VMs Out, Containers In: The Telecom Revolution Continues
The innovation trajectory in telecom has long been seen as more incremental than revolutionary.
From the earliest coast-to-coast calls in 1914 and through the six decades that followed, not much changed from an infrastructure perspective. The pace picked up with the introduction of fiber-optic technology, and more recently, network functions virtualization (NFV), which aimed to move the network functions that were being run on purpose-built hardware to virtual machines (VMs).
And now, the rollout of 5G services presents carriers with both challenge and opportunity for dramatic transformation.
New service offerings will be possible that can open up entirely new lines of business. The challenge will be to meet this demand with the agility to spin up new services quickly to outpace the competition. Having the right infrastructure in place will be a key enabler for telecoms to move from “pipe” to “platform” — helping to lay the foundation to become a go-to platform for innovative, data-driven services.
While virtualization remains an important component of the 5G rollout, for this new challenge, cloud native — and containers — is the revolutionary way to go.
The VM Era
NFV was and is a transformative idea: Essentially that anything that can be done on a purpose-built box can also be done via VM on a commodity data center kit — servers, storage and networking gear.
Made possible by the rise of VMware and other hypervisors, NFV’s potential benefits include reduced costs and power consumption, the ability to easily share resources and rapidly scale services up or down, and hardware portability.
All of that is helpful for telecom providers as they build out new 5G networks. But challenges remain with purpose-built boxes designed to do one thing effectively on networks too large to be run manually, ranging from performance, migration and co-existence, management and automation and, of course, security and resilience.
Not all of these challenges are storage-related and many are being worked out. Carriers continue to move more 5G functionality into virtualized network functions (VNFs), but network rollouts take time and are still ongoing.
As part of this transformation, they need high-performance, reliable infrastructure that isn’t purpose-built. But “commodity hardware” doesn’t mean “it’s all the same.” It refers to hardware that supports open standards. In fact, the very real differences between storage vendors can be critical to the success or failure of an NFV project. Telecoms should seek out storage solutions that meet their key requirements for reliability, performance, automation and efficiency.
The Cloud Native Future
While virtualized network functions (VNFs) are currently transforming the telecom industry, the industry is taking another step forward with cloud native network functions (CNFs).
CNFs use containers, which is why you sometimes see CNFs referred to as Containerized Network Functions. At Pure, we prefer the term Cloud Native Network Function because cloud native isn’t really about where an application is deployed; it’s about how it’s deployed. Cloud native apps can live on bare metal in a data center, in a public cloud or anywhere else. Just as VNFs provided many benefits to telecom carriers, CNFs incorporate all those benefits and more.
CNFs help address some of the challenges that still exist when using virtualization and VNFs. CNFs offer:
- Autoscaling — Containers can spawn more of themselves with little effort. You can spin up a new container every time some process needs one, and spin it down when it’s done. Kubernetes just handles it all via code, so no operator intervention is required. This is a huge win for massive telecom networks.
- Support for DevOps — DevOps has revolutionized programming, allowing for continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD). This means that carriers can deliver new functions, products and product updates much, much faster.
- Incredible fault tolerance and fast restart — CNFs are based on microservices, which can greatly reduce the operational and security risk of massive failures. Containers can restart almost instantly and upgrades can be performed without downtime, allowing for automated, fast rollbacks if needed. If a container fails, the system automatically spawns a new one.
- Monitoring and reporting — Given their scope, telecom networks are highly dependent on good monitoring and reporting. Fortunately, there are many tools in the Kubernetes world for doing so, starting with Kubernetes itself. Other tools include Prometheus for monitoring and Grafana for reporting and alerts.
Benefits abound when moving to CNFs, but while application developers love Kubernetes and containers, they present a challenge for infrastructure teams that aren’t used to them.
There is a wide scope of data management tasks needed: capacity management, data backup, disaster recovery, security, data migrations and more. Legacy methods don’t work because such methods aren’t container-aware (for example, a legacy backup tool won’t be able to rebuild a container environment successfully). A container native solution is needed to deliver these expected enterprise data services for container-based applications.
Is Your Infrastructure Team Ready to Handle the Shift?
For KPN, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the Netherlands and a customer of our Portworx division, the optimal platform is one that enables the best of two worlds: software that simplifies and streamlines processes while leaving plenty of room to configure and optimize individual clusters to match the specific needs of your own customers.
That’s an advantage when talking to decision makers in different industries. Whether serving a logistics customer, health care or transportation, when it comes to the performance of their information systems, everyone speaks the same language.
For the telecom industry, the road ahead leads to the cloud. CNFs are the next step in upgrading carrier networks — paving the way for carrier innovation that also makes their customers’ lives easier and everyone’s business more resilient and successful.