Faced with the evolution of broadband services and the imminent rollout of 5G technology, service providers increasingly find it necessary to deploy a mix of wired and wireless services in their networks. What’s more, as this evolution drives the need for service delivery to be brought closer to the network edge, many operators are now required to incorporate data center functionality into their central offices alongside traditional telecommunications services.

However, supporting low-latency data applications and ‘standard’ telco services in the same facility will require operators to develop two different mindsets. At the same time as supporting the “rip and replace” data center approach, it will also be necessary to support the evolving needs of the traditional central office infrastructure over a long lifetime. But, as with any change in approach, it’s inevitable that planning and managing converged services in central offices will require its own best practices - and offer its own unique challenges.

Reliability, accessibility, and density

Applications and services which depend on ultra-low latency, such as self-driving cars, multi-player gaming and virtually everything running on a 5G network, are driving the need for edge data centers. The functionality for these services will likely be hosted in an operator’s central office, alongside more traditional services, such as FTTH, voice and video. These edge data centers will connect with an organization’s regional data centers, which will tend to house those applications for which minor delays in access aren’t critical (such as email servers, SMS servers, and less well-used video games).

However, there is a considerable difference between the architecture, standards, and methods of operating edge data centers and those of central offices. Data centers typically work on a three to five year “rip and replace” cycle, for example, while central offices operate on a 10 to 20-year equipment lifecycle.

Long-term reliability is as critical to convergence as accessibility and network density. Indeed, one of the biggest considerations for operators is the huge fiber network they’ll face when bringing their data centers into the central office. This will need to be terminated in a high-density fiber distribution frame that will not only offer easy access and flexibility, but will be reliable over a 20-year lifespan, and able to support multiple network evolutions. Ideally, multimode fiber will be used to serve an operator’s edge data center, sourced at a reasonable price over a replacement cycle of three to five years.

Greater experience

Over the years, telco-oriented central offices will have developed considerable experience in singlemode fiber management and connectivity. But, as adding data center functionality will require many more multimode connections, operators will be required to develop greater multimode fibre management and connectivity experience.

They will need expertise in virtualization too. Operators are looking to maximize their hardware investments by virtualizing network functions, using SDN and NFV to spread applications across software on servers in the form of workloads. Cost-effective and space-efficient, virtualization means that functions and services that might once have required 10 racks of dedicated physical network function equipment can now be handled with three or four cabinets.

Looking ahead

Technology is evolving at such a pace that it’s not possible to see too far into the future. We can confidently suggest, however, that planning for flexibility, density and acceleration are key considerations for network operators hoping to keep up.

Using multifibre push-on (MPO) connectors for fiber cables and patch cords will make it much easier and more cost-effective to change configurations when needed, for example. And, in light of the growing number of fiber connections, operators should use fiber panels and frames that will maximize access to fiber connections, regardless of their number. As the multimode optics used in data center services and switches continue to evolve, so the use of panels which include modules that easily enable changes from Lucent connectors (LC) to MPO and back, all while utilizing the same backbone cable, will become increasingly critical.

In addition, operators should choose the highest density fiber platforms and switching equipment to allow for future growth in connectivity for service delivery, and should consider using wavelength division multiplexing equipment that will enable them to scale capacity in their existing fiber networks.

Relevant expertise

This converged environment may be uncharted territory for many telco operators. In order to help them make the right choices in evolving their central office architecture, they should seek out hardware vendors that offer both data center and traditional telco solutions, and that have done so for many years.

It can be challenging to forecast demand, particularly when new and relatively unknown developments such as 5G are factored into the equation. A flexible and adaptable infrastructure is required, therefore, that will allow operators to quickly tailor their services to ever-changing customer demands. New converged infrastructure models will be key to this, and for these to succeed, operators must open their minds to the possibilities, and tackle any challenges head-on.