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22 June 2021

Dish partners with Dell to build edge cloud that reaches all the way to cell sites

A few weeks ago, the USA’s Dish Network caused a stir when it said it would deploy its 5G vRAN in the public cloud, via a partnership with Amazon AWS. But it is not leaving all its cloud infrastructure to the hyperscaler, and has now announced a deal with Dell to support an edge cloud build-out of its own, which will support private and enterprise networks.

Dish will deploy Dell EMC PowerEdge servers at cell sites and in centralized RAN locations. It will subscribe to Dell’s Apex Flex On Demand, which enables it to scale its server usage up and down while only paying for what it uses, and will use a wide range of Dell tools and software, as well as engaging in joint R&D for next generation capabilities.

Dish’s business model will rely heavily on wholesaling – even its retail mobile arm, Boost Mobile, will be treated as a customer of the wholesale 5G network. The aim is to steal a march on the larger operators by offering network slices to enterprises and MVNOs, taking advantage of a greenfield deployment that will have a sliceable 5G core from day one.

With enterprise interest in private cellular on the rise, there is some tension between the traditional private networks business, in which a service provider builds and manages a self-contained RAN with its own cloud-based core; and the emerging network slicing approach, in which enterprises can use a virtual network, configured within the operator’s main physical network to specific requirements, on an on-demand basis.

Dish, it seems, aims to support a hybrid of these models to extend its wholesale-only proposition as far as possible. It will work with Dell, which will provide servers and software – including automation and security technology – to support the build-out of Open RAN at the far edge, including cell sites. Dish’s chief network officer, Marc Rouanne, said: “We chose to leverage Dell’s technology because they have a demonstrated track record of transforming networks and a willingness to work with us on designing and implementing Infrastructure as Code (IaC).”

He said that, with Dell’s zero-touch provisioning of containerized RAN network functions, Dish can automate deployment of services across geographic locations.

Specifically, the two companies will co-develop private 5G wireless network solutions, including SD-WAN and MEC (multi-access edge compute) platforms. They will design network infrastructure from cell sites to data centers to optimize performance and power efficiency, while using machine learning for monitoring and predictive maintenance.

They will also conduct joint R&D in technology areas that could enhance the platform in future, including Open RAN, SmartNICs, micro-edge colocation and operational automation.

This is the latest element in Dish’s cloud-native strategy which also includes VMware’s Telco Cloud Platform for RAN, and the AWS cloud. “Everything north of the base station, the site, is in the cloud,” Rouanne said, and Dish is also using AWS Outposts to support enterprise networks.

The various partnerships will result in three tiers of edge cloud within the Dish network. The biggest tier is AWS, said Rouanne who told FierceWireless: “With AWS we’re pushing the data centers to the availability zones and local zones so we can push large compute close to the markets.” The middle tier is based on locations between the public cloud and the cell towers where Dish will install mini-data centers connected with optical fiber.

The farthest edge tier is at cell tower sites and enterprise locations. “We’ll repeat the same architecture at the micro level,” said Rouanne. “We have a Kubernetes layer working with VMware to orchestrate all that.” This could be an important proof point for the model of deploying edge nodes at cell sites, something the US tower operators have been eyeing with cautious optimism, building out some pilot sites with the aim of extending their neutral host businesses into the cloud and adding new value to their sites.

Rakuten Mobile, which Dish often cites as its template, is less confident about the capabilities of existing cloud solutions when it comes to the demanding world of the 5G RAN. The Japanese company’s CTO, Tareq Amin, told an analyst and media briefing last week that “despite so much hype around virtualization… there is not a single vendor in the world that supports elasticity. It is not good enough to move the software architecture from a monolithic architecture that was built on proprietary hardware and say I’m going to shift to a virtual machine. To achieve the dream and the benefits of cloudification, the software architecture must evolve to support elasticity.”

He added: “There is no magic that an AWS, Google or Microsoft could enable because the underlying software architecture is absolutely flawed. It needs to evolve. I don’t think the industry as a whole has forced the vendors to advance the software architecture in the same way that enterprise and over-the-top players have advanced. Orchestration in a way that you want it – holistically across the network – doesn’t exist.”

“We still have a lot of work to do with the industry and ecosystem to push this modernization of the software stack – auto-elasticity, auto-healing, resiliency and so on – into the fabric of the cloud networks.”