Dell signs Orange to help it drive open platforms for the 5G edge

In October 2017, Dell EMC set up an IoT division with a three-year, $1bn program to develop an architecture and services portfolio centered on the edge and 5G, but with little space left for MNOs in its value chain. Halfway through that three-year period, the company has warmed towards some telcos at least, signing a partnership with Orange to work on use cases and a common hardware platform for the edge-based 5G IoT.

The partnership involves most of Orange’s units – its mobile or fixed operations in Europe and Africa, and Orange Business Services in 196 territories around the world.

Initially, the two companies will cooperate on defining promising use cases and business models; and validating hardware accelerators to support them such as graphical processors, FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) and SmartNICs for edge workloads. On the software front, they will work together on AI and machine learning software to manage edge systems, whether these are deployed with virtual machines, containers or bare metal.

“The full promise of 5G will only be met with microservices and full virtualization, supported with Multi-access Edge Computing” said Nicolas Homo, Orange’s director of strategy and transformation for corporate cloud infrastructure. “We need to progressively work on it. We are far from it.”

Naturally, some of the specified connected edge use cases on which they will collaborate are specifically telco-oriented. These include virtualized RAN, ultra-low latency 5G connectivity, and services harnessing the ETSI MEC (Multi-access Edge Computing) specifications, which unlike other architectures like OpenFog are heavily geared to an operator-delivered edge network.

The end result of all this work will be a new distributed architecture based on common hardware platforms from the core to the customer premises, said Dell. They will aim to generate wide support for this architecture by establishing an open source ecosystem. Like many such initiatives, there is a clear motivation for the equipment vendor, to create an open platform for which it has a headstart in developing compliant hardware and software.

Dell will provide SD-WAN technologies from its VMware VeloCloud business unit, VMware’s NSX virtual networking, along with compute platforms ranging from small edge nodes to micro-servers to modular data centers located in cell sites or central offices. All of these can be managed both locally and remotely as workloads and data are moved along the cloud continuum from central data center to extreme edge, according to requirements and use case.

And while its own IoT service platform supports a view of the edge network that looks well beyond the telco’s locations and connectivity, Dell will certainly be eager to help the operators which do want to migrate to the edge cloud and a virtualized network along their path.

So it wants to provide a standardized route for telcos like Orange to move from single-function, proprietary hardware towards networks based on standardized IT and cloud platforms, to “deliver more dynamic, agile edge compute, storage and network solutions”.

Tom Burns, Dell’s SVP of networking and solutions, said: “We’re working closely with Orange to combine our joint telco best practices with decades of data center transformation experience to help service providers retool their operations to quickly and profitably roll out new 5G services.”

He added that the deal with Orange represents “an effort to work with them to look at not only the transformation that’s occurring with 5G, but also what are some of the potential business opportunities that they could be enabling. This includes potential use cases for B2B or even consumer that Orange might be able to monetize — and hopefully monetize at a lower cost based upon standard, non-proprietary, disaggregated architectures.”

“We believe it’s essential to prepare the ecosystem for telco use cases while progressing in our knowledge of the future technologies,” said Stephane Demartis, Orange’s VP of corporate cloud infrastructure. “Orange expects from this partnership with Dell EMC not only technical but also business outcomes in order to fuel our strategy towards Multi-access Edge Computing transformation.”

The fact that Orange repeatedly cited ETSI MEC, rather than a broader vision of edge computing architectures, does highlight the potential mismatch between the view of the operators – even the most advanced ones – and that of IT companies like Dell. MEC plays a bit part in most enterprise-driven views of the edge because it was originally so aligned with telco sites such as central offices – but many edge use cases need a very different footprint, including many indoor locations. By the time MEC had expanded its remit to industrial applications and virtualized systems, it had been overshadowed by OpenFog, now the basis of the IEEE standard for edge interconnectivity.

However, telcos which, unlike AT&T, have not fully developed their virtualization, edge and IoT strategies for the 5G era, are the best targets for the help of Dell or its rivals like HPE. Dell recently signed another operator agreement, with China Unicom, to provide IT hardware and software, in order to support IoT, edge and 5G technologies over the next 12–36 months, and it is also close to a deal with Telefónica, the company said. The China Unicom agreement also allows for the partners to devise and promote 5G, edge and IoT use cases together and share technologies and products that enable both.

At this year’s Mobile World Congress, Dell talked up a “comprehensive portfolio of integrated, validated and customized solutions designed to support 5G and edge deployments”, heavily based on its acquisition of 81% of VMware. Dell sees the telecoms market as a relatively untapped one, as it has been slower to move towards virtualization than many enterprises, but it believes “the opportunity for VMware inside of that is to help build a telco cloud, build an infrastructure that enables those services to be offered, and also on top of that build some new offerings like our VeloCloud wide area network, announced with AT&T, integrating SD-WAN,” Dell said at MWC.