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How Operators Can Navigate 5G and DevOps

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DevOps offers many benefits when it comes to deploying 5G, such as increases in automation and integration which provide a quicker, more efficient means of executing services and processes. But what practicalities can DevOps provide for the telco industry and how can it alter the way vendors and operators collaborate with each other? Furthermore, could a hint of ‘give and take’ make the path to DevOps and 5G more seamless?

Implementing 5G and DevOps Proves a Challenging Feat

Over the past twelve months, my discussions with operators have revealed to me that, while they certainly would like to implement 5G services in an agile and efficient manner, several challenges hinder their ability to do so.

Yet, the recent impact of Covid-19 on Telecom operators and their customers showed the need to rapidly overcome these challenges and adopt DevOps and automation processes and frameworks in their 5G roll-out.  The pandemic accelerated changes in customer behavior. Traffic loads are increasing due to remote work policy and business continuity plans, and there is a jump in video and messaging traffic, all requiring speedy operator response. So, if there is such need, what hinders adoption?

First off, the 5G Core network utilizes a Service-Based Architecture for scalable and enhanced communication between components. It is therefore highly dynamic and maintains variable deployment.

Further, operators offering a dynamic and competitive compilation of 5G use cases must run shorter testing cycles to deliver quicker updates. This is best addressed by adopting a cloud-native and micro services-based environment, with DevOps practices used to guarantee the multiple instances of network functions are rapidly and efficiently kept up to speed.

To overcome the challenges of this dynamic environment, operators are required to set up new processes, capabilities and infrastructure in order to deploy 5G use cases impeccably. In my experience, only a handful feel they possess the skill, capability and budget to take this task on by themselves. While lots of operators are implementing 5G networks, most would love to incorporate DevOps into the equation.

Obstacles Telco Operators Must Maneuver

Large web-scale companies seized on DevOps as a way of delivering their software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings in an efficient and agile manner. DevOps Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) is well equipped for this because it hinges on constant feedback. It continuously feeds new verified software and associated artifacts to customers who accept, test, and then deploy in their own production environment. However, I believe the telco industry has unique requirements:

The first is strict network reliability, which ensures operators achieve the KPI commitments they make to their customers. This does not naturally match the highly adjustable and adaptable nature of DevOps.

Another roadblock lies with heterogeneous networks, which many operators possess, and is a stark contrast to the colossal, wholly-owned setups of IT/web-scale companies designed specifically for their SaaS offerings.

Lastly and most importantly, DevOps in the telco industry needs to successfully deliver software to diverse, unique customer environments, unlike a single-owned service of web-scale companies.

Cooperation & Collaboration

Balancing all these needs and requirements warrants a more concerted approach, such as combining a telco vendor’s DevOps environment with that of the operator. This comprises using an automated workflow that delivers software, documentation, test case and deployment components to the operator for continuous implementation and testing. In the same way, comments and requests can be fed back to the telco vendor to adapt and enhance the software.

This is a much more cooperative and unified way of working than the traditional operator/vendor relationship, which involves the operator passing development work to the vendor while the vendor extends its DevOps processes into the operator’s environment. This is a win-win scenario, where tasks can be shifted from the vendor to the operator or vice versa.

Give & Take

Close collaboration has its challenges between vendor and operator, but it is the way forward. The approach is not one-size-fits-all and could be adjusted to suit how far the operator has reached in adopting DevOps.

A collaborative relationship between operator and vendor can be mutually beneficial for both parties in rapidly achieving the benefits of DevOps. Delay is not a choice because, as we are aware, while there is an immediate need to react to the changed requirements accelerated by the current crisis, the 5G era of a services-driven network is also fast approaching. Ultimately, being ready for 5G success means being equipped to give and take with your telco vendors.

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