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14 April 2020

10 carriers support Microsoft’s answer to AWS Wavelengths at the telco edge

At the edge as in the central cloud, large operators are increasingly breaking bread with the webscale giants rather than trying to compete with them. A few months after Amazon AWS signed up Verizon, Vodafone and SK Telecom for its Wavelengths edge computing platform, Microsoft has previewed its own offering, Azure Edge Zones, and gained support from 10 large operators.

Azure Edge Zones implements the Azure Stack Edge – computing, storage and platform services – on a telco or enterprise premises together with a private 4G or 5G network. This bid by Microsoft to extend its enterprise position into cellular connectivity and services ties in with its recent acquisition of virtualized core network provider Affirmed Networks.

The list of initial operator partners includes AT&T, which despite dalliances with AWS and IBM is rapidly focusing on Microsoft as its main cloud partner – and perhaps the biggest endorsement for Microsoft from a telco market that, until recently, its Azure cloud division largely ignored. But now, operators are accepting that they should focus on their strengths at the edge rather than building their own clouds, and so a new spirit of cooperation has been born (only thinly masking, however, the jockeying behind the scenes to secure the best role in the value chain).

SK Telecom is also supporting Azure Edge Zones, as well as AWS Outposts, highlighting one way in which operators can keep the webscalers from running the show – by insisting on working with multiple central and edge clouds. Vodafone is in both camps too, though the Azure tie-up is purely with Vodafone Business, while other supporters are Rogers of Canada (which also announced a private LTE deal with Microsoft – see inset), Telefónica, Telstra of Australia, the UAE’s Etisalat, CenturyLink of the USA, Proximus of Belgium and NTT Communications of Japan.

The partnerships will bring edge computing platforms and services to mutual customers of Azure and the telco. The Edge Zones, local extensions of the Azure cloud, can be located in operator facilities, such as their central offices, where Azure services can be connected directly to telco networks, especially 5G.

The use cases that AT&T is envisaging first for this localized compute/storage/connectivity platform are the ones usually cited by early edge adopters – online gaming and low latency IoT applications. It also stressed remote meetings and events, presumably as a result of the stimulation of this market by the pandemic crisis.

“We were the first public cloud to announce 5G integration with AT&T in Dallas in 2019, and now we’re announcing a close collaboration with AT&T on a new Edge Zone targeted to become available in Los Angeles in late spring,” wrote Azure Networking corporate VP Yousef Khalidi in a blog post.

In July 2019, AT&T named Azure as its preferred cloud provider in its mission to go ‘public cloud-first’ for all non-network applications (and possibly some network functions in future too).

But while operators’ central offices, local data centers and even cell sites can provide valuable edge locations for cloud companies – whose whole model has relied on centralized consolidation and huge infrastructure scale – Azure and AWS will not make themselves beholden to operators. While telcos which have abandoned plans to build their own public or hybrid clouds (a majority) will find it hard to work around the webscalers, the same is not equally true in reverse. There will be many other owners of suitable locations for edge cloud deployments, and Microsoft emphasized that, as well as partnering with operators, it will also roll out standalone Azure Edge Zones in select cities over the next 12 months.

That reflects the double-edged sword that private networks, and indeed, any cooperation with cloud giants, represents for operators. Microsoft’s recent acquisition of virtualized packet core provider Affirmed Networks highlighted the former’s desire to carve out a strong role in private cellular networks, shoring up the entrenched position of its Azure cloud services in the enterprise by supporting their 4G and 5G requirements via hosted core networks.

While that is a threat to core providers which also have a strong enterprise focus, such as Nokia with its hosted Cloud Core, it could also sideline the operator in environments where the private networks run in shared or industrial spectrum.

However, the operator can also be a partner and valuable channel for Azure in this market, bringing the spectrum to the party. As enterprise cellular networks increasingly converge with edge computing, this can be another dimension to the relationship, as seen in Microsoft’s recent announcement of a deal with Rogers.

And the crown jewel for operators in this balance of power will be their deployment of 5G, which will enhance the edge business case in many use cases (see separate item on Seamster). In years to come, there will be other organizations operating 5G networks, especially in enterprise and city networks, often enabled by shared spectrum. But for now, even in those enterprise environments – as the Rogers/Microsoft deal shows – the traditional operators are king.

Azure Edge Zones will deliver consistent Azure services across cloud, on-premises, and edge using the same Azure Portal, application programming interfaces, development tools and security mechanisms. Microsoft says it will support virtual network functions (VNFs), including 5G software, SD-WAN and firewalls, from third parties such as Mavenir, Nokia Nuage, Metaswitch, Palo Alto and VMware VeloCloud.

In May 2018, Verizon named AWS as its preferred public cloud provider and said it would move 1,000 business applications and database systems over to that cloud. Then, last December, the two companies extended their alliance to the edge, when Verizon said it would use AWS Wavelength, Amazon’s new edge cloud platform, to make it easier for developers to create and deploy low latency applications enabled by 5G.

Microsoft and Rogers work together in private LTE:

Rogers was one of a group of operators to support Microsoft’s new Azure Edge Zones in a private LTE and 5G context. The two companies will work with Microsoft’s enterprise client Attabotics to use private LTE with Azure Private Edge Zones. Attabotics makes robots for warehouses and distribution centers.

“In collaboration with Microsoft, Rogers is delivering new and innovative solutions with our Private LTE capabilities combined with Azure Edge Zones,” said Dean Prevost, president of Rogers for Business, in a statement. “Working with Attabotics, we’re enabling Canadian businesses to transform the traditional supply model with a retail e-fulfillment solution.”

Yousef Khalidi, corporate VP of Azure Networking, wrote in a blog post that Microsoft is partnering with many carriers, systems integrators and technology partners to launch a platform to support orchestration and management of customers’ private cellular networks.

In addition, Microsoft is working with Vodafone on private 5G. “By combining Vodafone 5G and mobile private networks with Azure Private Edge Zones, our customers will be able to run cloud applications on mobile devices with single-digit millisecond responsiveness,” said Vinod Kumar, CEO of Vodafone Business, citing autonomous vehicles and virtual reality as examples of use cases.