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20 November 2018

FutureX for Industries and edge cloud systems: Nokia grows its enterprise toolkit

Nokia deals like the one with BMW are indicative of its strategy to restart growth in its revenue in two ways – by reaching out to industrial customers, with or without the help of MNOs; and by developing all the elements of a 5G-driven and cloud-based platform for the enterprise markets, from chips to software to services.

Its ‘Future X for Industries’ architecture, unveiled earlier this month, is part of the attempt to be an end-to-end and top-to-bottom supplier in several key verticals, beyond the telecoms one itself. Houman Modarres, director of enterprise marketing, said the new architecture was designed to accelerate Nokia’s recent efforts to grow its enterprise business, building on an architecture developed at its Bell Labs R&D arm.

Like other broad-brush initiatives like Germany’s Industrie 4.0, this brings together many technologies under one umbrella, including 5G, Industrial IoT connections, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) and robotics.

“It’s an architecture that gives industries a way to think about this transformation, a way to guide their thinking a bit,” Modarres explained. “It’s an open framework for the way they can think about this transformation” in a way that is specific to their sector.

This is a step on from the original Future X architecture of 2015, which set out a framework for service provider networks, and demonstrates how far Nokia has moved towards new vertical sectors since then.

Marcus Weldon, president of Nokia Bell Labs, said in a statement: “Industry is driven by a constant quest for leading profitability, which in a dynamic marketplace requires maximum productivity. The Future X for industries architecture is designed to describe the essential foundation of this Industry 4.0 revolution, much as the Future X network vision we published in 2015 is serving as a blueprint for service provider network evolution.”

The new architecture has four technology layers held together by a common approach to cybersecurity (“defense in depth”, as Nokia puts it), and a range of new user interfaces.

The layers are:

  • Business Applications – specific applications for each segment, including key areas such as predictive maintenance, workforce efficiency and safety, and asset optimization.
  • Digital Value Platforms – this supports industrial automation, cognitive analytics and digital operations, and enabling network and device platforms.
  • Multi-cloud – this delivers proximity and elasticity of compute resources to ensure meet the performance requirements of business-critical applications using the most appropriate cloud models (from local clouds to edge and hybrid clouds).
  • High-performance Networking – dedicated ultra-reliable connectivity (wired and wireless) to link everything together.

Within the Future X architecture, Nokia is investing in what it sees as the linchpin technologies, such as edge cloud, SDN, cloud orchestration, analytics, and private mobile networks to support the IoT and multicloud operations.

At the heart of the vendor’s increasingly edge-focused vertical market strategy are several pieces of hardware. The Finnish firm is not forgetting its roots as an equipment maker, even if it has been the most willing, of the big OEMs, to adapt to the software-defined world. In that world of commoditized hardware, Nokia must prepare for the time when its crown jewels, base stations, are implemented as virtualized network functions (VNFs) on cloud servers. So some of its core offerings now are for cloud infrastructure, from the AirFrame server to the CloudBand NFV platform.

Like most telecoms vendors, these require Nokia to strike a delicate balance – to make its hardware look open and off-the-shelf, while making sure it is highly optimized for the high demands of virtualized telco networks, so that it retains quite a lot of value and differentiation after all.

Then it will also focus on the hardware elements which cannot be commoditized – the massive antenna arrays for 5G base stations, for instance; and the increasingly powerful and complex processors which will be the engines of the vRAN servers and the software-defined transport networks of the 5G era.

Its developments, in hardware, connectivity and services, are increasingly edge-focused, as Nokia sees the edge cloud as a way for service providers (telcos or otherwise) to expand their role and value within enterprise markets. Nokia has arguably been the most edge-focused of the major network vendors, throwing heavy support behind ETSI’s MEC (Multi-access Edge Computing), and behind services that would leverage a combination of wireless connectivity and a distributed cloud. In May, this approach, and its bid to retain the value of its hardware engineering in a software-driven world, was epitomized by the launch of its own edge server.

A compact addition to its AirFrame cloud infrastructure platform, this sported an open architecture and Nokia’s own new ReefShark chipset. It is designed to support ultra-low latency processing, whether to support the links between the edge and the central cloud in a virtualized RAN, or to enable IoT services for consumers and industries. As such, it could help Nokia to provide the type of distributed, connected cloud environments which will enable other players – from Internet giants to private network operators – to squeeze the MNOs in the most high value 5G markets.

The AirFrame Open Edge server runs on Intel Xeon processors with the ReefShark chipset. ReefShark will accelerate a range of functions including Layer 1 network processing, security, compression and neural networking, while the new servers also support third party accelerator chips including FPGAs.

The server is ultra-compact so that it could be deployed almost anywhere, including at base station sites – Nokia has long been a supporter of the ETSI MEC idea that base stations and edge compute nodes (storage, memory and CPU) would logically live together. This MNO-centric view has recently lost some ground to the OpenFog idea, emanating from the IT industry, that the nodes should be placed anywhere in the network, from center to edge, according to use case.

The hardware comes with a real time OpenStack distribution, optimized for small data centers, and compatible with OPNFV (Open Platform for NFV), an open source reference platform for ETSI Network Functions Virtualization. Nokia will also offer services and
Cloud Collaboration Hubs to help operators plan and execute their edge cloud deployments, it said.

“The edge cloud will play an essential role in delivering the compute power required for 5G,” said Marc Rouanne, president of mobile networks at Nokia. “By expanding our AirFrame and 5G Future X portfolio we can provide a network architecture that meets the needs of any operator and their customers. Used with the Nokia ReefShark chipset and our real time cloud infrastructure software, the open edge server will deliver the right decentralization of 4G and 5G networks.”

In this open, software-driven networks world, OEMs risk losing their ability to differentiate, and to protect margins. One of Nokia’s answers has been to invest in its own processors in order to push the performance limits of its equipment and move beyond its telco base and further into the cloud and webscale sectors. Chips like ReefShark and the FP4 processor, which powers Nokia’s top end router, are key to retaining its value.

ReefShark was announced at the start of this year, initially as a component of the latest AirScale 5G-ready base stations, but with a remit to evolve to run a wider range of applications. By investing in these processors, Nokia is creating a broad integrated platform which can be targeted at webscale and data center giants, as well as telcos. It is also setting its cap against the merchant chip vendors, most notably its close ally Intel, which also has visions of an architecture to power the virtualized carrier and webscale networks of the future.

Having extended the reach of the AirFrame family, this month it was the turn of an equally strategic portfolio – this one acquired with Alcatel-Lucent – the CloudBand management and orchestration (MANO) toolkit for virtualized networks.

The new CloudBand Infrastructure Software platform comes in a smaller footprint than its predecessors, again to support edge cloud deployments, and includes a fully open source release of OpenStack (rather than a Red Hat implementation, as Nokia previously used) . Heavily geared to 5G, it consists of:

  • Infrastructure Software for virtualized infrastructure management (VIM)
  • Application Manager
  • A generic virtual network functions (VNF) manager
  • Network Director for network service and cloud resource orchestration.

Operators can unify their NFV infrastructure/VIM, allowing a single management platform to support centralized and distributed cloud deployments and workloads; and

a mixture of virtual machines (VMs) and containers. That should ease the transition to a multivendor, cloud-native environment, which Nokia expects to come into play among telcos along with 5G. And the small footprint promises to support “sharper” cloud management from center to edge, to improve service delivery and significantly reduce the cost of managing cloud infrastructure (by over 90%, the vendor claims).

Guy Shemesh, head of CloudBand at Nokia, said: “Nokia’s latest CloudBand Infrastructure Software improves on OpenStack’s operational state and removes risk and complexity for CSPs. It supports a combination of IT and telco network cloud deployments, including stringent radio requirements, as well as enterprise cloud needs.”

Nokia’s growing toolkit for enterprises and private networks:

Increasingly, the combination of localized small cell clusters with edge compute resources, in shared or industry-specific spectrum, could enable new service providers, targeting particular locations, verticals or applications, and relying on the MNOs for wide area roaming, rather than for full MVNO deals.

Nokia has been putting together the pieces which could make this scenario a reality. To name just a few, there are its:

  • Cloud Packet Core
  • Enterprise and urban small cells
  • Wing IoT connectivity platform
  • Network slicing developments
  • AirFrame Edge Server
  • New compact CloudBand Infrastructure for edge cloud and vRAN
  • Collaboration with Amazon AWS to integrate MEC with AWS’s Greengrass IoT development platform
  • Work on flexible spectrum schemes like the US’s CBRS

All these could be harnessed by its traditional MNO customers to support a more flexible, cost-effective 5G network, able to support more revenue streams than just enhanced mobile broadband. But they could equally well be used by private network operators, localized ‘thick MVNOs’ with their own infrastructure, cloud providers or neutral host operators. Nokia itself could even seek to offer network-as-a-service, based on cloud infrastructure and slicing, to a broad landscape of service providers – a direction in which Wing takes a few steps in the IoT.