When asked about what a telecoms network operator would look like in the future and what capabilities are most important, the CTO of one of the world’s largest telecom operator groups1 said he and his organization need to be a systems integrator. This is because the company is buying software modules from different vendors globally, and putting them together so it can “design, manage and operate a network of huge complexity that carries data left and right, up and down!”.
APIs are foundational to systems integration which in turn enables companies to be data-driven – the hallmark of a truly digital business. Another is to adopt cloud-native architectures, and the popularity of the building blocks of that architecture – APIs, microservices and micro-gateways – have soared across many industries as they grapple with digital transformation.
Kim Larsen, CTIO and board member at T-Mobile Netherlands observed in an interview in February 2022: “We see a lot of architectures with the ‘heavy-handed’ orchestrator on top of the network stack…I like to keep top-down control to a bare minimum and rely much more on layer-by-layer autonomy with APIs between them. Microservices can be taken up while working to keep orchestration local rather than having a ‘Big Guy’ orchestrator controlling everything from the top-down. Autonomous layers are where we’re moving to over the next 10 to 20 years.”
He outlined the motivation for this approach, saying it “comes from a wish to continuously improve efficiency, handle complexity and to use automatic detection or machine learning algorithms in general, to improve the network’s operational excellence and customer experience”.
These are common goals no matter what business you’re in and the critical element that makes this autonomy and flexibility possible from combining the best-in-class softwarized elements is APIs. Yet as APIs are scaled on top of applications, services and databases, things become more complex, digitally speaking, and the desired outcomes are not guaranteed: technology is not an automatic fix, but a tool that must be used intelligently to deliver the intended benefits.
As Massimo Pezzini, Research Vice President and Gartner Fellow (now Emeritus), said with considerable foresight back in 2018, “The complex challenges posed by digital business transformation require a radical change in the integration technology platform and in the way organizations deal with integration.”
Implementing the right tools
Mindful of this, Torry Harris Integration Solutions (THIS) developed Coupler, to help companies get the best from their move to disaggregated, cloud native IT and operations. Coupler, a visually driven tool, enables customers to model their integration flows and deploy them as a containerised microservice. This provides an alternative, simpler method of building microservices, using a low-code/no-code approach.
The visual tool enables customers to model, map and integrate external data sources and applications, with high scalability and extensibility through containerization. Here are Coupler’s key features:
- Support for the representational state transfer (REST) set of architectural principles, the simple object access protocol (SOAP), Secure Socket Layer (SSL), Transport Layer Security (TLS) and IoT protocols.
- Protocol conversion
- Hybrid, cloud and multi-environment support
- Real-time error handling
- Transaction management
- Visual model for flow design
- A library of pre-built nodes
- Software-development kit (SDK) to develop custom connectors
Now let’s look at how Coupler fits into the different building blocks of a cloud-native integration environment. An example of such an environment is shown in the diagram below, with the API Gateway acting as a single point of contact for all external communications. In this paradigm, the ‘service network’ is made up of different microservices with their own individual locations, properties, and methods.
As their name suggests, monolithic gateways have one major core function: They expose API endpoints to external clients. However, microservice collections also communicate internally, verbosely, and need facilitation of that communication process.
Micro-gateways (shown in the diagram below) are a lightweight, distributed API proxy designed to enforce policies and business logic at or near service endpoints. They are composed of an inner gateway coupled with a microservice instance that are ready to spin up and provide connectivity. If the code is not properly structured, there is a risk of duplication. They are, by definition, low latency, small footprint solutions.
Containers allow a developer to package an application and all parts it needs, such as libraries and other dependencies, and ship it all out as one package. Docker is a tool designed to make it easier to create, deploy, and run applications using containers.
A container orchestration tool is used to deploy and manage containers, providing container runtime and orchestration, container-centric infrastructure orchestration, self-healing mechanisms, service discovery and load balancing. Container orchestration is used to deploy, scale, manage and compose application containers across clusters of hosts. Kubernetes and OpenShift are common, open-source platforms for container orchestration.
The aims of container orchestration are faster deployment and start times, with easier management and being able to scale containers across various operating systems. These attributes help make better use of computing resources, and simplify and speed up configuration and security. It also provides capabilities for multi-cloud deployments.
Coupler can be easily integrated with containers and their orchestration tools. The diagram below illustrates how Coupler can integrate with a legacy system and microservices built on containers (Docker) and be deployed using a container orchestration platform (Kubernetes)
Service mesh includes built-in support for network functions like resiliency, error checking, service discovery and more. This approach saves developers effort, enabling them to focus on business logic rather than network logic and processes. As it uses standardized network logic, a service mesh is language agnostic. Service meshes are similar to a micro-gateway, but they are entirely abstracted from the business logic.
Products like DigitMarketTM API Manager from THIS assist in the integration of API gateways, micro-gateways, and service providers. Service meshes can integrate seamlessly with Coupler.
DigitMarketTM API Manager has micro-gateway capabilities and can support any custom gateway behavior. Each micro-gateway has a subset of APIs that are managed by it. The DigitMarketTM API Manager gateway can be deployed across a set of containers and managed using Kubernetes due to its distributed architecture.
Istio or similar service meshes can be used to control the flow of traffic. The HTTP listener node can be replaced with a service mesh where extreme scalability is needed through configuration of and an enhanced deployment architecture for the gateway.
DigitMarketTM API Manager also supports pre-built micro-gateway artifacts like usage policies, API bundling through packs, security policies and other common gateway functions.
As industries across the world move to cloud native operational models, the use of APIs is essential, but the winners will be those who use APIs consistently and intelligently in combination with the building blocks of cloud native architecture: Micro-gateways, containers and container orchestration, and service meshes. Technology does not guarantee success – that comes down to how and where it is applied.
1This was a conversation reported by Karim Taga, Managing Partner, Global Practice Leader at TIME (for telecoms, IT, media and electronics) for Arthur D. Little in a recent panel discussion on the future of telecoms networks. Taga noted such a comment would not have been made even two years ago and the responsibility for integrating systems would have been the responsibility of equipment vendors.