Network as Code as a path to programmable networks
CPaaS is just a first step in the right direction
According to Analysys Mason, Communications service providers (CSPs) invested $103 billion in building 5G networks in 2022 and are expected to spend a further $129 billion in 2023. And the need to return on that investment has never been more urgent. Growth of traditional communications services into both consumer and enterprise markets is limited and the need to develop new revenue streams is imperative.
That is nothing new and has been discussed since the onset of the 5G era. One way to begin to energize and catalyze new revenue growth will be to build closer tie-ins to applications that will utilize capabilities within the 5G networks in ways previously not possible.
The CPaaS (Communication Platform as a Service) segment set the direction for this concept by opening-up access to capabilities like Messaging, Voice and Video by providing programmability to be embedded into various applications in the digital ecosystem space. Simple example, the ability for an Uber passenger to text or call to their driver directly via the Uber app.
The next movement must go beyond that CPaaS paradigm to open-up the spigot to a wealth of additional capabilities within these modern networks. We categorize those additional capabilities within groupings of “network capabilities” explained below and we discuss what it will take to achieve this. By exposing this new range of capabilities that developers can incorporate into their applications, these modern networks can be utilized more dynamically to contribute monetizable value. This could include things like real-time broadcasting of immersive video, edge processing offloading and control for autonomous vehicles or robots. The important point being the ability for applications to sit in-line to the networks to enable these kinds of adjustments and interactions in a way never before possible.
The principal values of an open digital ecosystem
Much has been said about digital ecosystems and their importance to this cause. And to the true spirit of an open digital ecosystem, the more participants at all levels of the ecosystem, the more benefits that all participants can realize. There is a force-multiplier effect as more and more members participate.
CPaaS systems created a way for applications to utilize Voice, Video and Messaging and the next layers of capability that networks have to offer have the potential to be even more powerful.
Capabilities beyond CPaaS:
As shown in the figure above, we categorize these additional values in two layers:
- Advanced values: capabilities beyond CPaaS available in networks today
- 5G values: capabilities that are unique to 5G networks
The challenge for this new marketplace ecosystem is to tap-into those network capabilities and present them in ways that developers can quickly fold into their applications.
Figure 1 Network as Code ecosystem of network providers and developers
As depicted here, we position a multi-layered ecosystem paradigm that joins many network providers together with many developers to develop and run many applications in a way that all participants can benefit. There is a yin and yang relationship that must exist between the developers, their applications and the networks.. Below we will explain this ecosystem with a developer services layer, the network layer and the platform monetization layer.
The earlier CPaaS model was set up in similar fashion yet there are some considerable differences for this ecosystem to go beyond the primary network capabilities of CPaaS – Voice, Messaging and Video -- and to get to the extended network capabilities described above.
The developer services layer
Figure 2 The application developer role in the Network as Code ecosystem
It is oversimplified to say that the ecosystem needs to provide APIs for developers to use. Yes, they will develop applications that utilize API calls to access functionality inside networks. Since most of the developers are not network engineers, they will not be willing to use native network APIs. Instead, some method to simplify the underlying network complexity into something that developers can easily utilize is critical.
The developer journey
To begin with, we see a bit of a chicken and egg situation. The range of capabilities within these new network capabilities consist of things that have not traditionally been made available to third party developers. We need to find ways to communicate with developers to help them understand these new capabilities for them to assimilate into their applications. In other words, they don’t know what they don’t know. It is going to take more than opening a digital storefront and pointing developers to a catalog of APIs to be successful.
We break the developer journey down into two important phases; the development phase and the runtime phase. The most challenging part is during the development phase. There is a range of important support that needs to be provided to developers during their development phase which enable them to bring network control and awareness in their applications: things like sample code artifacts, documentation and sandboxing. This will be an iterative educational process in the beginning and will be most successful through showcases that demonstrate developers the value of the “capabilities” within their applications with real-world purpose.
For the runtime phase, this means the developer has completed the development phase outlined above, they have written their application and the API calls needed to trigger the capabilities from the network and placed their applications into production. Most of the attention during runtime phase will be the operational performance of their applications, of the APIs themselves and the ongoing steps to improve and add more value.
The network layer
Figure 3 The network provider role in the Network as Code ecosystem
The network layer is the yang to the developer yin above. This is where things get very interesting. As many critics have observed, the concept of Network and Telecom APIs is not new, what will be different this time? We see two primary threads here:
- The evolution to cloud-native principles
- The business imperative to innovate
As modern networks have moved to cloud-native foundations, we arrive at a point where the networks are based on software which means that they are programmable. That programmability of discreet, atomic network functions creates the opportunity to tap into those functions in modern, automated software-driven ways. Earlier networks were more hardware dependent and proprietary in nature creating a barrier to entry. This obstacle is mostly removed with modern cloud-native network deployments.
Combined with the urgent requirement to innovate and develop new revenue models we have an opportunity that did not exist previously.
APIs will of course be the critical link through which those functions are exposed and called by applications. There is considerable effort underway in open-source communities like CAMARA and other groups making very important strides in this area. Things like universal definitions and frameworks to assist with API normalization and usability. And the concept of API tiers beginning with the very complex native network APIs in the infrastructure to the more streamlined, abstracted and simplified service APIs helps immensely. Nokia is actively engaged with these groups and the Nokia Innovation Labs are actively used by these groups to advance their work.
In addition to those strides and advances with APIs themselves, there remains the difficult task to understand and interpret the various discreet, atomic capabilities within the networks that could be exposed through those APIs as actionable values that developers can understand and assimilate into their applications. This task calls for unique expertise that combines deep understanding of networks to serve as a kind of translator, interpreter and advisor.
This network layer closes the yin yang relationship to the developer services layer explained earlier. The only way to streamline the developer journey is if these complex capabilities within the networks are translated and simplified.
The platform layer and monetization models
Figure 4 The monetization of the Network as Code ecosystem
Once the developer services layer and the underlying network translation layer are in place and the requisite APIs are available to make the marketplace work, how is this monetized?
This needs to be discussed on two levels; how can monetization happen technically and, what cultural business model changes will be required. Beginning with the technical construct, this entire ecosystem will be based upon “as a Service” consumption models meaning no traditional monolithic software licenses and software installation footprints required. These are proven, as a Service consumption models that the ecosystem will implement as the basic monetization engine.
Based on the kinds of capabilities within the Advanced and 5G network capabilities and considering the differences between Consumer (B2C) and Enterprise (B2B) markets, we anticipate the monetization and consumption will include per transaction, per type, per time, subscription and sponsored models and the marketplace platform must facilitate all of these models.
Cultural business model changes are required also. Once again, the CPaaS market has created a foundation to enable network providers to open-up functional capabilities within their networks that application developers can tap into in. As we move into the Advanced and 5G network capabilities there will be many more discreet capabilities that the networks will expose. Negotiations and agreements on compensation models will need to be made between and among the participants. The ecosystem platform’s role is to support any of these compensation models.
Summary and calls to action
Actions that Nokia is taking to bring a solution to market:
Nokia has already been working with several network operators and application developers to establish working prototypes. Each one of these are tied to industry or consumer-related use cases with real world relevance. True to the spirit of a marketplace ecosystem vision, it is an iterative process of collaboration to get the first few use-cases to take shape with each member making technical and business contributions. We are working toward a centralized platform to energize this new paradigm, to provide the required simplification of technical network capabilities and to facilitate broad collaboration at scale.
Nokia is also working closely with open-source initiatives like CAMARA and other standards groups to support their efforts to bring more clarity and consistency to API constructs. Through Nokia’s innovation labs we apply our deep understanding of all network domains and cloud-native principals to provide testing and development assistance to these initiatives.
Actions that Network Providers can take to ready themselves:
For network providers to successfully participate and benefit in a marketplace ecosystem like this they will need to have important parts of their architecture and their operations in place. The commercial monetization models for an ecosystem like this will be based upon various “as a Service” consumption models which may require new back-office methods. It’s also important to have their networks fully cloud-native and addressable through programmatic interfaces, and having their operations processes automated with modern, intent-based orchestration and assurance methods. Their use of AI/ML and network-specific analytics will be instrumental to providing easier access to these new Advanced and 5G network capabilities and, since the principle of a marketplace ecosystem is for 3rd party automated interaction, a comprehensive security program will provide the controls for access and egress into their networks as responsible ecosystem players.
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