How to expand the cloud-native technology workforce
The telecom market is in a state of flux. The ongoing pandemic has inflated global Internet traffic by up to 60%, increasing demand for bandwidth and adding more pressure on operators to continue to provide reliable, high-speed broadband connectivity. This has challenged operators’ future-ready and efficient network infrastructure perspectives, leading them to question the way they have deployed and operate their networks. While telco technology has remained stagnant for decades, we have now reached the precipice of a shift towards disaggregated, cloud-native networks – with industry bodies like the TIP Initiative leading the way.
The market is now seeing a move towards a cloud compute approach, and away from the traditional monolithic legacy hardware that has dominated the sector since its inception. With this comes a demand for new skillsets. Just as the dot-com boom of the 2000s brought the rise of coding bootcamps and a push towards retraining employees for the new age, the cloud-native overhaul of the 2020s will lead a push towards new skillsets within the industry. These new “cloud native engineers” will have to embrace software-centric, cloud native and disaggregated networks, from the Radio Access Network (RAN) to the edge and 5G core. They need to able to understand and navigate the world of cloud with ease and take an application from a repository through a continuous integration and delivery pipeline, and into a new operational environment.
The challenge now is that there is a skills gap for both in-house and outsourced staff. There is already a shortage of technicians who can properly install fibre, power and radio equipment on telecommunications sites, let alone engineers with the expertise to accurately navigate the new cloud native environment. So, how can we expand the next cloud native technology workforce?
Adapting to cloud native environments
In the telecom world, the term “cloud native” is used to describe various functions within networks that have been developed as software from the outset and run on independent hardware. Of course, a cloud native design like this brings many advantages, with independent microservices deployed and running in containers. If a new function or an update is required, a corresponding microservice is supplied by the software developer, which updates or adds the respective feature within milliseconds without interrupting the service. This way, route processing, updating, and restarting are 20 times faster than with conventional router operating systems. If open interfaces are also available, network operators can even develop and implement their own functions.
However, the implementation of a cloud native environment – as well as the code and processes that sit on top of regulating functions and management – must be done by engineers with new skills. Compared to older legacy fixed networks and hardware, cloud native engineers must understand how container architecture functions to allow microservices and APIs to work together in a loosely coupled approach for maximum flexibility and development agility. They must also possess skills pertaining to the operation of routing software that turns bare-metal switches into IP/MPLS carrier routers, often in different areas of the network, such as broadband access, edge or core. For engineers, bridging the gap to the new cloud native environment is not easy, but can be achieved through training and experience.
New ways of building cloud native expertise
Of course, traditional routers and dynamic control systems are challenged by new concepts such as disaggregation and distributed SDNs. They are promising significantly faster implementation, automated control, and a shorter time to market. For future router designs to meet these challenges, fundamentally new router hardware and software must be developed, and modern software architectures and paradigms introduced.
A cloud native engineer must have software skills, such as coding, testing, design, architecture, etc., whilst also knowing how to adopt applications to leverage cloud platform services for maximum impact. The best way to build this wide knowledge base is through training programs and hands-on experience. Training typically includes learning about Docker and Kubernetes in production use cases, writing complex cookbooks from scratch, transforming existing applications to cloud native oriented applications etc. Unfortunately, most training is currently focused on the legacy engineer, deployed and tasked in the field to replace radio equipment or repair newer 5G stations. Not enough is being done to promote this new cloud native path at the grassroots level – in universities or further education colleges.
Leading the charge in re-training the existing workforce for the cloud native future
Most operators understand the case for a cloud native approach, since the improved flexibility in deployment, roll out of services to field and cost-savings are plain to see. However, they’re bogged down with thousands of operational staff that – rather than looking towards the future – have been trained to solve yesterday’s problems. Imagine the electric car industry came along and said: “We’ve designed this cool electric car, but we don’t sell the engine, or the batteries that are running it”. This is exactly what is happening now with the cloud native approach. Operators are not used to building networks this way, so they’re having to tap into other workforces to execute their plans.
To build talent, the first place an organisation should look is within its own ranks. Sure, some employees may balk at having to start over with a challenging skillset. But there are plenty of young, bright, hungry-to-learn engineers that would be eager to pick up new cloud native skills if given the opportunity. Also, this approach allows for a hybrid model of expertise that can be beneficial to operators, depending on the project being implemented.
Looking more broadly across the UK and Europe, investment in engineering skills is essential to giving these markets a competitive advantage for decades to come. The best way to do this is to start young – in schools, universities, colleges and through apprenticeships – and provide practical, project-based education that allows young engineers to develop both individually and operationally