How the Covid-19 crisis is showing us the future network

It's about flexibility and resiliency, enabled by new cloud and virtualisation technology.

The current Covid-19 crisis is giving operators a foretaste of how they might have to provision and operate networks in the future, according to one new entrant to the telco space.

Hugh Kelly, VP Marketing of Volta Networks, a developer of cloud-based routing software, told TMN that the increase in demand that carriers are seeing, allied to a shift in location of demand, is giving them insight into how to meet future network demands.

Test company Spirent spoke last week of one key aspect of this, a “shift to the suburbs” and residential areas as enabling working from home becomes more business-critical. Kelly said that he too thinks that companies will rethink how they work, with a knock-on effect for their network providers.

“I think there’s an expectation that enterprise customers will continue to leverage that going forward. They don’t ever want to have to bear the same level of risk or expense as dragging everybody into the office even run something as mundane as a call centre,” Kelly said.

That has meant that plans to build out a more flexible and responsive network – exactly the sort of thing a cloud-orchestrated vRouter platform could enable – will continue to be strategically vital.

I think the takeaway here is they’re seeing a little bit of a taste of what their future could look like, with a lot of need for much greater flexibility

“All of the feedback we’ve had from a number of customers and analysts has been that they see this increase in demand is really just a precursor to what could happen as more high bandwidth services start coming online – particularly driven by 5G. So they understand that the investments they’ve made in their edge needs to continue to expand.”

But it’s not just about a move to home working, Kelly says he sees SD-WAN to branches and other infastructure being enabled by more available wireless bandwidth.

“I think the takeaway here is they’re seeing a little bit of a taste of what their future could look like, with a lot of need for much greater flexibility. We’re certainly seeing with things like SD-WAN there’s a huge enterprise preference for connecting those with wireless services. It’s right there, it’s faster and easier to set up. And now with the amount of bandwidth available, that’s really becoming something that’s easier to do with branches. So it’s about having the infrastructure to be able to do that, not just because now you’re getting more people working remotely but you are kind of tying traditional real estate into that same kind of environment.”

Remote testing enabling forward momentum

Most operators that Volta is engaged with are at an evaluation and test phase of the company’s technology that is designed to enable them to deploy dis-aggregated cell site and core network routers running on whitebox hardware. Kelly said that the company has seen very little drop off in activity of mobile network operators engaging with Volta.

“The customers that were already teed up to do testing did execute the testing because we could download the software to their labs and they could run their tests against it. We had a large European carrier who was testing switchover between multiple virtual routers, and completed the testing right on schedule,” he said.

Kelly added that Volta is seeing the same thing in the US where “several customers” are still moving forward with their test plans. There are three general areas acting as a driver for operator engagement with Volta’s sort of solutions: disaggregated cell site gateways, xhaul (front/mid/backhaul) and the expansion of traditional provider edge routers.

“Carriers consider our technology be part of their new network architecture for access, particularly around the mobile build out but also for fixed mobile convergence. So as they put more fibre out to reach the small cell site build out, they expect to be picking up both their broadband services and their enterprise services footprint as part of that. So they see, I think, both the opportunity to better utilise their capital and save themselves money, but also meet the increased demand.”

Kelly said that the extra resiliency that a flexible network fabric can provide is proving to be a key strategic marker.

“Customers are looking to say this is an opportunity for us to change our cost structure, go to open networking and leverage more virtualisation, including virtual routers as part of that. These are these are big mega trends within the market and there are very, very significant needs for those.”

As the Covid-19 crisis has developed, the reliability of wireless and fixed networks has become a key national asset. Network providers have, mostly, coped well.

“We’ve seen a lot of comments from from different service providers about how resilient their networks have been. And a lot of them pointed to the idea of greater virtualisation as being one of the things that’s facilitated that. So I think this is validating those basic architectural decisions around greater virtualisation, pushing more capability into the edge, and ultimately being able to accommodate a lot more bandwidth. And ultimately, that means a lot more flexibility for the service providers to meet customer demands and maintain their revenues.”

Additionally, the capability to use zero touch provisioning means that operators can spin up cloud instances of network software remotely and/or automatically. Naturally development of such capabilities has been one part of Volta’s development in recent months.

“I think what operators are learning now is that that virtualisation is really important, not just for cost reasons but for things like service agility and being responsive to customers. And ultimately that means doing greater automation. When you’re putting that much more equipment out into the network, and there’s that much more Layer Three service intelligence much closer to the customer, it becomes really critical to automate. There will be too much equipment and too many routers out there to continue to do everything manually. And we’re seeing some evidence of that with things like zero touch provisioning being such an important element.”