By Steve Upton, senior VP of networks and operations consulting at Cartesian
As the demands facing network operators and communication service providers have increased, network virtualization has garnered plenty of interest and excitement as the future for the communications sector.
Software-defined networks (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) are seen as central to tackling a range of issues, offering benefits such as increased network agility, shorter time to market and the creation of new services and revenue streams.
However, despite these promises, deployment has been hampered by internal roadblocks that are preventing significant progress from being made.
Challenges have proven to be more difficult to overcome than many in the industry expected, and factors such as technical immaturity and operational concerns mean there is still a long way to go before critical network functions start to become fully virtualized.
But the key barriers to progress are largely human in nature, consisting of an industry-wide skills shortage and outdated organizations and company cultures that are geared towards legacy technologies.
Hunting for talent
Operators and communication service providers are finding that there are not enough people with the relevant skills and practical experience both in-house and entering the industry, resulting in a growing skills gap.
Virtualisation and cloud network functions require new skills which are currently in short supply. This is holding businesses back on their transformation journeys, as the technical intricacies of managing the technology cannot be effectively addressed.
A lack of internal expertise is augmented by recruitment woes. Traditional operators are facing increasingly stiff competition for new talent, with graduates more attracted to high-profile tech companies such as Google and Amazon.
So, what can businesses do to counter these issues? In the short term, communication service providers are turning to vendors, consultancy firms and managed service providers for external advice and support. This support has proven invaluable for those organisations currently struggling to get their NFV and SDN projects off the ground.
Long term, operators highlight the need to retrain their current workforces by equipping existing employees with the technical skills needed to operate in a virtualized network environment, with a special focus being given to in-house system admin and software development skills.
Operators will have to find ways of incentivising staff to develop their skillsets, something which many are already doing. However, the bigger task is not only revamping recruitment processes to target people familiar with cloud technologies, but elevating the image of carrier service providers to attract the top talent.
As well as a shortage of talent, progress is also being hampered by embedded cultures and mindsets that have been slow to adapt to technological change.
For example, virtualisation means that many operators need to change their organizational structure and bring business units closer together, such as IT and networks, as well as engineering and operations, to be able to maintain existing physical networks alongside new virtualised infrastructure.
However, this is easier said than done. Often, existing knowledge of cloud platforms sits within a communication service provider’s IT team. Network departments in many service providers have been unwilling to hand control over to IT teams, putting the trust factor at the heart of an internal cultural struggle.
Furthermore, during the transition from vertical silos to horizontal functions, there can be a lack of accountability and responsibility across departments. Many businesses are still lacking a clear structure to define these concepts, resulting in traditional separations between areas of responsibility becoming temporarily blurred.
But it’s something that needs to happen if the benefits of NFV and SDN are to be realised. Virtualisation requires a multi-disciplinary approach and different departments need to be able to work together to achieve their organization’s strategic aims.
Operators are starting to realise that, when it comes to NFV and SDN adoption, the importance of having the right internal culture shouldn’t be underestimated and is central to leveraging the opportunities offered by network virtualisation.
The future is bright
These skills and culture challenges may be slowing down deployment, but virtualization is undoubtedly the future. The key for communication service providers is to strike the right balance between a technology and people focus when managing the change.
People with the right skills, who are able to adapt and work together – indeed, even more closely together than before – are essential to the technology’s future success and achieving its vast promise.
Investment in people could be the difference between those operators that lead the way in the future of networks and those that find themselves overtaken by their competitors.