Multi-cloud, TaaS and OneSource – Vodafone’s done being an undifferentiated carrier

Vodafone wants to hire software engineers. Why?

The headliney bit today is that Vodafone is “adding” 7,000 software engineers to its workforce over the next four to five years.

The operator said it currently has around 9,000 software engineers in its technical workforce, and it wants to expand that to around 16,000 by 2025. 

To achieve that it will offer reskilling to existing employees, and insource work and people from contractors and current suppliers. It also expects to recruit around 1600 – so 10% of the final workforce – as new hires. 

The question is – why? 

The big driver is that Vodafone wants to do more of its own technical development. It wants to own more of the IP on which its business rests, it wants to create IoT and smart network products and digital capabilities that partners can consume and also develop into full services.

Johann Wibergh, CTO, said that relying on vendors to supply features and technology means that an operator cannot differentiate itself from any other operator that buys the same products, or uses the same services capability, of the same vendor.

He said, “We have been on a journey for a while to change the company from being only a telecommunications company to being an enabler for our customers. That means on top of us providing basic connectivity we try to wrap things around that that helps our customers become digitally enabled. It’s very important for us because the connectivity business as we know is a very competitive business, a very low growth business, and we’ve been in that for a very long time. But if you look at the things that you wrap around the connectivity, it’s a much smaller piece of the revenue but it is a decent revenue that has double digit growth and it provides a lot of extra value for customers.”

Wibergh and Scott Petty, who is is Chief Digital and Information Office, Vodafone Group, outlined how it wants to build its technology capability to meet Vodafone’s overall ambitions.

These include:

  • Building up an in-house software capability to develop the network to be more automated and intelligent
  • To expose network capabilities to partners via a consistent platform
  • To work with cloud partners to leverage both cloud and network platforms
  • To build an internal concept called InnerSource – an “open source” like code repository that all Vodafone developers can contribute to and take from
  • To build a Telco-as-a-Service platform – a common, cloud-native infrastructure platform that all its developers use to build their infrastructure,  automate code, write feature capability and contribute to the code repository.
  • Adopt a multi cloud strategy – both multiple public and private cloud environments

Wibergh said that the company is in a five year plan to make “a big change for the company to go from doing only connectivity to all the things that wrap around.” 

One of its big changes has been to create a common technology organisation, headed up by Petty. The company has also created an engineering career path that parallels its managerial career path. Top engineers will get invited to the same tables as top managers. An example is Santiago Tenorio, perhaps best known for heading up Vodafone’s Open RAN strategy to this point, but now seen on an equal footing with non technical managers.

Scott Petty: “ A strategy that lets us move traffic from our own data centres to public data centres is really important.”

Petty said the technical strategy has three pillars. “The first is to use its enhanced software capabilities to improve the core business and automate how we run our infrastructure and the capabilities that sit behind that. The second pillar is digital channels and platforms for servicing and selling to our customer. The third part is building new products and services and creating new growth opportunities.”

“For example, we have emerging opportunities on top of IoT, in blockchain – taking capabilities that allow IoT devices to communicate with each other and authenticate services, manage payments and the elements that sit around that. All of those require software engineers to develop the code capability and solutions to be able to do that with a degree of automation. And that’s the reason for our insourcing strategy, investing in software engineers.”

TaaS and an in-house code repository

Petty said that to manage the output of its 16,000 engineers, the company has created a concept called OneSource, essentially an internal platform inspired by the Open Source software model, so that Vodafone developers contribute capabilities, take capabilities and use it to build software that is used throughout deployment. 

TaaS manages the interfaces between those and allows us to choose different cloud providers

“To make that real, we’ve identified a number of investments. One is our common infrastructure platform, we call TaaS – Telco as a Service. It’s a common infrastructure platform which all developers use to build all of their infrastructure, automate their code, feature capability, and contribute to a set of code repositories that can be used by other developers inside the Vodafone world, or partners that we’re developing products with.”

Petty said that the platform is “cloud native”, meaning that outputs can be deployed across public and private cloud services.

“Why would we want to use public cloud services? Well iPhone Wednesday is a great example. This year, we had 400% more web traffic than we had last year. And for a week of the year, we have more than 15 times the traffic during the launch period than we have for the rest of the year. Leveraging public cloud auto-scaling capabilities to scale for that peak across our Checkout makes a lot more sense than buying our own infrastructure in our own data centres that will sit idle for large periods of time.”

“So for us, a strategy that lets us move traffic from our own data centres to public data centres is really important. But of course, we have regulatory requirements. And there will always be infrastructure, particularly in our core networks, or maybe for security related applications, where we need to run those cloud services in our own data centres. TaaS manages the interfaces between those and allows us to choose different cloud providers.”

In the old world, our only go-to-market was with our own branded services in our own market

Petty pointed out that Vodafone has partnered heavily with AWS for MEC capability and uses AWS for infrastructure scaling. “But we use Google GCP for analytics, and we’ve done a lot of marketing development around analytics with GCP. We use Microsoft Azure for a range of services as well. Creating that cloud independence is really important,” he said.

The idea is to build a platform capability, not to design all services as Vodafone service.

Petty again: “Somebody else turns that into a complete application or capability they offer. I think what will change in telecommunications is that in the old world, our only go-to-market was with our own branded services in our own market. Actually what IoT has taught us is that you can build very large businesses without having to own the whole service, you can be an enabler for other people’s services.”

Petty referenced an application that built drone protection areas around sites. That service was built using Vodafone’s capabilities in the network leveraging AWS MEC.

“We’ve partnered with AWS to take their Wavelength services, build an application on AWS and distribute that into our technology centres closer to the network. All of that is just a series of APIs that are provisioned. Now of course obviously we want to build that into our own Vodafone network but it’s leveraging AWS MEC, and it’s that partnership model that really enables us to generate sources of revenue.”

Vodafone’s cloud platform ambitions may be evolving, but this is an area that it has been wrestling with for years. Around 2016 to 2017 its Project Ocean was tasked with virtualising its network and compute infrastructure, with OpenStack based virtualisation intended to create a software-defined network capability based on NFV. That then moved forward into adopting a more general cloud compute environment horizontally across the operator.  This would align network virtualisation a lot closer to IT cloud instances.

In 2018, then Group Head of Cloud & Automation, Fran Heeran (now with Nokia) told TMN, “The real savings come when you push the notion of completely re-architected, cloud native software that understands this notion of a horizontal platform and is more efficient in how it uses resources.”

As Vodafone reiterates on its cloud model, the difference now is that it is not only targeting savings in its network model, but that wants to been seen as a technology company that is positioned to grow new sources of revenues.