Living in a hybrid world: The challenges of integrating legacy architectures with virtualised networks

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Communications Service Providers (CSPs) today are being presented with several opportunities to accelerate their digitalisation journeys. However, as the progress behind network virtualisation continues to gather momentum, operators and CSPs are quickly realising that there are several challenges along the way.

Generally, these challenges are either technical, operational or organisational in nature. For example, the technology itself is still in its relative infancy, with many CSPs therefore finding the implementation process more complicated than they initially expected.

The operational complexity also can’t be overestimated, while organisational issues such as outdated company cultures and an industry-wide skills shortage are holding businesses back.

The combination of these factors has hindered deployments in the telecoms industry, where virtualisation has so far failed to live up to its early promise. Clearly there are still plenty of barriers that need to be overcome for the future of networks to be realised.

But arguably one of the biggest issues – and one that will only rise in prominence as deployments continue – is figuring out how to work with a hybrid of physical and virtual networks.

Stuck in the middle

As previously outlined, the journey towards the virtualisation promised land is both long and complex. As such, CSPs have quickly realised that they can’t make the jump in one go. Instead, many are opting to take a phased approach, continuing to operate and maintain existing physical networks in parallel with the new virtualised infrastructure.

A key point to remember is that there may be some network functions, such as those that are particularly niche or nearing end-of-life, that will never be migrated. Hence, the hybrid world could end up lasting a long time for many businesses.

This need for integration presents significant technical and operational challenges when it comes to efficiently managing and maintaining the different networks, adding an additional layer of complexity for CSPs to consider. Indeed, managing across a hybrid environment was identified as a main cause of bottlenecks by 65 per cent of respondents to a recent study that questioned decision-makers from telecoms vendors, system integrators and CPS, highlighting just how prevalent the issue has become.

The study also found that coping with the coexistence of virtual and legacy domains ranked as the second-most concerning aspect of network virtualisation, coming in just behind the reliability and stability of SDN and NFV technology.

So, what exactly is causing all the trouble? Essentially, figuring out how to work in this transition period where NFV and SDN technologies are being deployed, but existing systems are still essential for business continuity, is proving to be easier said than done.

It is particularly an issue for running operations support systems (OSS) and business support systems (BSS), as well as for managing different approaches to security. Legacy systems are often run in silos, with traditional architectures not geared towards meeting the rapid pace of change occurring in the wider market.

The inability of legacy networks to provide end-to-end visibility into their performance – especially when coupled with virtualised networks - is also proving to be a barrier to success. This lack of visibility results in service assurance black spots, making it harder to identify and resolve any issues that may emerge.

What’s more, these technical and operational complications are being compounded by an industry-wide resource gap. There is a serious lack of people with the right skills and understanding of how to operate in the virtual environment.

Clearly, businesses quickly need to find a way of updating legacy processes and systems to cope with NFV/SDN without slowing down or compromising virtualisation deployments. If they don’t, they risk being overtaken by their competitors in what is becoming an increasingly competitive market.

Living in harmony

Despite the challenges, there are some practical things operators and CSPs can do to make their lives easier and help them cope with this hybrid world.

The first thing to do is to find and assemble an ecosystem of partners with the right level of experience for your organisation’s specific needs. CSPs can no longer rely on vendors providing turn-key solutions like they did in the past. Instead, they have to be prepared to lead their own network transformation projects and acquiring the necessary skills and resources is essential for long-term success.

Next, ensure you have a robust plan for the back office. CSPs need to assume that they will be in a hybrid environment for several years and operating virtual and physical networks in parallel will throw up new challenges on a regular basis.

For example, OSS and BSS systems still play core roles, but will need to be modernised in order to align with new technologies and meet growing capacity demands. CSPs must have a plan for adapting these legacy architectures to keep pace with NFV and SDN innovations and keep the business running smoothly.

And finally, start small. Not everything needs to change in one go and the truth of the matter is that most CSPs simply won’t be able to do so. A more effective option is to start by running a few VNFs alongside the legacy environment and gradually migrate to more VNFs over time.

With virtualisation deployments across the telecoms industry still at a relatively early stage, the hybrid challenge is one that will continue to rear its head for many years. In fact, for many businesses it will probably never disappear completely.

But, through thorough preparation and by supplementing existing skills with external expertise, CSPs will find ways to navigate these issues and enjoy all the business benefits that this next era of communications has to offer.

Massimo Fatato, Managing Partner, Cartesian
Image source: Shutterstock/Toria