This blog was co-authored by Angel Shimelish, Sr. Product Marketing Manager, Azure for Operators.

Across industries, companies venture deeper into their digital transformation journeys every day, and the telecommunications industry is no exception. Angel Shimelish recently met with Ryan van Wyk, Microsoft’s partner software engineering manager who joined Microsoft as part of Microsoft our acquisition of AT & T’s carrier-grade network cloud platform technology. Ryan is helping guide the transition from cellular networks to an open, disaggregated, and software-based model, and in the process Azure for operators as the platform of choice. Angel and Ryan covered a range of topics about his personal journey from AT&T to Microsoft, his focus on innovation, and how he sees the future of cloud transformation technology for the telecommunications industry.

Cloud transformation for telecommunications

Angel luster: Thank you for meeting me to discuss your experience in moving telecommunications companies to the cloud. Before we dive into your professional background, let’s discuss your interests outside of work. Tell me about your favorite hobby.

Ryan van Wyk: I am a sailor, started out as a Sea Scout growing up in South Africa and was fortunate enough to sail Lake Michigan nights and weekends while living in Chicago. Today I’m looking forward to my family’s annual sailing adventure, where we’ll charter a sailboat and explore a new part of the world from the water. What I love about sailing is that you are constantly learning, improving your skills, and it takes some planning, and as my wife Danielle will attest, I don’t like sitting still.

Angel luster: In one of our previous conversations you mentioned that you were delighted to have the opportunity to continue to lead your team. Can you share your perspective?

Ryan van Wyk: Personally, it is amazing to be able to lead the powerful cloud engineering team in the telecommunications industry, which has been put together over seven years, because firstly, from the perspective of the human connection, we have a high level of trust in our internal team and, secondly, of software Perspective we can take what we have built to new heights. By bringing the team for operators to Azure, we were able to bundle the knowledge, experience and insights gained from several years of building Software Defined Networks (SDN) at AT&T and now at Microsoft. This is very powerful because when putting a new team together, you often spend years building that team, building trust, figuring out where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and it takes time to develop common insights and lose valuable time through trial and error. We made our mistakes and bring this knowledge to Azure for operators. It’s not just about the software, it’s about the people who develop the software.

Angel luster: At the OpenStack Summit in Barcelona in 2016, you identified a novel solution by inverting Azure Kubernetes Service and OpenStack. Can you explain this idea that led to the open source Airship project and how you achieved this problem solving ability?

Ryan van Wyk: In 2016, the industry began to grapple with the OpenStack lifecycle management challenges that were compounded when using OpenStack as the NFVi to perform carrier network functions. My team was reviewing a project called TripleO (OpenStack on OpenStack) to potentially solve some of these challenges, but while we were discussing them we realized that many of the same pitfalls would still exist, but now at a different level of the stack. The discussion in my team led to a question: why shouldn’t we apply the software we used to run our cloud infrastructure to the same modern software and cloud practices that we urged our VNF partners to adopt; Portability, Microservices, and Immutability? Everyone was discussing running Kubernetes on OpenStack, but could we do the opposite and containerize OpenStack ourselves and run it on Kubernetes? If modern software were continuously integrated, deployed and deployed with technologies like Docker containers and Kubernetes, couldn’t we do the same for our platform? Not only would this solve our NFVi deployment speed and lifecycle problems, but could, if we think ahead, prepare us for Cloud Native Network Functions (CNFs) even though that use case was several years ago? As we continued to discuss the idea and benefits of a declarative approach to software delivery, it dawned on me that we had something here, something innovative.

To be clear, this is not an innovation that I own, it was a team effort. Even if it happened at the table at an OpenStack conference, the reality is the idea that emerged from many discussions over several months. It would have been easy to overwhelm with the challenges we faced with our massive OpenStack use, fighting the fires and blaming the state of the art, but my team and I had to take the decisions we made and bear the results themselves. This was the only way we could identify the fundamental problems that needed to be solved and then formulate the design principles for the new Network Cloud platform. So I learned a long time ago to listen to your team, to constantly question the status quo, to ask lots of questions, and to be willing to admit failure.

Angel luster: Often, when defining a solution that is easy to understand and replicable across different phases of a project or solution, you refer to the need for predictability. How did you come to define this quality as important for your work?

Ryan van Wyk: Achieving predictability was key to our success with Network Cloud after the trial and error of deploying previous versions of NFVi around the world. It has allowed us to build trust with the operations teams which has resulted in smarter risk taking that allowed the platform to scale up quickly. For example, if we know that the test we conduct in our development labs produces the same results in production, the speed at which we can introduce new functions into production can increase because we can trust that the Production experience that is what we have observed in earlier delivery stages. To do this, we are relocating all of our test remnants to earlier delivery stages and usually ensure the same tests in development, testing and production acceptance. Additionally, adopting the principle that everything delivered to an environment is containerized has helped ensure that our Network Cloud deployments are truly immutable, which is another key element of predictable deployment.

Angel luster: You have found that you believe that to be successful, a team “must constantly evaluate its performance, be careful of what others are doing, and listen to user feedback”. How did you adopt this philosophy of openness and how do you think it will affect your new work with Microsoft?

Ryan van Wyk: This has been learned from working in open source communities. The beauty of open source is that you can talk from engineer to engineer about the challenges you face and share what you have learned. This can be a humbling experience as you learn how teams of engineers work around the world and quickly discover that you don’t know everything or that there are multiple ways to solve a problem. Even if you’re trying to build something in the community, the feedback on your work is continuous, comes from a different perspective, and may not be influenced by internal company considerations. I believe this approach will be critical to our success in building a best-in-class solution on Azure for operators. To that end, we’re working closely with a number of Azure development teams to build on their great work, and we’re working closely with AT&T and other operators to help guide our platform.

Angel luster: In conclusion, can you share your vision for the telecommunications industry’s digital transformation and how the work you and your team are building will help unlock the potential of digital transformation?

Ryan van Wyk: Microsoft offers operators cloud computing options that meet the needs of customers wherever these capabilities are needed: at the edge of the company, at the edge of the network, in the network core or in the cloud. The various form factors optimized to support the location where they are deployed are supported by the Azure platform, which provides a common management framework for VMs and container services, DevOps support, and security control.

Greater network experience through Azure

By combining these flexible computing options and delivering these services through the Azure platform, we can combine them with other Azure capabilities to leverage the power of AI and automation in delivering network services. These skills, coupled with our partnerships with OSS and BSS providers, enable us to help you Operators to streamline and simplify operations, create new services to monetize the network and gain better insights into customer behavior on the network. We are also able to combine the network with other features from Microsoft to create a deeper, richer network experience with the flexibility operators need.

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