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7 December 2020

DARPA gives impetus to ONF’s Aether 5G edge, but MNOs may lose out

The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) has been targeting the 5G/edge combination for enterprises with its Aether 5G Connected Edge Cloud platform for connectivity-as-a-service, which combines several of its open source projects.

Aether is based on Kubernetes container management and combines edge cloud infrastructure, mobile edge computing, and the 4G or 5G RAN in a single platform.

Timon Sloane, head of marketing at the ONF, says the goal is “to support the APIs so that applications that are written to run in those public clouds can also run natively at the edge cloud”.

Aether supports licensed and unlicensed spectrum and all the main public clouds, and its foundations are the ONF’s CORD (Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter), ONOS (Open Network Operating System) and OMEC (Open Mobile Evolved Core). It aims to support streamlined deployment and management of connectivity for large numbers of enterprise devices, including IoT and control products, with edge services, all based on open APIs and emerging open RAN standards.

Aether was announced almost a year ago but is starting to be put through its paces in trials. The US Defense Department’s R&D agency, DARPA, is using Aether as the basis of a $30m project called Pronto. DARPA is funding the ONF to build, deploy and run a network to support research by three universities – Cornell, Princeton and Stanford – focused on network verification and closed-loop control.

The deployment will consist of a single cloud-managed network interconnecting the project’s commercial partners – AT&T, Ciena, Intel, Google, NTT, ONF and Telefónica – as well as the universities’ campuses. Initially it is using LTE running in CBRS shared spectrum from a shared core running in the Google public cloud, but later 5G capabilities will be added.

“Cornell is deploying Aether on campus to bring private 5G/LTE connectivity services with edge cloud capabilities into our research facilities,” said David Lifka, CIO at Cornell. “We expect private 5G/LTE with connected edge cloud to become an important and integral part of our research infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, Intel and Infosys are part of a group which is running Aether in a production pilot across multiple locations, as one operational network. “Aether is really natively combining connectivity with an edge cloud, so the control plane is central and a centralized control plane oversees all of the mobile core user planes at multiple edge sites,” said Oguz Sunay, chief architect for mobile networking at ONF.

Currently, operators are entirely responsible for the network controls, but as private cellular networks, often combined with edge computing, become more prevalent, the ONF believes that will change and more enterprises will want full control of their connectivity and data.

Aether will help by providing a converged platform and connectivity, which can be supported from the cloud, for diverse edge services and locations.

“We think we’re creating a new collaborative place where the industry and community can come together to help drive some maybe consolidation and critical mass behind a common platform that can then help common functionality proliferate in these edge clouds,” Sunay said earlier this year.

These private networks, combining cellular connectivity with edge nodes and even a localized packet core, can be an opportunity for an MNO, to use its spectrum and radio expertise to offer the whole edge/cellular platform, together with tools and security, as a managed service. But it can also be a chance for specialized private operators or neutral hosts, or even cloud providers, to take some of the richest pickings in the 5G/IoT environment for themselves, leaving the MNO with just spectrum fees (or not even those, if shared or enterprise spectrum is used).

The ONF has done a great deal to help operators make the painful migration to the cloud with open source developments like CORD, but it is clear that Aether could equally well be adopted by a challenger to the established MNOs.

Despite being heavily operator-driven, the ONF has been developing several platforms that will help give enterprises, or their specialized deployment providers, greater self-sufficiency. OMEC, which was unveiled in 2018, is presented as a potential alternative to operator-managed network slicing, which relied instead on creating a separate core for each service – an approach that could be harnessed by industrial players as well as MNOs.

OMEC is part of the broadening umbrella of CORD, which aims to define open ways to harness NFV and SDN to deliver cloud economics to the telco’s traditional networks and locations (including the central offices and, eventually, the cell sites).

Based on a development originally done by Sprint, OMEC includes seven co-repositories for the functionality called for in the 3GPP EPC standards. Sloane says: “It is optimized for IoT and 5G. It’s virtualized, disaggregated and then distributable, so you can place the pieces wherever they make the most sense. Very explicitly we’ve disaggregated the user plane and the control plane. This then allows the components to be placed where best suited anywhere in the network all the way from the access to perhaps even a public cloud or telco cloud or anywhere in between.”

The OMEC work is one project feeding into the more specifically 5G-oriented COMAC (Converged Multi-access and Core) initiative, which addresses the convergence of 5G and fixed broadband networks, and the ability to deliver a seamless user experience and subscriber management regardless of access technology, and even as users move between different connections. Treating all access variants the same is essential to network slicing and to many edge, cloud and enterprise applications.

The first COMAC reference design was launched in February 2019, supported by AT&T, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Google and Türk Telekom. The initial vendor supporters were Adtran, Intel, Radysis, gslab and HCL. COMAC leverages SDN and cloud to create converged access and converged core capabilities on a single platform. The access architecture is based on disaggregated RAN, core and Broadband Network Gateway (BNG) components, and it draws on the work of other open groups – such as O-RAN for the disaggregated RAN, and SDN from the ONF’s SDN-Enabled Broadband Access reference design, as well as its Virtual Optical Line Termination Hardware Abstraction.

Elements of the RAN, core and gateway will be redistributed and aggregated into a unified access layer, creating a control plane powered by SDN, and a user plane powered by P4, the open language which allows for the programming of packet forwarding planes, to support flexible and customized services. The resulting stack will manage high speed subscriber traffic regardless of a user’s access link. COMAC will be configurable for mobile 4G and 5G as well as PON, WiFi, DOCSIS cable and fixed wireless.