The pandemic inflated global Internet traffic by up to 60%, increasing demand for bandwidth and adding pressure on operators to continue to provide reliable, high-speed broadband.
This has challenged operators leading them to question the way they have deployed and operate their networks. While telco technology has remained stagnant for decades, we have now reached the precipice of a shift towards disaggregated, cloud-native networks – with industry bodies like the TIP Initiative leading the way.
The market is now seeing networking move towards a cloud compute approach, and away from the traditional monolithic legacy hardware that has dominated the sector since its inception. With this comes a demand for new skillsets. Just as the dot-com boom of the 2000s brought the rise of coding bootcamps and a push towards retraining employees for the new age, the cloud-native overhaul of the 2020s will lead a push towards new skillsets. These new “cloud native engineers” will have to embrace software-centric, cloud native and disaggregated networks, from the Radio Access Network (RAN) to the edge and 5G core. They need to be able to navigate the world of cloud with ease.
The challenge now is that there is a skills gap for both in-house and outsourced staff. There is already a shortage of technicians who can properly install fiber, power and radio equipment on telecommunications sites, let alone engineers with the expertise to accurately navigate the new cloud native environment.
Adapting to cloud native environments
In the telecom world, the term “cloud-native” is used to describe various functions within networks that have been developed as software from the outset. Of course, a cloud-native design like this brings many advantages, with independent microservices deployed and running in containers. If a new function or an update is required, a corresponding microservice is supplied by the software developer, which updates the respective feature within milliseconds without interrupting service. This way, route processing, updating, and restarting are 20 times faster than with conventional router operating systems. If open interfaces are also available, network operators can even develop and implement their own functions.
However, the implementation of a cloud-native environment must be done by engineers with new skills. Compared to legacy fixed networks and hardware, cloud-native engineers must understand how container-based architecture functions to allow microservices and APIs to work together in a loosely coupled approach for maximum flexibility and agility. They must also possess skills pertaining to the operation of routing software that turns bare-metal switches into IP/MPLS carrier routers, often in different areas of the network. For engineers, bridging the gap to the new cloud-native environment is not easy, but can be achieved through training and experience.
New ways of building cloud native expertise
Of course, traditional routers and dynamic control systems are challenged by new concepts such as disaggregation and distributed SDNs. These are promising faster implementation, automated control, and a shorter time to market. For future router designs to meet these challenges, new hardware and software must be developed, and modern software architectures introduced.
A cloud-native engineer must have software skills, such as: coding, testing, design, architecture, while also knowing how to adopt applications to leverage cloud platform services for maximum impact. The best way to build this knowledge base is through training and hands-on experience. Training typically includes learning about Docker and Kubernetes in production use cases, writing complex cookbooks from scratch, transforming existing applications to cloud-native oriented applications, and so on.
Unfortunately, most training is currently focused on the legacy engineer, deployed and tasked in the field to replace radio equipment or repair 5G stations. Not enough is being done to promote this new cloud-native path at the grassroots level – in universities or further education colleges.
Leading the charge in re-training the existing workforce
Most operators understand the case for a cloud-native approach, the improved flexibility in deployment, roll out of services to field and cost-savings are plain to see. However, they’re bogged down with thousands of operational staff that have been trained to solve yesterday’s problems.
To build talent, the first place an organization should look is within its own ranks. Some employees may balk at having to start over with a challenging skillset. But there are plenty of young, bright, hungry-to-learn engineers that would be eager to pick up new cloud-native skills, given the opportunity. This approach allows for a hybrid model of expertise that can be beneficial to operators, depending on the project being implemented.
Looking more broadly across Europe, investment in engineering skills is essential to giving these markets a competitive advantage. The best way to do this is to start young – in schools, universities, colleges and through apprenticeships – and provide practical, project-based education that allows engineers to develop both individually and operationally.
About the Author
Pravin S Bhandarkar is CEO at RtBrick. We build network solutions for the emerging Next Generation Central Office (NGCO) market. We have re-applied design patterns from the hyper-scale world to Service Provider and cloud networks in order to faster implement new features into operational networks. Our parallel modular architecture allows customers programmability, performance and scale to alter CAPEX and OPEX.
Featured image: ©Danai