It’s common knowledge that IT budgets are tight, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the majority of spend goes to system maintenance. This leaves little to invest in new technologies and makes getting lump sums to spend on Capex highly unlikely. Surveys continue to point to budgetary and headcount pressure, and CIOs are forced to deliver on major operational transitions – shift to virtualization, integration of SDN, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), and infrastructure automation – while continuing to deliver on near-term expectations of the business.
As IT budgets tighten, the inability to invest into transforming technology and operational processes, and reinvest in developing the new skill sets within the organization is a challenge, often leading to frustrations as business needs outpace IT’s ability to innovate and meet them. This has led to the increased reliance on Shadow IT, in which lines of business and operational organizations within companies develop systems and solutions without explicit IT authorization and approval.
This is apparent across traditional enterprise IT organizations, and also service providers, including mobile network operators (MNO), who are expected to increase their IT skill sets across the network operations organization in response to their new business reality. Traditional revenue models are being eroded through trends like BYOD and OTT, and legacy networks are being pushed to their breaking point by the massive (and variant) data explosion created by IoT, Internet usage and video services. MNOs must find a way to reduce Capex and Opex to remain profitable while also expanding network capacity and flexibility to accommodate and even monetize the increased data flow.
Domain knowledge in building, maintaining, and operating networks is no longer sufficient. The transition into the “DevOps model” requires investments in infrastructure that is software-programmable and virtualized, led by the industry transitions of software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV), and also investments into developing programming, application development, big data analytics, linux system administration and networking knowledge, and database administration skill sets. All of this is still a pre-cursor to changing the operations processes themselves.
Here are three things for mobile operators to consider when looking to implement SDV and NFV.
Re-think organizational boundaries and handoffs. The industry has been stuck in transition trying to determine the right balance between re-tooling the existing workforce who already have domain expertise, or luring computer science graduates to the networking industry, and teaching them the networking domain. By building small (4-5), empowered, integrated teams from across the organization – product development, network planning, network development, IT, and operations – that bring together the skill sets noted above, rather than seeking the industry “unicorns” with all these skills in a single package, will yield cross-pollination of information, and grow institutional knowledge and understanding.
Avoid technology for the sake of technology. Technology transformation without operational transformation will not yield the benefit promised by any technology, and this holds true with SDN and NFV. Long term, it’s not about accepting new technologies within existing operational models, but determining how new technologies can drive completely new operational models. Providers can look for ways to break down operational domain walls and improve collaboration between teams to support network-wide deployments that can automate functions, end to end, to maximize efficiencies.
Maintain your own architectural destiny and control of your technology future. No doubt, vendors bring a wealth of information and external experiences that should be leveraged, and can act as trusted advisors; however, it is important for MNOs to establish their own architectural blueprints for the future. As a vendor, I can attest – no two customers are the same. Not from the starting point (current technology architecture). Not in their views of future addressable markets. And certainly not in the operations process and new technology introduction models.
The industry has long been stuck in a vendor lock-in model, and the views that “open” (open source, open standards, open APIs, etc.) will resolve this problem is only true if our customers continue to play an active role in defining the future across the entire stack. This is the only way to ensure that that the end goal of “open” actually materializes as expected. As one of my colleagues, Dave Meyer, Brocade fellow and chief scientist always says, “It’s not what you build. It’s how you build it.”
The more network operators reiterate to me that they “want to be more like IT,” the more important it is to continue to understand that IT is not stagnant, either – and the institutional changes affecting IT are just as significant as those affecting network operators. There’s big promise in cost savings on both the Capex and Opex side from taking a “DevOps approach” to networking. But deploying agile technologies like SDN or NFV are only successful when coupled with an investment in the necessary skill sets that go beyond just building, maintaining or operating a network.
Network transformation is as much a re-tooling of infrastructure as it is a shift of corporate culture. Armed with the proper skills and knowledge, IT can design a network from the ground up, piecing together solutions from multiple vendors, to fit the needs of their specific organization. This is why avoiding the traditional vendor lock-in and building based on open architecture is so key to the future success of mobile networks.
Kevin Shatzkamer, CTO Mobile Networking at Brocade