Ram Ramanathan of Ribbon Communications discusses the growth of telco cloud

Feb. 26, 2024
The senior director of product management explains the factors driving cloud native adoption.

Ram Ramanathan, senior director of product management at Ribbon Communications, manages products and solutions that deal with the core parts of the network: IMS session border controller, policy and routing engines, network management, robocall mitigation, analytics, and automation. He describes telco cloud as a combination of virtual network functions and cloud network functions.

“With virtual networks,” he says, “you take an application, and you virtualize it, but still you put it on a box or a server—that’s the first step towards telco cloud. Cloud native, on the other hand, is breaking up your application into multiple pieces, like micro-services, so that each piece can grow or shrink independently of the others. In the virtual network function, you grow or shrink the entire application; in cloud native, you have pieces that can grow and shrink, and there are advantages to that.”

Ramanathan reports that the growth of virtual network functions started in about 2015 and is now beginning to slow.

“As we look forward,” he says, “we are seeing virtual network function growth flatline and then drop over the next 3-5 years, and the cloud native functions are taking over. And we’ve seen in the past six to eight months lots of RFPs, lots of customer engagements on the cloud native architectures.”

And these are not just the small players, Ramanathan notes, but Tier 1 carriers.

“It’s not easy to change the direction of a Tier 1 carrier,” he says, “so if it’s happening, there’s something to it.”

Growth of cloud native

A 2023 report from Allied Market Research predicts the global cloud market will grow to $2.5 trillion by 2031, up from $551.8 billion in 2021. Ramanathan foresees cloud native deployments happening on a large scale in the next 12 to 24 months, with an increased ramp-up in 24 to 48 months as a large group of carriers starts to follow the early adopters.

As for what motivates carriers to go cloud native, Ramanathan notes four driving factors:

Automation

“One factor is the carriers want to keep their existing networks going without falling apart. These are complex networks that need very skilled resources, and what we see in the market, both in the United States and the rest of the world, is the skilled resources are retiring or are about to retire, and not as many new resources are coming into this area in telecom, they may be going into A.I. or whatever the new age applications are instead. We see a reduction in the capabilities of these resources, so carriers want to go towards more and more automation—not to replace humans as much—but to automate the routine tasks so you don’t need as many skilled people. Automation is something these carriers are thinking about because of a lack of resources.”

Competing with cloud hyperscalers

“The second thing is that the public cloud players like Amazon or Azure have been doing cloud native operations forever, so they have a leg up on the traditional carriers or enterprises. It’s kind of a coopetition—the carriers need the public cloud to run their applications in some cases, but they’re also competing with the public cloud. So, these hyperscalers have figured it out: they’re more agile, but how do the regular carriers match up to their speed and architecture—that’s another factor driving growth toward telco cloud and cloud native functions.”

5G and IoT

“5G is kind of exploding at this point. It’s going to be much faster data, but, more importantly, there are going to be other devices connected to the network, like IoT devices; this could be healthcare sensors at home sending patient information to the doctor or sensors in industrial applications like trains and automotive. There are a lot of these devices connected, and this messaging has to be in real-time and quick—it can’t be delayed like an email. So, we see IoT and 5G kind of driving that agile mindset and cloud native functions.”

Regulations

“The last aspect is geopolitical regulatory mandates. Most countries have set carbon footprint reductions at a national level, and in some countries, the biggest carrier of the country is in the top ten users of electricity. So now the race is to find an architecture, like the cloud native architecture, to reduce the carbon footprint and get the same functionality at the lowest OpEx possible.”

Making the transition

Moving to cloud native is an incremental process, Ramanathan notes, and few carriers are doing complete overhauls.

“Most of the carriers,” he says, “are looking at capping the investment on the physical and virtual network elements. And then, if there’s a new service or a new part of the network, they want to grow it with cloud native, and once they do that, they can bring along the physical and virtual networks or services to cloud native over time.”

Ramanathan sees a lack of company cohesion as a frequent barrier in the move to cloud native.

“When you talk to one layer of management at a customer’s place, they get it,” he says. “But I feel like this must be a mindset for the company; it can’t be one group doing it. It must come from the top down, with the CEO saying, ‘This is where we’re going.’”

This alignment, Ramanathan believes, is instrumental because of the challenges that arise when making the move to cloud native.

“It’s got to be done in phases; it can’t be done overnight,” he says. “So that expectation, belief, and trust must be there within the organization. That’s key for this evolution because eventually, at the end of the tunnel, there will be great stuff: lower total cost of ownership (TCO), OpEx, CapEx, and an agile network that is able to deliver new services with faster time to revenue; but it’s a process, so everybody needs to buy in.”

Public cloud vs. private cloud

“There’s always that debate,” Ramanathan says, “between public and private cloud. ‘What is better? What do we do?’ I don’t think it’s a hard choice. In my view, public clouds give people reach because you can go into pretty much any country and get Amazon or Azure. If you want to try out a service in a new country, you don’t have to have your own data center; you just buy Amazon Compute or Azure, and then you go launch your service. And if the service is successful, you can then build your own data center in that country. But with private cloud, if you have the skill set to run your networks, if that is your core competency, then you can run your private networks in the countries where you’re a major player and in other countries where you want to experiment, you can use the public cloud. So, it can be a mix-and-match between public and private; there are no real competing goals here.”

Ultimately, Ramanathan reports, the best solution usually depends on the carrier.

“From Ribbon, as a vendor perspective, we want to be completely agnostic,” he says. “We want to let customers choose their own platforms and clouds so that they can be successful. We don’t try to dictate what they want. We’ll obviously say that our application behaves this way in this cloud and that way in that cloud—we want to be transparent—but we don’t want to drive the decision-making because there are other business fundamentals that they’re thinking about.”

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