Cloud, and What It Means for Telecom Engineer

Note: I describe the benefit of telco cloud for telecom engineer near the end of this article. If you’re impatient, feel free to jump directly into that section.

Few years ago, it was almost impossible to talk about IT technology with some colleague in telecom sector. Especially whenever talking to senior colleague who has experience of building early GSM network. More specifically, with they whom come from radio technology. Their knowledge was very specific. I talk A, they talk B.

But it was changed recently. They speak IT language. They understand the concept of cloud which bring them to know more about IT technology. Telecom industry has been started entering cloud market. My colleagues started talking about hypervisor, software defined network, linux namespace, VxLAN, Application Programmable Interface (API). They are originally from different company but mostly coming from vendor such as Nokia, Ericsson, and Huawei. They are the product owner so they have opportunity first to learn about telco cloud technology compare to other colleagues who work for network operator.

I heard about telco cloud almost 2 years ago but never thought the concept would be very close to IT. I started to read about NVF (Network Function Virtualization). It was a framework that drive cloud development within telecom sector. One of good book I would recommend to read more about NVF is Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) with a Touch of SDN.

The book discussed about journey from traditional network technology towards cloud era.

Excerpts from “Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) with a Touch of SDN”

NFV was first introduced at the SDN OpenFlow World Congress in 2012 by a consortium of key service providers. They referenced the major challenges faced by network operators, especially their dependency on introducing new hardware for enabling innovative services to their customers. The group proposed NFV as a way to tackle these challenges and improve efficiency by “leveraging standard IT virtualization technology to consolidate many network equipment types onto industry standard high volume servers, switches and storage, which could be located in Datacentres, Network Nodes and in the end user premises”. Sounds familiar?

ETSI used three key criteria for coming up with the recommendations:

  • Decoupling: complete separation of hardware and software
  • Flexibility: automated and scalable deployment of the network functions
  • Dynamic operations: control of the operational parameters of the network functions through granular control and monitoring of the state of network

Based on these criteria, a high-level architectural framework was established, defining distinct areas of focus.

High-Level ETSI NFV Framework

The high-level architectural later defined to be more specific.

Low Level View of the ETSI NFV Framework

The technology developed in telco cloud built based on above architectural design. Every vendor developed solution using their in-house requirement, mostly backward-compatible to their portfolio before cloud. However, since cloud technology itself coming from IT world then lot of existing IT technology adopted by telecom sector. Lets take one example from architectural design above: Virtualization Layer.

Virtualization Layer

There are two famous virtualization layer technology used in telco cloud. One is coming from VMware, and the other coming from opensource world: OpenStack.

VMware vCloud NFV

Some people argue that VMware was chosen due to its stability. Telecom industry is a Carrier-Grade network, that refers to a system, or a hardware or software component that is extremely reliable, well tested and proven in its capabilities. Carrier grade systems are tested and engineered to meet or exceed “five nines” high availability standards, and provide very fast fault recovery through redundancy (normally less than 50 milliseconds). VMware has been in virtualization world for many years, they are the leader on that domain. Lot of company has been using their product so it is proven to be mature.

Some others argue that opensource rule the world. OpenStack might still on its early phase, but it is supported by many mature company around the world. People have seen the war between closed source v.s opensource technology over many years with opensource as the winner. Microsoft v.s Linux was not only a war between two different operating system but also about a war between two different philosophy of how software should be developed. Twenty years ago it is difficult to imagine that Linux will power home electronic such as television. But now it is powering almost every aspect of people life around the world, including a car.

The beauty of opensource product is everybody can look into the source code and contribute to it. Everybody can leverage it to their own need. Telecom industry has been exclusive for many years, that make it stable but at the same time also make it difficult to catchup with current technology required by this era. By using opensource technology telecom industry will have a chance to adapt quickly with market requirement and deliver solution faster than before.

OpenStack is one of the fastest growing open source communities in the world. The OpenStack project is a global collaboration of developers and cloud computing technologists producing the open standard cloud computing platform for both public and private clouds. Backed by a vibrant community of developers and some of the biggest names in the industry. Some big names in industry such as RedHat and HP backed OpenStack project, that means telecom industry can work together with them to develop telco cloud solutions. Let company such as RedHat guarantee the maturity of virtualization layer and telecom vendor can focus on application layer. As of now, Nokia and Ericsson are known to have established partnership with RedHat to bundle their carrier-grade virtualized core applications and cloud application management products with Red Hat OpenStack Platform.

Ok, fine, technology-wise, telco cloud would bring new solution in telecom world. But does it means a lot for telecom engineer? Yes, it is.

Cloud Market

Nowadays, I used to tell colleagues to learn more on cloud technology when they have chance. The first reason is because telco industry going towards that path, so sooner or later they will interact with cloud technology. Second reason, cloud is the gate for telecom engineers towards broader world: IT. Telecom engineers has been suffered few years back after telecom industry using IT infrastructure to build their product. It makes people from IT world can easily enter telecom industry and filling the required position. Some of my colleague speak their concerns that after telco cloud era they might loose their jobs in telecom.

In my opinion it will be the contrary. Let say telecom engineer has been ‘attacked’ these days by IT people, it is time to ‘attack’ back (well, I don’t mean to say it in bad terms anw 😇). As I said in the beginning of this article, now telecom engineers speak IT language. They learn technology required by cloud. It is about time until they master the knowledge. And it is about time until telecom engineer have opportunity to move into IT industry.

Remember that Telecom industry is a carrier-grade network, that means the engineer who work there are prone to work under very high pressure not to make any mistake while doing their job. They work very carefully not to make a silly mistake that would cause a network outage (remember this news?). That means when telecom engineer moving to IT industry, they would bring with them the nature as carrier-grade engineer into IT. Of course, not all telecom engineer can be classified to have equal quality, but at least they come from the world where doing mistake at work is not an option so most likely they tend to do the job very carefully.

So, how big the market of cloud is? Well, lets simply have a look into OpenStack marketplace listed on their website. There are growing numbers of company using OpenStack technologies. Some of them engaged in training, some of them are mature company such as IBM that provide product like IBM Spectrum utilizing swift and keystone, or HP with its HPE Helion product. We can also find growing numbers of startup company using cloud technology from OpenStack to build their infrastructure.

The opportunity in cloud market not only for engineers. The project managers, solutions arhitects, and even sales from telecom industry have same opportunities to enter IT world as well.

Instead of being worried that the cloud would start kicking out telecom people out of their jobs, why don’t we make it as an opportunity for ourselves? But bear in mind that IT world is also already crowded. Kids can even learn from Youtube channels nowadays. Try to search OpenStack in youtube and you will find tons of video available there.

However, as I mentioned earlier that experience play important role here. Whenever you had a chance to work with cloud, always try to go deeper. For example, don’t just be an engineer who knows how to install OpenStack. Since cloud is a general technology we can always install it in our own premises such as personal laptop, or renting some dedicated servers with small amount of money (treat it as future investment). Learn OpenStack to its root, try to install from source, read its python code, learn how it is built into operating systems, learn how it is used by other industries, learn its architecture, etc. The important thing for us is to gain deeper understanding on cloud technology so we can compete with others because it is relatively easy for people from IT world to do the same since they have stronger background. And since it is an opensource project, contribute to it on your own way. Even a bugfix or simply an idea to improve the project would be valuable.

I am not saying that telecom people should start to migrate into other sector, or use telco cloud as an opportunity to move to other sector. What I am trying to say is the opportunity will be available sooner or later so nothing to worry about. If we’re still comfortable in telecom industry then stay there. But if for some reason we’re kickin-out, or looking for some other challenging opportunity then use telco cloud as a gateway to enter IT world.

Good luck.