Tech & Communications

How virtualisation is transforming mobile operators

by  — 14 September 2014

Both telecom operators in the country, Oooredoo and Vodafone Qatar, have introduced 4G LTE capabilities to their networks. Nathan Pearce, product manager for Europe Middle East and Asia at F5 Networks, looks at how mobile operators are changing IT structures to meet future demands and remain profitable.

As costs increase and revenue from traditional services such as voice and SMS decrease over time in developed markets, managing hardware that handles IP-networks will help telcos such as Vodafone Qatar which recently launched its 4G LTE network, stay competitive and profitable.

The move to IP-networks with LTE (Long-Term Evolution) is fundamentally changing the way service providers are organising their networks. The increased reliance on packet switching means that mobile network operators (MNOs) are becoming more and more like traditional IT businesses in their infrastructure. It would be no surprise to me if service providers were to become the largest users of cloud technology in the next year or so as they increasingly look to virtualise more of their network. But what does this mean for the future of the network?

We are going to see an increased dependence on Software Defined Networking (SDN) as mobile operators look for more innovative ways to monetise their networks. For example, managing quality of service by routing different subscribers’ data traffic to various optimisation tools based on their data plans, without requiring dedicated hardware switches and routers to achieve this. This will almost certainly start to become the norm for LTE in 2014.

Beyond SDN, Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) will be the next stage in mobile operators’ journey to the cloud: network operators are tiring of needing to have dedicated hardware for each function in their networks. They want to virtualise the hardware.

In a more traditional network infrastructure, operators would have a Box A from Vendor Y doing routing, Box B from Vendor X managing the network address translation, and so on; every function requiring its own dedicated hardware. Ultimately, the ideal end result is for operators to rely on virtualised instances of specialised equipment on general computing hardware in a datacentre.

Luckily for mobile operators, most of the necessary network functions are already available as virtualised functions; the challenge that many of them will face in the short term is matching the performance of dedicated hardware. However, the rewards for success are potentially massive. 

Successful in virtualising their networks would mean that hardware becomes more scalable and virtual machines can be spooled up as and when necessary - using the available network computing power for the tasks that are most needed in real time, driving down both operating expenditure and capital expenditure requirements.

NFV is coming, and the transition towards it is already in motion. But while full virtualisation might be further down the tracks, it will not be very long until we see virtualisation of value-added services and optimisation services being deployed commercially. Those service providers that get ahead early stand a good chance of leading the market for some time to come.

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