red Hat OpenShift can help service providers achieve their next-generation telco cloud infrastructures. These Red Hat platforms build upon a foundation of Red Hat® Enterprise Linux®, so the focus on security, reliability, performance, ecosystem, and other benefits of Red Hat Enterprise Linux apply up through the entire stack.

Operators and the vendors they work with need the efficiency of creating solutions once and then choosing the best cloud infrastructure for running each of them. This simplifies the use of hybrid cloud infrastructure by making it possible to run workloads on multiple clouds without modification. Red Hat OpenShift can help operators establish a consistent development, Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) pipeline, and operational environment with better focus on security for applications and services.

See all Red Hat solutions for telecommunications.

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