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29 July 2019

Canonical scores major boost to 5G credentials with BT NFV deal

AT&T will certainly not be the only telco considering whether and when to move its networks to a public cloud (see above). Whichever decision they make about the infrastructure itself, they will need to decide on their approach to the cloud infrastructure platform, and that will mean introducing new vendors into their supply chains. The traditional equipment suppliers are busily developing their cloud-native offerings and underlying infrastructure platforms, but there are plenty of new names joining the telco party too.

Mirantis has scored at AT&T, Reliance Jio and other operators, while the UK’s incumbent, BT, has given Canonical a big boost in the 5G game. The company is starting to plan the cloud-native 5G core it intends to deploy in 2022 and says that Canonical, best known for its Ubuntu Linux operating system, will provide the open source virtual infrastructure manager (VIM).

This is the second vendor announcement BT has made related to its 5G core, which will eventually be part of a bigger converged core platform that will support its multinational business, not just its UK MNO, EE. BT has 30m mobile and 10m broadband customers in the UK plus operations or partnerships in 180 countries

It has already revealed that Juniper will provide virtualized network infrastructure for the private cloud on which the core, and eventually (presumably) the 5G RAN, will run. Canonical will provide the virtualization software which will enable an ‘infrastructure-as-a-service’ (IaaS) approach to supporting NFV (Network Functions Virtualization) use cases.

In recent years, Canonical has extended Ubuntu’s reach with various cloud capabilities including the Charmed OpenStack architecture, which enables private clouds running on Ubuntu.

“BT’s 5G core will be built on Canonical’s Charmed OpenStack and utilize Canonical’s open source tools to automate the deployment and operations of its infrastructure,” said Neil McRae, BT Group’s chief architect. BT will also use Ubuntu Advantage, Canonical’s service package for Ubuntu, for management and support of the 5G core.

“This will ultimately be one of the foundations that underpins our network for the next 5-10 years,” McRae summed up. “We’re building a platform that internally we call Network Cloud, which is an elastic, scalable compute platform that we will use for both internal network demands but also use as our core edge offering in the future.”

For now, the focus is on NFV, but this is just the starting point for evolution towards a full cloud-native network based on containers and microservices, said McRae. BT has been one of the more realistic telcos in discussing its cloud journey, and says NFV still has a couple of years at least to go, before it becomes mature and fully capable of supporting telco workloads to the same quality standard as dedicated appliances, while also enabling operators to move to a more flexible, dynamic services model with automated operations. While being an early supporter of OpenStack, BT has also talked about the high expense of deploying open cloud systems as a pioneer, since it currently still requires expensive inhouse or consultancy resource to tune the infrastructure and virtual machines to deliver the required level of performance for a telco network.

Dave Salam, EE’s director of mobility and analytics, told LightReading earlier this year that timing is all when it comes to the emerging cloud-native core technologies. “AT&T has done this quite early but I’m not sure anyone has saved money out of that approach,” he said. “We chose to delay for Release 16 to get the right functionality and maturity and have the technology in the right way to stitch elements together.”

Over time, maturing platforms and support for Lego-style containers will ease the path and move the telcos towards the kind of automated, simplified development processes which are the mainstay of cloud economics and well implemented by webscale providers – DevOps, CI/CD (continuous integration continuous delivery), microservices and so on. But none of these systems are yet quite ready to handle the specialized and demanding workloads of a telecoms network, say most operators, even those, like BT, which committed at an early stage to ‘cloudification’.

McRae added that NFV was “helpful but not the end desire … Canonical is going to help us get to cloud-native across the network, leveraging OpenStack, leveraging Kubernetes, leveraging Linux, in a way that few others can do.” Such projects will, in turn, help the OpenStack community embrace containers fully and move on from the virtual machine (VM) approach which is starting to look outdated for 5G. Indeed, one reason why many MNOs will not deploy a cloud-native core until 2022 or much later is that they do not want to implement a VM architecture which does not deliver optimal performance, or has to be replaced in short order, and so they are waiting for containers to mature in the 5G sector, thanks to the efforts of a few cutting-edge, R&D-heavy operators.

Each of the OpenStack majors is scoring some wins in the 5G-ready market, with none of them yet dominating the telco space. Among new flagship customers, Mirantis has AT&T, Canonical now has BT, Red Hat has Rakuten and Turkcell, VMware has Vodafone. All these are companies which would not have figured on an MNO’s key supplier list until a few years ago but are now critical to the rising number of projects to base 5G in the cloud.

VMware’s EVP of strategy, Shekar Ayyar, said in a recent interview that operators “have historically missed the boat on being a cloud provider or having any benefits from the transformation of enterprises in consuming the cloud. To us, 5G represents both a technical inflection point as well to some extent a fortuitous coming together of things that leads to a new opportunity landscape for telecom operators globally.”

He claimed that over 70 operators are now using VMware for some form of NFV on the network side, which allows the firm to generate new business on top of its domination of the telcos’ IT data centers.

Juniper is also seeing 5G as a welcome way to diversify its telco business and kickstart much-needed growth. Juniper has partnered with Ericsson on a portfolio that integrates RAN with edge computing and network core functions.

Juniper is helping to deliver BT’s Network Cloud infrastructure, which will support the converged core and services that can combine 4G, 5G, WiFi and fixed lines. The common services will span voice, mobile core and RAN, global services, as well as BT’s ISP, TV and IT services, and many internal functions.

An automated, programmable network will allow far more radical ways of harnessing the combined networks, allowing BT to integrate partners in a simple, uniform way and adjust the platform in software to support new services.

The telco will use other Juniper offerings to help build out the network, including

dynamic end-to-end networking policy and control; AppFormix for cloud operations management; and the QFX Series for a flexible spine and leaf underlay fabric.

Ooredoo will be an early mover in cloud-native 5G core:

Some operators are moving more quickly towards choosing their cloud-native 5G core platform and suppliers. Middle Eastern MNO Ooredoo Qatar recently selected Nokia to build a 5G cloud-native core to support the enhanced services it is planning when 5G goes live, initially in capital Doha this year, in which drones feature heavily. Like several other Gulf countries, Qatar is very interested in autonomous aerial taxis and Ooredoo has trialled a 5G-connected drone which can transport two people at 130 kilometers an hour for up to 20 minutes.

Nokia will deploy its cloud-based architecture in Ooredoo’s data centers alongside the operator’s existing core, rolling out Nokia AirFrame, CloudBand, NetAct and a software-defined network from the Nuage Networks subsidiary. The main virtual network functions to be deployed on the cloud are Mobile Core for Voice, Cloud Packet Core, Subscriber Management Registers and Policy Control.

The operator’s COO, Yousuf Abdulla Al Kubaisi, commented: “The modernization of our core network will enhance our capabilities to innovate with new services. It will also help us to meet additional demands for high speed data services in general as well as bursts in demand, particularly in upcoming mega sporting events [Qatar is hosting the next soccer World Cup]. Our 5G network will open the floodgates for machine learning, automation and microservices use cases for consumer and business customers in the country.”

AirFrame is Nokia’s data center solution which underpins a scalable and distributed cloud-based architecture, with support for open specifications like Facebook’s Open Compute Project. CloudBand supports management of virtual infrastructure and of the  lifecycles of VNFs. NetAct provides a consolidated view of multi-domain, multi-technology networks. And the Nuage SDN enables data center network automation.

A smaller provider of cloud-native cores is Affirmed Networks, which recently announced UnityCloud, for 5G Standalone (SA) roll-outs. The architecture enables MNOs to bring multiple generations of wireless technology into a single network, and microservices allow them to deploy niche or unproven services quickly and at low cost, to reduce the risk and drive a wider variety of services.