Nov 30

Can Transition From Hardware to Software Lower Telecom’s Costs and Carbon Footprint?

Theo Normanton
Oct 25, 2022
Image: Jordan Harrison via Unsplash.

Successive innovations have transformed telecoms networking beyond recognition since the analogue days of modems plugged into phone sockets (remember those?). The transition from hardware-based to virtual networking is currently transforming the industry further – and there are big potential benefits for business and the environment.

According to Cologne-based blogger and expert Martin Sauter, telecoms have gone through three eras of evolution. The first was in the early 2000s, when routing was via proprietary hardware serving tens of thousands of subscribers, supported only by a specific manufacturer’s software. The second he describes as ‘the middle ages’. Only in the third era, over the last decade, have ethernet and the convergence of telecoms and IT over copper or fibre wire meant that services could be run entirely without proprietary hardware, through Network Function Virtualisation or NFV.

Virtual networking is the connection of machines and devices wherever they are located using software ‘switches’ rather than physical hardware. Multiple devices can be linked through software and maintained remotely.

A fourth era, or possibly 3.2, is arguably underway too: that of edge computing. Edge computing is a distributed information technology architecture in which client data is processed at the periphery of the network, as close to the originating source as possible. As a result, it is more secure, reduces latency and enables real-time application response.

According to a research study by The Insight Partners, the global edge computing market is expected to grow from $40.84 billion in 2022 to $132.11 billion by 2028, a CAGR of 21.6%. Gartner reports that around 10% of enterprise-generated data is created and processed outside a traditional centralised data centre or cloud. By 2025, Gartner predicts this figure will reach 75%.

In March, UK carrier Virgin Media announced a collaboration with a provider of multi-cloud services VMWare, to use VMWare’s Telco Cloud infrastructure to implement virtualised network functions and new services following deployment of its 5G network.

A deal announced last week (18 October) between the UK’s largest independent carrier-neutral full fibre platform CityFibre, and networking solutions provider BATM will see deployment of virtual networking solutions in a scaled national rollout.

CityFibre is replacing its hardware-based customer premise routing equipment with BATM’s virtualised Edgility solution. Edgility is a high-performance, low-footprint NFV operating system, which turns any whitebox, arm or intel architecture, into a fully operational far edge device.

 “Organisations are increasingly shifting from hardware-based to software-based solutions to enjoy the significant gains in efficiency as well as reducing their environmental impact,” said Dr Zvi Marom, CEO of BATM.

So, what are the benefits telecom providers – and their customers – can gain from the transition to software-based networking?

First, the environmental benefits are important for businesses keen to dust up their ESG credentials in the face of global Net Zero targets. There are several reasons why virtual networking produces a lower carbon footprint. Research by UK telecoms regulator Ofcom found non-virtualised infrastructure consumed more energy because it was incapable of moving the processing load into few machines during low load periods, whereas “…[NFV] paves the way for optimising the network resources from an energy efficiency perspective.” Another environmental benefit is that virtualisation means less transport emissions because people don’t need to physically go somewhere to install new services, test the line, fix problems etc – it can all be done remotely.

Physically, software-based networks use multipurpose, small footprint white box devices. The white box technology uses fewer materials, plastics and the like, and less energy as against the plethora of proprietary hardware – cabinets, wires, adaptors etc. – of the past. The new virtualisation equipment is multipurpose compared to routing equipment that worked for one specific carrier only. A virtualised network combined with a vendor-neutral architecture is particularly beneficial given today’s global supply chain challenges.

Virtual networking is already becoming big business. Research by Markets and found the NFV market size reached US$18.1bn in 2021. It is expected to climb to US$60.1bn by 2027. This is due, partly, to significant growth in industries requiring advanced network management and systems to handle growing traffic and data complexities – and partly to the advantages virtualisation offers such as scalability, agility, and integration to the Internet of Things.

For businesses, the benefits of virtual networking include capital cost-savings on hardware, reduced complexity, and greater efficiency and flexibility. And, as James Crawshaw of research and advisory group Omdia put succinctly in a recent post, “fewer boxes cluttering up the manager’s office”.

‘Fewer boxes’ also entails reduced costs and complications for companies against self-managing network hardware and software. Virtualisation means greater flexibility in network routing structure and configuration and scalability through, for example, automation and virtual upgrades.

As virtualisation gathers pace, partnerships, such as CityFibre/BATM, or Virgin/VMWare are likely to become an increasingly popular option for telecom providers. The subscription software-as-a-service (SaaS) model they espouse delivers access to what they need without having to buy outright (or maintain). Research by Analysys Mason for Nokia found adopting SaaS could achieve cost savings for some types of telecom providers of about 25% over five years compared to managing and maintaining their own infrastructure. Illustratively, CityFibre expects to achieve a significant carbon emissions reduction as well as a 60% lower total cost of ownership compared with existing solutions over a four-year period.

Theo Normanton

Theo Normanton covers tech, ESG and the circular economy, with a particular interest in the markets of Russia and the CIS.

Tweets at: @TheoNormanton

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