The pros and cons of moving to a cloud native architecture
A cloud-native network architecture offers service providers many advantages if they choose to make the leap.
Cloud-native architecture is a familiar term from the IT industry that is making its way into the telecom world.
In its simplest form, cloud-native technology is the building and running of network functions that take advantage of the cloud computing delivery model. This model packages services in containers deployed as microservices, and incorporates continuous integration and continuous software delivery (CI/CD), as well as an automated lifecycle management.
Microservices are a key part of the cloud-native architecture because each microservice is made to execute a different function. Microservices are “loosely coupled” stateless services that typically operate independently making it possible for developers to make changes to one microservice or a small group of microservices without having to update the entire application.
Microservices are also platform-agnostic and can be packaged as containers or as virtual machines (VMs) because they are platform-agnostic, microservices can be written in different languages and deployed across different types of infrastructure. A central orchestrator is often used to manage and schedule microservices to improve their efficiency.
As Communication Service Providers (CSPs) look to host more of their workloads in the cloud and begin developing cloud-native applications, they move to stateless microservices that are packaged in containers or VMs and equipped with application programming interfaces (APIs).
The benefit of deploying a cloud-native computing architecture is that it enables mobile service providers to develop and deploy networks quickly and makes it possible for them to more easily add new services and respond to growing demands for mobile data. Cloud native architecture also involves automation tools because automation is necessary to handle the diverse and rapid service demands of the network.
Cloud-native is complex
Moving a legacy telecom network to a fully cloud-native architecture isn’t easy. Telecom providers are migrating in that direction but doing it at different stages, primarily because the journey to a more open network can be daunting, while at the same time many 5G use cases require a cloud-native 5G core.
According to industry research firm Analysys Mason, cloud-native functions will make up about 40 percent of the total addressable mobile network cloud market by 2025. That’s an increase from 10 percent in 2020. Analysys Mason estimates that in 2021 the industry will see “first-mover” service providers start to move to a cloud-native architecture and by 2022 the industry will see many more service providers scale up their cloud-native functions.
Roy Chua, founder of AvidThink, a research and analysis firm, said that many telecom providers have customer-facing apps and portals that are in different stages of moving to cloud native. As these applications are being re-architected for the cloud, they need the underlying infrastructure to support those applications.
In addition, as mobile operators move to standalone 5G (5G SA) most want to have the benefits of a cloud-native architecture as they make that transition because it offers a lot of flexibility.
Chua adds that most 5G core network elements are already designed to be cloud-native, making this transition a bit easier. However, he also said that many operators have legacy network applications that are currently either being run as physical network functions or virtual network functions (VNFs). Some mobile operators are using all three technologies -cloud native functions (CNFs), VNFs and physical network functions - side-by-side. This, Chua said, will work but it makes the network less flexible than if it was solely using a cloud-native architecture.
Containers for the cloud
Containers play a role in cloud-native networking because they make it easier to host different components of the network. A recent survey conducted by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation looked at the usage of Kubernetes, which is an open-source system used for containers. The survey found that about 27.8 percent of telecom operators that responded said they are already conducting large-scale deployments of Kubernetes. In addition, another 27.8 percent said that they are testing, or piloting, Kubernetes containers.
Bill Mulligan, marketing manager at the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) said that containers are a big part of the move to cloud-native and he agreed with Chua, noting that telecom operators can use VMs but containers are another viable option.
The CNCF survey also found that nearly 70 percent of telecom operators said that their biggest challenge in adopting Kubernetes and container technology was networking issues. Mulligan explained that many telecom engineers are accustomed to using physical boxes when they deploy a network and so when they move to a cloud-native architecture they have to start thinking in terms of a virtualized software world instead of hardware. “Cloud native and Kubernetes is fundamentally a new way of doing things and that causes problems,” Mulligan said.
But those problems aren’t really a technology problem, they are more of a people issue. “It’s the people and the processes that have difficulty with this,” he said. “Because it requires them to change their core concepts of how to do things and do it differently.”
A gradual process
Nevertheless, Mulligan is optimistic about 2021 being the year that telecom operators begin to move more aggressively to a cloud-native architecture and he believes that the COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated this migration.
“There is a lot more traffic on the network and we are seeing more investment in this area,” he said. Chua, however, believes that many service providers will move to a cloud-native architecture only if they see a business case for doing so. “I think it will depend upon how much savings they can gain from going cloud-native,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe that telecom operators will lead the way. Instead, he thinks that the entire telecom ecosystem will start to move to cloud-native and push the service providers into making that transition.
For example, application developers are already building their apps for the cloud and will want them to run on a cloud-native network. Likewise, vendors that make back-office products, like billing software, are transforming their products to be cloud native and pushing the telecom operators along with them.
However, it is likely that some network functions will never move to cloud native because they aren’t worth converting. For example, SMS likely will not become a cloud native application. “Some elements of 4G may not migrate,” Chua said. “You might not have a compelling reason for it to make that transition.”
Edge computing may offer another incentive for telecom operators to move to cloud-native. Because cloud-native applications consume fewer resources and require less compute power at the edge, operators may find cloud native applications offer an advantage to their edge computing goals.
Mulligan said that telecom operators are intent upon not missing out on potential revenue opportunities with edge networking. In fact, CNCF is helping many of its members, including telecom operators, figure out the best way to capitalize on cloud-native computing so they can take advantage of new business opportunities around edge computing. “It’s the Wild West right now,” he added. “We are trying to help them figure out how to get those business benefits.”
Automation is a powerful tool
Automation is a powerful tool in the cloud-native architecture toolbox because without it service providers won’t get much value out of their cloud-native architectures. “There’s so much complexity to the network, you have to have automation because humans can’t do it,” Chua said, adding that it’s not so much network complexity that’s the issue but the increase in demands from the network.
The CNCF is seeing a big push from the industry to move to more automation, or what is often called “zero-touch network.” And cloud-native computing is viewed by some as being a huge step toward accomplishing a zero-touch network. But Chua thinks that many telecom operators are already using automation because it can also add value to their legacy infrastructure as well.
As the telecom industry moves more aggressively to 5G, particularly 5G SA, expect to see more operators take advantage of the benefits of a cloud-native computing architecture. With the continued explosion in mobile data growth coupled with new services made possible by edge computing and network slicing, operators are going to need the efficiencies and agility that is only possible with a cloud-native network.