5 things Service Providers should know for 2021
By Kwang Tat Ang and Grace Naces
The year 2020 is almost over, and one can only look back and wonder at how much things have changed across different industries. No one could have anticipated the impact of the pandemic on the daily livelihoods of people, and disruptions to businesses and governments.
The good news about vaccines has dominated the news recently. While there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for life to return to better days, cautious optimism is still the smarter way forward in 2021. To be better equipped for 2021, it is essential to look at the widespread changes over the year and how they will shape 2021.
So, what has dramatically changed in 2020 for Service Providers? And how should they position themselves to thrive in 2021 and beyond?
1. Unpredictable is the norm
Fresh from the kickoff meetings in early 2020, service providers found their scheduled multi-year projects shelved, or worse, dramatically fast-tracked to kickstart over a single weekend when COVID-19 started shutting down borders and cities all over the world. “We sorely needed it done yesterday” hit home, especially in areas like connectivity, network coverage, and network quality. Coupled with the unforeseen physical access restrictions during lockdowns and reduced available personnel for onsite operations, many of our customers faced significant challenges in ensuring the network services and resources meet the sudden surge in customer demands.
For example, there was a drastic shift of human and bandwidth traffic from central business districts to the suburbs. Suddenly, everyone started requiring good video conferencing experience within their homes. The bigger pipes that service providers have allocated for business districts suddenly became less utilized while consumer lines in residential areas got congested. This drastic change led service providers to scramble their network resources. Besides network bandwidth, resources like IP addresses and “Enterprise grade-like” network security and resilience that was never justified in a home network environment became essential.
ANTlabs Tru’Auth AAA and Tru’IP DDI have helped service providers weather the unpredictability of usage patterns in 2020. Telcos and ISPs that had to address a surge of demand in bandwidth were able to do so quickly—even with workforce and location limitations. Our professional services team has always helped our customers size our AAA, DHCP, and DNS solutions’ capacity with enough room to grow. Our flexible software licensing allows service providers to manage temporary surges in usage in times like this, avoiding any major disruptions. The software features built into our solutions also mean that changing business and process logic on-the-fly enables our service provider customers to adapt to new norms quickly. Centralized monitoring and control facilitate remote operations and continuous monitoring for alerts and pre-emptive service recovery even before issues affect the end-users.
2. Hyperconnectivity! Hyperconnectivity! Hyperconnectivity!
With nowhere else to go during the 2020 lockdowns, people turned to the Internet to do practically everything from work to shopping to online learning in the same location. Online shopping and e-learning are not new; they have been around for years, but the pandemic abruptly forced these things upon us. Suddenly, more connections pop up at home and are always connected and actively used—person-to-person, person-to-machine, and machine-to-machine network communications. The constant need to be connected to a plethora of user devices and software applications running continuously within a small network is hyperconnectivity many times over.
Hotels that previously installed WiFi and networks catering for business travel are also experiencing high bandwidth streaming traffic for work, learning, and entertainment like never before. This rise in activity happened as they accommodate returning citizens or essential travellers under quarantine. In the past, peak hour usage happens in the evenings till late at night, when the business traveler returns from work, and their usage were mainly for email and internet surfing. These days, the network is bursting at the seams from demanding guests who are confined to their rooms and constantly accessing the Internet.
For hotels deploying ANTlabs gateways, the Advanced QoS feature is a godsend because it allows the IT manager to set multi-tier, multi-layer QoS controls and shift under-utilized bandwidth tiers to busier ones. They can even control the number of concurrent devices from the same room if they wanted or implement bandwidth control based on a single user account so that multiple devices can share the same bandwidth allocated to the user account. Our PAN (Personal Area Network) feature also allows the guests to create a small private network in their rooms, where their devices can communicate with each other to share content and communicate securely.
Hospitality operators with multiple properties can use the ANTlabs Service Platform (ASP) to deploy licenses and software modules centrally across different properties so that they can save costs and enable additional capacity and features from the click of a button. With a centralized dashboard, the administrators can also monitor and manage multiple properties without requiring staff to go onsite unless necessary—a perfect fit in a world of closed borders and local movement restrictions.
3. Like eating out, “quality” standards are no longer the same
As work from home is still the default arrangement in many countries and the full return to the office is not yet allowed, there has been a blurring of lines regarding quality expectations from corporate to consumer customers. Traditionally, there are high SLA expectations in corporate networks, so service providers’ charging metrics are based on the number of users over the years. The Telco or service provider will find this a challenge because the usage has dropped within the office, but the quality expectations have not when users migrate to residential areas. The consumers working from home have the same expectations of quality standards, but Telcos and service providers do not have the same SLA charging criteria or mechanisms as corporate users.
Within the homes, Telcos and service providers find themselves in a demanding environment where they traditionally cannot charge for premium and yet now, are still needed to deliver a high SLA of service quality. To serve this kind of environment and expectations, changes in metrics will continue to occur as the situation evolves.
ANTlabs experienced this first-hand when we consulted for one customer who has a predominantly large pool of consumer lines compared to corporate lines. Suddenly, they had a few million “new” subscribers in the home broadband network that was built and provisioned with a lower service level than those who subscribed to a corporate package. Yet, they expect the same quality as a corporate network. Further, the service provider is under tremendous pressure due to government and regulatory boards watching closely as every and any form of an outage gets blasted onto social media platforms.
Automation & Telemetry
ANTlabs Carrier Solutions deploys automation and telemetry technologies to address these pressing quality expectations issues. To help Telcos and service providers who wish to deliver quality real-time, we use machine learning and trend analysis, coupled with telemetry systems, to audit what is necessary for them intelligently. Each network has its unique quirks, and therefore the use of machine learning techniques and modeling allows ANTlabs to customize the final solution to each service provider’s requirements. Once the KPI to telemetry condition is determined (e.g., trend analysis reveals a parameter has reached 80% threshold), it will trigger the automated systems to execute a pre-orchestrated playbook of instructions. However, it may still require a certain level of human expert intervention to effectively finetune what needs to be done. Using machine learning and automation can help service providers scale their businesses rapidly while maintaining the expected quality standards that consumers demand, even if their team is small.
To illustrate a recent success: a real-life example would be a service provider who used ANTlabs’ solution to scale within a short timeframe. Their lean team managed to work within COVID-19 restrictions even with limited operational personnel, and was quickly deployed and able to handle millions of subscribers 24 by 7.
4. IPV6 and NFV: Warp speed. Engage!
We observe that for some Telcos and service providers, the commercial justification for IPV6, NFV infrastructure, automation, and telemetry investments are previously business case paper theoretical benefits. Sometimes the adoption gets a nudge to proceed with technology refresh. For example, a customer may tell us that: “Well, my systems are old, and since I am doing a technology refresh, I probably should look for something in the future that can maintain relevance…” Or sometimes, we hear them going through the motion as part of government regulatory compliance. For instance, some government regulations dictate that the service provider must be IPV6 ready for security compliance purposes.
Quickly resolve sudden shifts in traffic usage
Before COVID-19, such compliance or technology refresh used to be the motivators for change. COVID-19 presented a new compelling and urgent case; you need to resolve the existing problems of sudden shifts in traffic usage and network services migration. Instead of doing compliance business case justification, suddenly one realizes that existing technology that has been pitched for years could address these pressing issues. It is then clear that many planned megaprojects can proceed at a much faster pace, where before, it was supposed to take a year or two to complete. These projects have been put into warp speed and pushed to completion in a 3-month cycle.
5. Not just virtualization; but “Hybrid Virtualization”
Virtualization has been an ongoing trend for the past decade as Telcos and service providers look towards network virtualization for operational effectiveness and cost savings. For ANTlabs we offer our networking solutions in appliance, virtualized, and NFV (Network Function Virtualization) formats. But we do not believe in virtualization for the sake of virtualization. It is rather simplistic to decouple software and deploy in off-the-shelf hardware and declare short term cost savings. In some networks where our solutions are deployed, we consider an end-to-end network environment and recommend the best solution for a particular network deployment scenario. There is no single solution where everything must be virtualized or appliance-based; not everything should be virtualized or be in the Cloud. In practice, a hybrid approach will allow the service provider to optimize and reap the different benefits offered.
“…we do not believe in virtualization for the sake of virtualization”
Take this scenario: We are consulting for customers who deploy and manage IT networks in different small and large venues. We proposed to simplify the hardware deployed at the venue location to reduce management complexity. The logic and complexity are abstracted and moved to the core network. Simultaneously, the hardware has the necessary API interface to automate specific tasks and allow for centralized management and control while retaining enough edge computing capability. This allows the system to be flexible and adapt to new enhancements and push new micro-services to the edge (i.e., the venue). The hardware has simplicity and the capability to roll out many services.
For the core network, we also distinguish between satellite data centers versus the HQ data centers. Appliances may still be deployed at the satellite data center, which does not have the economies of scale yet to justify the cost of setting up a fully virtualized environment or overcome certain overheads. While at the HQ level, the data centers deploy full virtualized, or NFV to exploit the flexibility and capability offered by the suite of virtualized solutions offered by ANTlabs.
In line with this hybrid approach, ANTlabs is also sensitive to our customers’ needs; thus, our business model allows our customers to better justify the ROI and cost overheads. In terms of the core network, we will enable them to position the investment as platform-based, with on-demand software and licensing charging models that are more in line with the utility charging model suitable for such deployment. Instead of a pure project-based turnkey charging model, a hybrid approach of combining turnkey for the platform and enabling network capability with subscription-based charging on software and licenses allow our customers to benefit from the best of breed flexibility.
One of the silver linings of COVID-19 is that hybrid virtualization has materialized into concrete initiatives that positively impact the strategic survival and competitiveness of our Telcos and service provider customers.
2021 and Beyond: A New Hope
No one could have predicted that 2020 would bring such tumultuous changes to the world. There is probably no better example to illustrate the saying: “Hindsight is 20-20” (pun intended).
ANTlabs saw significant tectonic shifts in the network businesses of our Telcos and service provider customers. Connectivity blind spots, hyperconnectivity, and paradigm shifts in network quality and consumer expectations have posed great challenges to them. Yet within the many crises, ANTlabs saw opportunities to help and work with our customers to jumpstart their technology transformation journey and kickstart the adoption of new technology solutions. These solutions helped them become more effective and overcome workforce constraints and productivity limitations imposed by sudden lockdowns. It is also exciting for us at ANTlabs that we took up these challenges and applied our R&D and innovation development at warp speed as we try to keep up with the tumultuous changes.
As we all witness some traditional businesses who failed to evolve quickly fall, we also saw the new online and technology behemoths further cementing their place in the business world with their technological edge. We are proud to be part of the solutions that help our customers morph into a new era of network businesses and operations. Just as medical science leads us out of the darkness of this COVID-19 pandemic, we at ANTlabs hope that our technology solutions will help provide a better future for all our customers in 2021 and beyond. And for once, this parting sentence feels deeply heartfelt: Live long, and prosper!🖖