The transformational force of disaggregation

As open architectures accelerate the digital transformation of networks, we're exploring how disaggregation is disrupting the technology supplier landscape.
Ulrich Kohn
Wooden blocks

Unleashing the innovative power of open architectures requires us to move away from proprietary, closed, single-vendor solutions. Disaggregating complex and monolithic network solution into manageable pieces is a key enabler. The old way was to have a single company managing the Herculean task of developing silicon, operating systems, applications and performing system and network integration. Now, specialized companies can leverage their key competences for fast, efficient and economic realization of best-in-breed sub-systems, software components and network devices. Open interfaces are a prerequisite for ease of integration, resulting in an open architecture that enables a global software community to quickly and efficiently create new, high-value services.

Disaggregation has already been applied in many network domains. Multi-layer optical transport systems were disaggregated into open optical terminals and lines systems. They feature standardized control interfaces for ease of integration and end-to-end service activation and assurance. Likewise, IT appliances such as firewalls, intrusion detection system or SD-WAN devices are implemented as white box servers loaded with open operating systems and software appliances. 

Today, disaggregation is a key enabling technology for the digital transformation of IT. It also applies to OT networks, which control physical assets with critical operations such as energy networks or transportation.

Ensuring the value of disaggregation

The advantages of multi-vendor solutions are well understood. But realizing them may not be easy or straightforward. What are the keys to success when piecing together disaggregated solutions?

Starting with a system view: A system cannot be optimized by improving the performance of a single, disaggregated component. Take the example of system resiliency. While the availability of a packet network device can be improved by a redundant design, this is not a sensible approach if an end-to-end resiliency concept is applied using disjoint paths and disjoint network devices. Device level redundancy adds cost, increases power consumption and creates complexity, while not providing significant gains in availability. 

Understanding need for system integration: While open interfaces simplify the task of system integration, there are still challenges with operating a complex system with components from many suppliers. End-to-end management is key for seamless operation, fast service activation and efficient fault handling. Distributed responsibility doesn’t lead to efficient operations. Instead, a single point of ownership for system integration and operation is essential for managing disaggregated infrastructures. 

Don’t overlook systemic interdependencies: Changing one part of a system frequently impacts other parts. Take the example of an optical transmission link, which is upgraded to provide 10 times the previous capacity. High-bandwidth transport requires a better signal-to-noise ratio, and so optical path needs to be re-engineered as well. Most likely, network switches need to provide more capacity and need to be upgraded in addition. 

In short, the concept of disaggregation must begin with defining end-to-end system requirements. Supplier domains will need to be specified in a top-down manner with the end-user application in mind, rather than starting bottom up and constructing a system from independently developed solution pieces. A strategy for composing disaggregated solutions and assuring their fitness for purpose must not be an afterthought but be an essential aspect of day one considerations.

The concept of disaggregation must begin with defining end-to-end system requirements.

The new economy of disaggregated solutions

We’ve discussed some technical keys to success. But what about the business side? We need new models for cooperation and engagement to make disaggregated systems commercially viable.

Multi-stakeholder partnerships and alliances pave the way to integrated systems

The system approach to disaggregated networking is being addressed by various industrial alliances and related multi-stakeholder ecosystems. Let’s take for example TIP and their work with disaggregated cell site gateways. Driven by major mobile network operators, a specification was developed and released at the end of 2018. Hardware and software vendors developed a disaggregated solution, which was tested in service provider labs and trialed in their networks as early as 2019. Commercial products were released in 2020 and one year later in 2021 disaggregated cell site gateways were deployed in major mobile networks on a global scale. Today, compatible hardware and software components can be purchased from several suppliers. Mobile network operators have never seen such a favorable situation.

While this effort resulted in compatible hardware and software solutions, there is still an opportunity for competition. Value-added features on top of a common, standardized feature set provide an avenue for new innovation. It’s likely that this opportunity will remain to enable differentiation and prevent total commoditization in high-value markets.

Reshaping the competitive environment

In the above example, a network device was replaced by a set of disaggregated components. System integration is an easy task, as the single-vendor device and the disaggregated solution meet common requirements. The difference is with the suppliers that offer the solution. Established suppliers are now facing competition from original device manufacturers (ODMs) and independent software vendors.

The situation is different here as highly complex systems are disaggregated, e.g., complete mobile networks, as suggested by the O-RAN alliance. New building blocks are defined, and additional open interfaces are required to assure ease of integration. There are not many companies with the expertise to integrate such complex networks, and so this task might be managed by major network operators, market-leading solution providers or very-large system integrators. 

New roles for established players

Disaggregated networks lead to a disaggregated value chain. End-to-end suppliers gain less value from system components and most likely will focus on system integration, with the intention of compensating for lower revenues by extending into end-customer IT domains. Alternatively, they may focus on competing with sub-systems and extending those systems into neighboring market segments. System suppliers will need to make such decisions and either grow their SI competencies or compete as specialized component supplier with disaggregated solutions. Either way, the model of single-supplier end-to-end solutions is no longer an option. 

As solution providers grow their system integration business and extend into enterprise IT solutions, they might move into a competing role with their established customers. This can be observed today with private mobile networks, which frequently are offered as managed service by mobile network operators as well as mobile infrastructure suppliers. 

Technology experts with a disaggregated product offering can help their customers with the demanding task of system integration. Some of the components of an enablement strategy for disaggregated networking might include:

  • Software tools such as product simulators for cost-efficient testing, training, and validation
  • Pre-integrated network elements, combining disaggregated software with white boxes, simplifying network integration on a component level
  • Technology domain pre-integration, allowing ecosystem partners to verify the interworking of a larger part of an end-to-end solution 
  • Lab-as-a-service, enabling end customers and system integrators to cost-efficiently validate interworking through access to lab resources from a disaggregated solution provider

Summing it up

Disaggregation is not just a new way to implement networks. It creates disruption to the supplier landscape in networking. New entrants will compete with established suppliers, which will focus on new roles, in some cases competing with their previous customers. 

Any player will need to carefully evaluate opportunities in a disaggregated network market and develop a strong profile in a tight segment. Some suppliers will re-focus on key technologies complemented by domain-specific services offerings. While others strengthen their end-to-end  system integration business, applying disaggregated solution components from leading technology suppliers. What’s certain is that specialization will be crucial: Either you’ll be among the best or you’ll be out.

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