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How Vodafone leverages Kubernetes to meet its digital strategy goals

Challenge

A global telecommunications company that provides technology services to both consumers and businesses, Vodafone launched a new digital strategy in 2016 with the goal of delivering the best customer experience in each of its 25 different markets. But “our traditional software has been heavily customized and is not particularly automated—it has legacy ties to either particular hardware or particular virtualization or particular legacy licensing,” says Tom Kivlin, Principal Cloud Orchestration Architect at Vodafone Group. “I think it’s fair to say there wasn’t an awful lot of efficiency in that.”

Solution

“The technology response to the digital strategy was cloud native software and culture,” says Kivlin. “When you’ve got 25 markets all doing digital experience, in order to best enable local markets to share assets, you need to consider an orchestration platform.” Vodafone chose Kubernetes.

Impact

The biggest change has been that Vodafone has gone from being 97% outsourced in terms of the skills needed to build software to 95% in-house. There’s an increased cadence for time to market, with tens of releases a day. Plus, “the numbers are improving across the sales and marketing KPIs that sit underneath customer satisfaction,” says Kivlin. “We’ve significantly increased our online sales, and we made all our digital marketing more data-driven.”

Company

Vodafone

Industry

Telecom

Location

United Kingdom

Cloud Type

Hybrid

Product Type

Installer

Published

March 27, 2020

CNCF projects used

Kubernetes

Digital skills

Went from 97% outsourced
to 95% in-house

Releases

Now tens a day instead of once every three months

Improved KPIs for marketing and sales

With users in 25 different countries, the telecommunications giant Vodafone launched a new digital strategy in 2016 with the goal of creating the #1 customer experience in each of those markets.

Historically, the telecom industry in general “relied on vendors to provide us with their custom hardware that delivered a specific functionality,” says Rabi Abdel, Principal Cloud Architect at Vodafone Group. “With the move to cloud, that model’s changing, and we can deliver a service to our customer in a more agile way because it is a software-based implementation.”

But at Vodafone, “our traditional software has been heavily customized and is not particularly automated—it has legacy ties to either particular hardware or particular virtualization or particular legacy licensing,” says Tom Kivlin, Principal Cloud Orchestration Architect at Vodafone Group. “I think it’s fair to say there wasn’t an awful lot of efficiency in that.”

So in order for the digital strategy to succeed, the company needed to take a closer look at its underlying technology. “The technology response to the digital strategy was cloud native software and operating models and microservices, which those operating models are best at delivering,” says Kivlin. “And when you’ve got 25 markets all doing digital experience, in order to best enable local markets to share assets, you need to consider an orchestration platform.”

Given the different requirements each market had—they can’t all use public cloud, much less the same public cloud—Kubernetes offered a powerful solution. Plus, “with the development of 5G and the edge sites that we have, we need to be able to deploy important services quickly,” says Abdel. “Kubernetes is a lightweight container platform that we can easily orchestrate from a single location, and that allows us to compete in the 5G workspace and the IoT that comes with it.”

The Vodafone Group team began building a centralized platform for the product teams delivering digital experience in the different markets to use, with consistent setup and management across the board.

The biggest challenge was securing workloads across the entire pipeline, says Lead Infrastructure Architect Samuel Manam. “The traditional ways of securing the platform is not a good fit for cloud native applications,” he says. “We decided that the best approach was moving from DevOps to DevSecOps so that security is baked into the pipeline from day one. With Kubernetes, the barrier to entry in terms of security is very low and can be fully automated. That’s a key point for us.”

From a telco perspective, there was a lot of room for improvement in terms of speed. “One of the big dependencies and requirements from telco regulation is the throughput performance,” says Abdel. “With a virtualized solution, the idea of scaling out that solution to span across different servers is very slow by nature because of the heavy braking system that every machine contains. But being able to spawn containers on a container platform makes it more effective and efficient for a telco workload, to be able to scale out as the workload changes and the demand needs, within a reasonable time frame.”

“As 5G accelerates and as edge use cases start to come to us, we’re going to need to start building more cloud native capabilities within Vodafone. And collaborating with CNCF and the Telecom User Group is key to help drive a consistent approach to that.”

— TOM KIVLIN, PRINCIPAL CLOUD ORCHESTRATION ARCHITECT AT VODAFONE GROUP

The first applications deployed on the Kubernetes platform belonged to Vodafone’s “systems of innovation”—the digital channels that consumers interact with, such as chat bots or phone apps. The biggest impact so far has been that Vodafone has gone from being 97% outsourced in terms of the skills needed to build software to 95% inhouse. There’s an increased cadence for time to market, with tens of releases a day. Plus, “the numbers are improving across the sales and marketing KPIs that sit underneath customer satisfaction,” says Kivlin. “We’ve significantly increased our online sales, and we made all our digital marketing more data-driven.”

Kubernetes has also enabled Vodafone to have a better model for config management. The company has a strict zoning model for its network security policies: “Different security zones can only talk to other specific security zones, and that was always a challenge with cloud,” says Kivlin. With Kubernetes, “we developed a network policy manifest single document, which when applied to a cluster, allows any workload on that cluster to label itself with the zone it is in. Automatically you’re compliant with policy. It was a lightbulb moment for a few people, like it’s that easy.”

The digital experience layer represents a small fraction of Vodafone’s technology stacks, and “the next step is to start driving the cloud native operating model and technologies through the rest of the IT stack and into the telco stack,” says Kivlin. “As 5G accelerates and as edge use cases start to come to us, we’re going to need to start building more cloud native capabilities within Vodafone. And collaborating with CNCF and the Telecom User Group (TUG) is key to help drive a consistent approach to that.”

When it comes to starting down that cloud native parth, the Vodafone team offers a few best practices. “Start from the right place, and you’ll get the right answer,” says Kivlin. “I think cloud native is the right answer for what we’re trying to achieve, which is customer satisfaction and time to market.”

“With Kubernetes, the barrier to entry in terms of security is very low. That’s a key point for us.”

— SAMUEL MANAM, LEAD INFRASTRUCTURE ARCHITECT AT VODAFONE GROUP

For Samuel Manam, thinking about security from the beginning is key. “You need to have a consistent way for the developer to work with the security and operations teams,” he says. “Especially in the telco workspace, you have many microservices that will communicate with each other within a deployed stack, and a lot of these services are heavily regulated. We need to make sure that at any point in your pipeline, the right controls are baked in during code development.”

And for telecoms specifically, Abdel’s advice is to start with lightweight functionalities like the control plane, which are similar to that of IT workloads. “When it comes to the user plane and data plane and intensive functionalities, it becomes important to get engaged with TUG to figure out what’s the best way to address those challenges as a community,” he says. “If you try to solve it individually, you might end up with side deployments that you are burdened with in isolation, which is not what cloud native is all about.”

Collaboration, in fact, is at the heart of Vodafone’s ongoing cloud native strategy. “We’re going to continue to work with the community, make sure we’re aligning with what the community is adopting, and also contribute to the community especially within the telco ecosystem,” says Samuel Manam.