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15 June 2021

Dell adds reference architectures to its pitch to be telcos’ key enabler

Dell Technologies sees a huge opportunity in the migration of 5G networks to the distributed cloud, and has announced its latest proposition for telcos just as Vodafone anointed it as a strategic partner for its first Open RAN deployments (see separate item).

Dennis Hoffman, general manager of Dell Technologies’ Telecom Systems Business, said the company is assembling a full stack of open and scalable servers and software to support cloud-native telecoms networks in fixed and 4G/5G markets. Its hardware, software and automated management systems are the foundation stones of its offering and are starting to secure it significant business in “an industry that is now beginning to wrestle with what an open ecosystem looks like” as Hoffman said.

The edge has been key to Dell’s telecoms push for several years and that strategy is starting to bear fruit as virtualization starts to move out of the data center and into the network itself, from the core to the RAN. That, of course, comes with a move away from highly centralized IT functions, which operators are increasingly migrating to the central cloud, and towards a far more distributed edge cloud, as required by access and transport networks with hundreds of aggregation points and thousands of end points.

“It really feels like the edge is going to become the focus over the next several years, just as the public cloud has been for the last several,” Hoffman said.

Dell has unveiled its latest offering, called Project Metalweaver, which will enable operators to choose, automatically deploy and manage thousands of compute, network and storage devices across multiple locations.

The vendor is also releasing new reference architectures that span the telecom edge, core and Open RAN. Dell is assembling an ecosystem around its proposed platform, featuring products and services from cloud companies VMware and Red Hat; telecoms network specialists CommScope, Mavenir and Nokia; Microsoft’s cloud-based core subsidiary Affirmed Networks; plus Intel.

The Dell reference architectures run on top of VMware Telco Cloud Platform and Red Hat OpenShift, and include

  • core software solutions from Affirmed Networks
  • private network solutions from CommScope Ruckus
  • Multi-access edge computing (MEC) solutions with Intel Smart Edge
  • Open RAN software from Mavenir on Dell EMC PowerEdge XR11 ruggedized servers
  • core software solutions from Nokia.

A new Open Telecom Ecosystem Lab in Dell’s headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, will provide a testing environment for new solutions based on the reference designs, and a second will follow in Tokyo, the heart of so much Open RAN development thanks to Rakuten, NTT Docomo and NEC.

In an interview with SDxCentral, Hoffman took the novel approach of positioning Dell as an “anchor tenant” for operators as they move to software-based networks. He said: “One thing the computer industry has been very good at over the years is selling thousands of things to one or two locations. It has not yet had to really develop the capability to sell one thing to hundreds of thousands of locations, and then support it, and then manage it. The thing that really makes this vertical market so unique is its geographic distribution, and we think that we’re very well positioned given that’s our heritage.”

In a move that may be important to encourage smaller operators, in particular, to take the plunge into virtualized networks, Dell Financial Services will extend flexible payment solutions to those deploying solutions based on its reference architectures.

Dell has made a string of telecoms announcements over the past few years as it seeks to steal a march on HPE and IBM, which have similar ambitions to take advantage of virtualization to expand their telco edge and services businesses. Last November, Dell set out a very ambitious three-pronged strategy – to be the operating system of 5G, via Dell’s VMware subsidiary (which it is spinning out); to lead in the souped-up hardware infrastructure that will support the cloud-based networks, especially distributed RAN; and to be the platform company that will “anchor” the US-centric open RAN ecosystem.

Founder Michael Dell told a conference at the time that 5G was “the most transformative change in our generation …  It’s not about talking on the phone faster; it’s about connecting things and making an intelligent world with enormous amounts of data.” And he made 5G the centerpiece of 2020’s Dell Technologies World too, stating: “5G is the digital fabric that allows us to extend the cloud to the mobile edge.”

Dell has been building a telecoms and 5G strategy since it acquired VMware, and last year it set up a dedicated telecoms systems business unit headed by Hoffman, formerly SVP of corporate strategy. “The entire network side of the telco budget, which dwarfs the IT budget, was largely unaddressable,” Hoffman said on his appointment. “But as this world has opened up and disaggregated and virtualized, much of it has started to become very addressable by what we do every day.”

What we “do every day” is integrate hardware and software and deliver it to very large corporations, he said. This is true of the server/cloud side of 5G, and this sets Dell against IBM and Oracle more than Ericsson and Nokia, which are new to the IT game. However, those network vendors understand the radio side, which will remain critical to 5G performance, and which needs a deep degree of optimization and specialized skills. The companies which will succeed in marrying the radio and the cloud most effectively will dominate 5G, but they will need a complex set of capabilities to address the overlapping area in that particular Venn diagram.

Hoffman thinks Dell has a role to play in reducing the time to deliver open, cost-effective yet performance-critical networks, by working with its chip suppliers and its own server technology, to boost general purpose hardware to be capable of supporting the most demanding RAN functions, including ultra-low latency or dynamic spectrum sharing.