The disaggregated telco network: more flexibility, sovereignty and potential for the future

On 28-06-2024
Reading time : 5 minutes

With network operators always on the lookout for ways to reduce costs and drive greater return on investment (ROI), disaggregated network equipment is an increasingly attractive model. What is it, and what might it offer telcos? We share our experience testing this innovative approach with a telco-specific use case.

Disaggregated network equipment is a new network deployment approach that separates the hardware and software components of network infrastructure. Traditionally, with network equipment like routers or switches, the hardware and software, or network operating system, has been tightly integrated and typically sourced and acquired from a single vendor.

Why has it become an issue? Basic economics. From a simple financial perspective, network operators can have more value in sourcing network components from more cost-effective suppliers. That might mean, for example, potentially selecting commodity hardware (open switch) and combining it with open-source or proprietary software from a different provider. Moreover, much like the first generation of mobile phones, you have to wait for the next vendor upgrade each time you want to add a feature.

At Orange Wholesale, we decided to simply change the model and separate the hardware and the software. For some specific use cases, we have opted to develop our disaggregated product using open-source software according to our own needs and specifications and within our own timeframe. It’s a similar method to modern smartphones, where you can upgrade with open-source mobile operating systems.

We wanted to demonstrate to network operators that we can use an open-source network operating system or proprietary software to change a basic white box device into an access switch, Internet gateway, or a core router. The software also provides additional network management and security features that can be quickly and easily updated in the event of a shift in the security and sovereignty landscape, determined either by the operator or perhaps national government – and all without the need to replace any physical equipment in the network.

Disaggregated network equipment can give network operators more choice and more autonomy: think of it as à la carte versus a set menu. By selecting hardware from one vendor and software from another, operators can build a more modular and flexible network architecture that addresses their customers’ needs faster.

Some challenges to keep in mind

We are convinced that disaggregated network equipment offers greater flexibility and cost benefits. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware that the approach comes with some challenges and hurdles. Fortunately, our example proves that it is a viable way forward.

1. Choice of equipment and software

The vendor ecosystem remains relatively limited because it is still early days for disaggregated network equipment as a model. It’s certainly less mature than traditional network equipment vendor landscapes. In some cases, the required open-source software may not yet exist in the market and will require specific developments. This is especially true for telecom network features that need to meet carrier-grade quality of service.

2. The quality imperative

Telecom operators are required to meet extremely high levels of quality of service (QoS), in terms of availability, redundancy and security. Indeed, carrier-grade systems are tested and engineered to meet or exceed the “five nines” availability standards, or 99.999% availability, and provide very fast fault recovery through redundancy (typically less than 50 milliseconds). Open-source software may not have this carrier-grade requirement built-in, and so will require customization to meet necessary standards.

3. Interoperability

At a fundamental level, integrating hardware and software from different vendors can be complex and time-consuming. It takes careful coordination and strict compatibility testing to ensure seamless operations. And because the hardware and software components are from different vendors, there can also be interoperability challenges. In our own proof of concept, we’ve used open-source software to reduce this risk.

4. More sourcing and contract management

There can be procurement challenges as well. Integrating disaggregated network equipment means working with multiple vendors, negotiating multiple separate contracts and managing different service-level agreements (SLAs).

5. More complex operations

There’s also the issue of greater responsibility on the part of the network operator. With disaggregated network equipment, operators are more responsible for integration, testing, and ongoing management, which can require additional expertise and resources. The same applies to support and maintenance - with more vendors in the network mix, troubleshooting, and issue resolution become complex, with more parties to coordinate and work with.

“Our example demonstrates that overcoming these challenges and implementing a successful and viable disaggregated equipment solution using an open-source network operating system is possible” - Jamil Chawki, Networks Products Development Director, Orange Wholesale

But there are considerable benefits to be had

1. Less vendor lock-in

Lower vendor lock-in is a big incentive: operators regain sovereignty and autonomy by having a choice of the best hardware and network operating system software for specific needs from a vendor-agnostic ecosystem. By not being locked into a single vendor, operators can choose components like switches, routers, and transceivers based on performance and price. It can also mean lower initial purchase costs since standard basic hardware can be combined with open-source software.

2. Faster time-to-market

Sourcing components from multiple vendors can help remove single-vendor supply chain bottlenecks and enable operators to have a faster time-to-market. The ability to choose best-in-class components and software can also give better performance and fewer system failures because the network is more robust and resilient. Repairs can be faster, and operators can enable cheaper sparing with a mix-and-match inventory of spare parts comprised of agnostic components. Product lifecycles can become more independent since operators are not locked into one single vendor.

3. Enabling new, advanced applications

Because disaggregation has already extended beyond the mobile network and into the core and the edge, it offers a potential future in which the network can comprise advanced components like open routers, software-defined switches and white-box hardware, all working together seamlessly. This would lay a path for supporting telemetry for the massive data volumes and high speeds required to support the exponential growth of AIOps applications, for example, since much more processing power will be required at the edge. There are a lot of potential upsides to disaggregated network equipment.

4. Upskilling and talent attraction/retention

A perhaps unexpected benefit of this innovative approach is the positive impact it can have on existing employees. Engineers are no longer tasked with simply writing up specifications, they instead become active players in the definition and development of new components. This can be a very attractive proposition for retaining and attracting talented workers.

Orange is already successfully pioneering this new approach

In 2023, Orange announced a partnership with Edgecore Networks to deliver a disaggregated Layer 2 access network for Orange enterprise customers. It’s a project that we expect to deliver over 20% TCO savings over five years, both in terms of CAPEX and OPEX.

It also makes Orange the first operator to launch an open switch for a specific telco use case, which gives fiber access to enterprises. The Orange Disaggregated Open Switch, or “ODOS” initiative, is already delivering benefits in the market.

The move aligns with Orange’s strategy to transform our network to a fully softwarized network using software-defined and automated architecture, and we are confident it will deliver benefits moving forward. Disaggregated network equipment offers the chance to break down the traditional monolithic architecture of network functions into smaller, modular components that give service providers greater agility and savings while retaining the same overall network functionality. Watch this space.

If you think disaggregated network equipment could be useful for your network infrastructure, please contact us to discuss further.

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