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3 April 2020

HPE turns up 5G heat with open source management project

Just weeks after HPE made its biggest play yet for the 5G market with the launch of a hosted 5G core (see Wireless Watch March 16 2020), it has announced an open source project with Intel and the Linux Foundation, also focused on the core.

While its previous announcement brought the as-a-service model, so familiar in the enterprise, to operators, this new cooperation imports another enterprise norm that is slowly taking hold in the telco world, the open source platform. Both these changes help to bring the economics of the IT and cloud markets to telecoms, and in doing so, provide an opportunity for new 5G entrants like HPE to try to unseat the incumbent vendors along with their proprietary business models.

The new open source initiative aims to automate the roll-out of 5G across many sites in order to reduce the cost and time to market for dense networks. Called the Open Distributed Infrastructure Management Framework (ODIMF), the group also contains AMI (an I/O system firmware expert), data center network automation specialist Apstra, IBM’s Red Hat, integrator TechMahindra and World Wide Technology (WWT), a provider of automation and orchestration solutions.

The aim of the framework is to simplify network management in a way that would directly reduce operational cost and complexity. It will support large-scale, geographically distributed networks across hardware from multiple vendors. While so many cross-industry alliances focus on orchestration of virtual network functions, this one recognizes that physical elements will remain a significant part of the telecoms network, and obdurately expensive to coordinate, manage and maintain. 5G, in particular, will involve rising numbers of physical resources ‘behind the antenna’ – fiber multihaul, site wiring, small base stations, edge servers and so on.

Its linchpin is HPE’s Open Distributed Infrastructure Management Resource Aggregator, which will now be contributed on an “infrastructure-as-code”basis  to the open source community. The vendor will also offer a commercially supported version with paid-for services and value-added plug-ins, in the second quarter, adopting the well-known enterprise open source free/commercial model. The Aggregator models infrastructure elements in every site to simplify automation across all resources, regardless of supplier or location.

HPE said it will use industry-defined specifications, including DMTF Redfish interfaces, “to create a vendor-neutral approach for managing configuration and operations of compute, storage and networking infrastructure resources across multiple vendors at scale”.

Lee Doyle, principal analyst with Doyle Research, said: “This is solving how the network compute, edge and storage all work together using NFV, containers and other virtualized applications by leveraging something that’s been out there for a while, which is a standard called Redfish.”

It is notable that, while cloud and data center virtualization specialists are prominent – as they are in many current virtualized network trials and platforms – the major RAN vendors are absent from the list of founders. As in other aspects of the automated, orchestrated, software-based network, their equipment will continue to play an important role, and will need to be managed alongside software resources. This will be a critical dilemma for them – whether to support open initiatives coming from the data center world, where automation expertise is high in some areas, or to try to grab the leadership of such a strategic element of the 5G landscape themselves.

More seriously for the success of the initiative, it did not launch with any major telcos as founders. The enthusiasm of certain large operators for embracing open platforms suggests this gap will soon be filled, but it will be essential for the credibility of the project among suppliers, and therefore the amount of money and effort they will contribute to it beyond press release quotes; and also essential to ensure that the platform is based on real world telco requirements, which can be complex and difficult to distil without deep involvement from a few large operators.

However, HPE also sees the framework reaching beyond carriers in the same way that 5G will be deployed directly by enterprises and their service providers. The company says these organizations can use its aggregator to simplify infrastructure automation in any kind of network, regardless of the connectivity type or the operator. Providing such facilities as enterprises ramp up their efforts in large-scale private networking could keep that source of growth close to HPE, rather than ceding management revenues to telco equipment vendors, which are eyeing the private enterprise opportunity keenly.

The HPE Open Distributed Infrastructure Management Resource Aggregator will be available globally in the second quarter, as will the open source release of the Open Distributed Infrastructure Management Framework, via the Linux Foundation.

This Foundation is becoming a power base of equivalent importance to the 3GPP in the 5G world (though increasingly, open source efforts are taking account of 3GPP standards and even feeding specs back into that body). The Foundation hosts a large number of projects which will be foundational to software-driven future networks, such as O-RAN, ONAP (Open Network Automation Protocol) and the LF Edge and LF Networking Fund, two umbrella groupings of multiple related initiatives with a heavy focus on telecoms.

The delays in 3GPP standards-setting for the next two releases of 5G, because of the COVID-19 crisis, are highlighting the contrast between these traditional, slow-moving processes and the more virtual and dynamic approach of the open source community perhaps with permanent implications for the balance of power between the two groups and their leading vendor supporters.

Meanwhile, HPE is intensifying its efforts to target operators. It already offers several telco-specific hosted platforms such as home location servers, and two weeks ago it unveiled its 5G Core Stack.

This family of as-a-service offerings is designed to help MNOs, especially smaller ones and new entrants, to accelerate deployment of 5G and plot a simpler course towards cloud-native systems and the 5G core.

The flagship is the HPE 5G Core Stack, a cloud-native platform which will be offered on a pay-as-you-go, hosted basis from HPE’s cloud. The delivery and charging for the service will be via the vendor’s consumption-based IT model GreenLake and the core stack will be available globally from the second half of 2020.

The stack consists of virtualized network functions (VNFs) from HPE and partners, namely:

  • HPE cloud-native 5G core functions. It has six in place – Unstructured Data Storage Function (UDSF); Unified Data Repository (UDR); Authentication Server Function (AUSF); Unified Data Management (UDM); and Network Exposure Function (NEF).
  • VNFs from core specialists Affirmed Networks and Mavenir, plus Metaswitch, Casa Systems and Samsung
  • HPE middleware and orchestration software
  • HPE hardware (Edgeline servers)

The HPE 5G Core Stack also supports integration with previous generations of cellular technology, stateless containerized network functions, a shared data environment, management and orchestration services, and an automation framework that can also be purchased via the Greenlake capacity-as-a-service system.

MNOs can also source the HPE core functions themselves and do not need to run them on HPE hardware – they could, for instance, host them on Dell servers running Red Hat Kubernetes.

When it announced Greenlake, HPE put all its hardware and software products on the same pay-as-you-go model, which it claims will make costs more predictable, and more aligned to usage and revenue, for operators. MNOs have to sign up for Greenlake in order to use the new 5G core.

HPE says it is in discussions with a few operators and is actively testing and trialing its technology in about 20 labs. It is also engaged in about 50 5G core-related projects ranging from conversations to proofs of concept (PoCs) to “near deals”, it said. One high profile trial is with Samsung and Openet in South Korea (believed to be with SK Telecom).