Fitness trackers that measure your heart rate, map applications that know where you are – and calculate the best route to where you’re going, sensors that monitor diagnostics on jet engines 30,000 feet in the sky; ride-hailing apps that send a vehicle to you when summoned.
Many of us are familiar with the above services, why they’re useful and can probably even name the companies that have made them famous.
The dawn of the smartphone and the proliferation of quick LTE wireless networks paved the way for mobile applications over the last several years that are ready and able to serve right from one’s pocket.
As the “old” saying goes, there’s an app for that.
But beyond the application, what if you never even had to launch it?
And better yet, what if apps could seamlessly and automatically talk to each other in the background to create entirely new immersive services – and value – in our lives?
Take, for instance, something as simple as dinner.
In the near future, each day your family’s fitness and biometric monitoring service combines with your medical, food analysis, refrigerator inventory and food supply to order your groceries – all according to your family’s preferences, fitness goals, allergies and medical restrictions.
It will put recommended recipes on the kitchen screen when the service determines you are in the mood to cook.
Otherwise, it will order your restaurant meal for eat-in or delivery according to your habits.
Service providers currently own the ubiquitous networks that the relatively simple applications like Uber, Fitbit and Netflix, for instance, ride on.
But a world of all-encompassing “mega services,” like the dinner example above, provides an opportunity for telecommunications companies to evolve their networks to be the key players in that future.
Are service providers ready?
Let’s shift that dinner example and look at vacation travel.
People can spend weeks planning a short vacation to Europe. Currency conversion, mobile data plan settings, plotting out historical sites to visit, booking flights and trains around Europe along with hotels, just to name a few of the activities that currently require manual human intervention.
But what if you could simply push magic “I’m traveling” button and all the aforementioned activities self-assembled in the background to plan and execute it all for you?
To be useful, a service like that will need to be instantaneous, with access to large amounts of knowledge, including incorporating all of the sensor data around them.
Moving so much information quickly and securely to and within the cloud network will be critical, and the key competitive differentiator in this new era.
After all, every part of a so-called mega service will at some point traverse a part of the network.
Given the vast existing infrastructure that service provider networks already encapsulate, they’re in a prime position to capitalize on this movement.
But the service provider networks must evolve in several areas to truly be successful.
Applications in a mega service will need to span across disparate networks and interoperate.
Security holes need to be a thing of the past.
Network latency, which is tolerable for loading Instagram feeds, is simply unacceptable when you start talking about self-driving cars or medical programs playing a role in one of these services.
And don’t forget the sheer operational complexity of enabling this new reality, which dictates the requirement of network automation.
The network must evolve
Historically, service providers have built carrier-grade networks to support the scale and robustness of new offerings.
Yet, there are plenty of upstart companies and application providers out there ready and willing to eat their lunch and blow by them in terms of digital transformation.
If service providers are going to excel and capitalize on this movement to break the shackles of commoditization and be consumers’ go-to mega-service providers, they must understand and embrace key network concepts that will shape their future strategies.
- Upgrade the edge. Bandwidth upgrades notwithstanding, applications that play a key role in any given mega service that requires constant tuning – like self-driving cars – cannot wait for best-effort traffic across the Internet so they can leverage a distant cloud resource. Rather, the cloud has to exist at the edge. This means the edge becomes more than just a transport entry point. It will become a cloud surface. Moreover, the edge is no longer limited to devices sitting at the end of a fiber run on a street or at the base of a cell tower. When we get to IoT, for instance, the edge could be an IoT gateway sitting on a tractor or in an ambulance or deployed at some forward base in a disaster zone. Mega services need zero latency – hence, an access network with converged compute and storage performance done on-premise versus a distant data center.
- Evolve from simple infrastructure. Look, it’s not easy to dig trenches, lay network pipes and connect it all together. Several application/software providers have tried – and stalled – in the past to create their own networks. Service providers already have beachfront property when it comes to enabling mega services with decentralized data centers and pipes in the ground. But while infrastructure is hard, it’s also table stakes. Operators must align their infrastructures to provide efficient, seamless connectivity and infrastructure on-demand that will make it easy to adopt and integrate mega services that leverage next-gen technology like augmented reality, blockchain and IoT.
- Create mega services: Service providers in this category will be assembling and driving new mega services themselves versus relying entirely on third-party developers. That will be important as well (look at what happened when Apple opened its applications to developers) but the SP should look to play a key role in managing mega services. As such, this will require a big shift in service providers adopting new development methods like DevOps that present containers, micro services and Kubernetes to manage the disparate – yet agile – network of application development.
- Protect customers: Mega services are meant to be immersive and, therefore, they have tentacles into so much more information about end users than before: financial information, immediate location, medical/health records, driving habits. This is not stuff you want in a vulnerable spot. As such, are we going to distribute the security burden to thousands of device makers looking to keep their cost of goods down? Or must we take a more pragmatic approach and create logical enforcement points that we can leverage in the case that someone either doesn’t secure their sensor or the bad guys manage to get past whatever precautions have been taken? It’s critical that service providers ensure automated, cloud-delivered security in every part of the network from devices themselves to the access layer all the way back to the core. Ultimately, success in mega services is linchpinned on trust and, as we’ve seen in recent years, security breaches compromise trust like nothing else.
Flourishing with mega services
As we move toward predictive and intuitive cloud-grade services that instantly adapt to user behaviors, network agility will remain a fundamental part of a service providers’ value proposition.
Nevertheless, if service providers are going to use the lifeblood of their business – a.k.a. the network – to break the curse of commoditization, they must rethink the way the network enables these shifts.
And as this new era dawns, service providers must ask themselves what role they really want to play and how to get there.
The service providers that will thrive going forward will be those that can keep traffic flowing but also pave the road to comprehensive new mega services, not just the nuts and bolts of the technology.
David Noguer Bau is head of service provider marketing at Juniper Networks.