Service providers may put cutting-edge digital innovations at our fingertips, but when it comes to their own technology, they haven't typically been viewed among the "move fast and break things" crowd. It might be time to revisit that reputation.
The industry is on the cusp of profound transformation as it takes the next step in 5G. As operators prepare to roll out custom network slices, ultra-low-latency services and other 5G innovations, they're poised to unleash groundbreaking digital experiences.
But, to see where they're truly blazing new trails, consider how they're building and operating their networks. Service providers are leading the charge in two of the industry's most revolutionary network innovations: active assurance and digital twins.
Both technologies are becoming essential to meet the operational challenges that come with 5G standalone networks (5G SA). And they're proving that service providers can be as bold, creative and forward-looking as anyone in tech.
Reimagining Network Operations
As SPs prepare for 5G SA networks, they've realized they have to revolutionize network operations to be successful in deploying these new networks. Traditional operational approaches are designed for the self-contained, appliance-based networks of the past. Even in LTE environments, "the network" typically implies racks of traditional hardware, updated via highly constrained change-management windows. Operators may run parts of their networks as virtualized software, or disaggregate certain network functions, but these are optional innovations.
Fast forward to 5G SA, and it's all mandatory. Everything is cloud-native, by design. Everything is disaggregated. Instead of managing physical boxes in a data center, operators manage virtual nodes distributed across multiple clouds – many of which they don't own. Instead of receiving network software updates from a handful of vendors once or twice a year, they get continuous updates from dozens of vendors.
Suddenly, service providers need to become experts in Kubernetes, continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD), DevOps. And they don't just have to master these concepts for 5G SA buildouts, they have to maintain those environments at scale.
Ultimately, these changes will let operators run their networks more like flexible cloud data centers, and bring their customers cloud-like speed, agility and nonstop innovation. But first, they must contain the exponential increase in complexity and pace of change in telecom networks.
Yesterday's networking approaches won't work anymore. To unleash 5G transformation and reimagine their businesses, service providers need to carve out a brand-new operational model. That's exactly what they're doing with active assurance and digital twins.
Inside Active Assurance
In conventional networks, operators mostly rely on passive monitoring to detect network problems. They deploy probes in static locations, capture network telemetry data, and run analytics over time to identify anomalies. If there's a more urgent problem they often learn about it only when customers call to complain. This was never an ideal situation.
But in 5G networks, where traffic patterns are highly dynamic, unpredictable and low-latency services come with much more stringent service-level agreements (SLAs), it's completely untenable.
Today, as we work with service providers to help test and validate their networks, we're seeing many introduce active monitoring and assurance. Now, instead of waiting months for the results of statistical analysis, they continually inject synthetic traffic into the network to measure real-time performance.
This approach involves three basic components:
- Lightweight, portable software testing agents that can run on any cloud compute platform, anywhere in the network
- Expansive testing libraries to simulate a wide range of services (such as ultra-low-latency services, videoconferencing, and voice calls)
- Artificial intelligence (AI)-driven automation, so monitoring systems can make real-time decisions on their own about where, when and what to test
Operators have been exploring these capabilities for several years. But those efforts typically were limited to transport networks, paired with self-healing and automation initiatives (yet another area where they're blazing new trails). Now, as service providers prepare to deploy highly dynamic, cloud-native 5G SA cores, they're expanding these techniques to the heart of the network.
As they do, operators can continually probe dynamic networks and identify problems long before they affect customers. They can validate network software updates right in the production environment, instead of undertaking weeks of lab testing. And when there's a problem, they can isolate it much more quickly – reducing Mean Time to Repair (MTTR).
Working with Digital Twins
With 5G SA the network itself now behaves like a cloud-native application. It becomes an always on, constantly changing, continually updating software environment. Which means we need more dynamic, always-on testing and troubleshooting capabilities too. That's what digital twins bring to the table.
With digital twins, service providers maintain a virtual 5G network they can use to test and emulate device load, capacity and performance anywhere in the network. But what's truly revolutionary is that this twin isn't some external system showing a snapshot of the network at a specific point in time. It's embedded into the network infrastructure itself. Paired with active testing, it continuously pressure tests the network to identify potential issues.
With digital twins, operators can solve multiple challenges that come with 5G SA networks. First, they can emulate the full infrastructure in a way that would be physically impossible if they had to create a physical test lab. More importantly, they can embed a continuous delivery/continuous deployment (CI/CD) capability directly into the infrastructure.
They can now test and validate multivendor software updates right in the same cloud, and simply scale them up into production, knowing exactly how they'll affect the network.
Whatever your preconceived ideas about service provider innovation, it's time to look at what's happening out there with fresh eyes. 5G SA changes the fundamental nature of how telecom environments work and how service providers build and operate them. As they prepare to deliver the transformative 5G experiences of tomorrow, service providers are proving more than capable of rewriting the rules for their networks.
— Doug Roberts, General Manager of Lifecycle Service Assurance, Spirent Communications
Image source: Rancz Andrei/Alamy Stock Photo.