The “Softwarization” of Telecommunications Systems

Drivers include 5G technology and open-source software

3 min read

Illustration of the word 5G amidst circuit board visual.
Illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTEGet ready for a radical change in the way telecommunications systems are designed and operated. Software-defined networks (SDNs), network function virtualization (NFV), and cloud computing are part of the “softwarization” trend. Softwarization is expected to impact all stages of network development.

SDNs decouple hardware from software and execute the software in the cloud or in clusters of distributed IT servers. NFV applies CPU virtualization and other cloud-computing technologies to migrate network functions from dedicated hardware to virtual machines.

The new “Towards 5G Software-Defined Ecosystems” white paper from the IEEE SDN initiative provides an overview of the main drivers steering the softwarization of the telecommunications industry, including 5G technology and open-source software. The report also discusses security concerns and the future of the telecom industry.


The paper predicts that 5G will transform the industry because the technology is expected to be able to handle much more mobile data—1,000 times the current wireless capacity, in fact. Also predicted with 5G are data rates up to 100 times higher, as many as 100 times more connected devices, and 10 times greater battery life for some of those devices.

What will differentiate 5G networks, the authors say, will be “the ability to address varying degrees of requirements” in delay, throughput, and the types and quality of devices.

The technology will lead to the evolution of components being used in the current generation of mobile networks, the paper says, adding that the technology will usher in revolutionary components, too, that will enable energy and spectral efficiency as well as a new resilient framework for services.

The authors say 5G will require a complete revamping of the end-to-end architecture, and rethinking interfaces as well as management and control frameworks.

According to the report, for deployments of 5G telecommunications systems to occur in 2020, most of the research and innovation needs to be conducted soon so that large trials and testing can be completed in time.

“This can be realized only through global collaboration and investment in key technologies and related fields,” the authors say. “Since the required set of capabilities is very broad, mobile and wireline ecosystems need to be established that will allow global participation through open frameworks.”


There are many benefits of open-source software, the authors say. Operators and vendors can agree on requirements, for example, and quickly develop prototypes. Experimenting with open-source software such as KVM, Linux, OpenDaylight, and OpenStack lowers the barrier for those who want to build a telecom network. Open-source is the easiest and fastest way to fuel innovation, according to the report. With 5G networks, the authors expect open-source code to be tested with virtual machines and enhanced on the fly.


Many of the security functions required for full softwarization are complex. Seemingly minor mistakes in implementation could have far-reaching impact. Operators planning to deploy open-source software have the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that due diligence has been performed, particularly when the software supports core security functions.

“Softwarization brings new challenges, or at least complexities,” the authors say, but they add that those can be addressed with existing techniques or new approaches.

Security remains an area of active research within SDN and NFV, the paper notes.


It seems likely that traditional telecom services—as a separate industry sector—are going to disappear, the authors say. Traditional services will be packaged with others “such as voice with Internet access and premium TV” channels, they predict. There also is likely to be some merging among suppliers of traditional telecom equipment and IT hardware.

Because many service providers are global, they will begin expanding, the paper predicts. The cost of entering a new country is relatively low, assuming the infrastructure is in place, and SDNs and NFV will further lower the costs, the authors say. Softwarization is making it possible to be present in an area without any physical infrastructure at all.

“Technology is going to become accessible to all enterprises in any part of the world on an equal basis, further reducing any competitive advantage due to location,” the authors say. “Hence, the real differentiator will be the capacity to innovate continuously.”

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