Huawei teases MWC cloud launches, promising ‘skyscraper on a soft beach’

Huawei aims to help operators to build a “skyscraper on a soft beach” with its telco cloud platforms, virtualized networks and flexible spectrum systems, the Chinese company promised as it briefed analysts ahead of Mobile World Congress next week. Of the three largest equipment vendors, Huawei revealed the least in terms of actual new products – most of that is still to come in Barcelona, where at least seven new offerings will be unveiled – but it was the most consistent in its messaging, building on themes of ‘cloudification’ and 4.5G which it has been evolving for several years now.

While both those terms reek of marketing buzzwords, Huawei is increasingly building a real and logical story behind the less-than-elegant labels. While rivals Nokia and Ericsson also, of course, have a 5G migration roadmap, and cloud networking, at the heart of their agendas – along with some very advanced product plans and demonstrations – Huawei’s message comes over as the most unified, building on foundations which were laid five years ago or more, and anchoring 5G, telco cloud and virtualization carefully into current operator requirements, not just the 2020 dreams of a few.

So CloudAIR, the innovative flexible spectrum system which Huawei first showed off last fall, currently addresses operators which want to refarm 2G airwaves on an as-needed basis alongside LTE; but will later support LTE/5G coexistence and migration, and a whole range of new user experiences and services.

Similarly, 4T4R MIMO antenna arrays are becoming a mainstream option for operators, and Huawei is keen to discuss here-and-now products for LTE-Advanced, as well as roadmaps to 8T8R, Massive MIMO and, on the channel side, virtual 4T4R and distributed MIMO. But these architectural developments must be tied into measurable shifts in network economics and user experience, as well as the overall move to the cloud.

This message of evolution was presented by Huawei as a three-year journey, from MWC 2015, where the slogan was ‘Roads to network evolution’ (network architecture); to 2016, when it was ‘Roads to digital transformation’ (user experience); and now MWC 2017, where that has morphed into ‘Roads to new growth’ (business value). That, in Huawei’s view, revolves around several cornerstones – maximizing network value; monetizing video; reshaping the business-to-business model for telcos through the cloud. All of which will be achieved by cloudifying services, operations and networks.

So there was a more pragmatic air to Huawei’s presentations than to Ericsson’s big vision, unveiled later the same week (see separate item), and very little mention in the keynote speeches of 5G or even the Internet of Things (except both those are implicit in the roadmap discussions, as end points for the cloud process).

Huawei’s executive presentations were full of statements such as “we are the real business partner for operators”, and “only when the carriers grow can Huawei grow”. Zhilei Zou, president of Huawei’s Carrier Business Group, said: “We want to improve operations efficiency and network opportunity, so the end user needs can be met.”

Many of the sessions were focused on current, well-established business models rather than futuristic applications like driverless cars. Video, in particular, took a big role, because Huawei believes this is a service where the operator’s role cannot be usurped. There are question marks over the place of the MNO in emerging value chains like the Internet of Things – will their networks be the best suited to support huge numbers of low data rate, low latency communications? Will they be able to monetize them?

But there are far fewer over mobile video, claimed Huawei, because only a high performance and well optimized network can satisfy rising user expectations for quality of experience. “The most important part of video is the user experience: experience is the king. That is why the operator is so important as a key player in this game – it’s because the network has never been as critical as now,” Li said. He sees a stack of options for monetizing video, from the base level of charging for capacity; to ‘experience monetization’ (charging a premium for advanced offerings like 4K); to ‘ecosystem monetization’, which is about revenue share with third parties such as advertisers, games developers, retailers or educational institutions.

This was not the stuff of grand 5G dreams of robots and drones, but designed to stress that 5G will, in reality, be built on making sound, practical decisions about evolving the network and services now, to get the operator’s business and user experience into good shape for the next leap.

And to support that gradual, needs-based migration, there was the unifying theme of telco cloud. From the RAN to the core to the spectrum, Huawei aims to lead the field in ‘cloudifying’ all aspects of the network, while also supporting operators’ own cloud services activities and their SDN/NFV programs from data center to CPE, and looking ahead to the even more cloud-centric 5G architectures, with capabilities like network slicing.

So video is a consistent theme throughout, and identified as one of three key operator opportunities for 5G, according to wireless product CMO Peter Zhou, the others being household broadband and vertical market services.

He also outlined the All-Cloud architecture which is Huawei’s end goal, and which goes a lot further than the 5G RAN itself, embracing data services, core and transport, and fixed networks too.

New or updated products and solutions are promised for launch at MWC, in seven areas which represent Huawei’s end-to-end cloud strategy:
CloudAIR moves the air interface to the cloud for spectral efficiency
CloudRAN and CloudCore do the same for the network, for resource flexibility and distribution of the cloud through the mobile network right to the edge
CloudFAN (fixed access network) to improve service quality and resource efficiency
CloudMetro – network slicing for metropolitan networks
CloudCampus – a business-to-business solution which operators can sell to, and host for, enterprises or cities
CloudEPN and SD-WAN – also a B2N solution for operators to increase their enterprise revenues.
And underpinning it all is the integrated telco cloud architecture, which can enable operators to implement some or all of the above in a unified way, with the aim of transforming the economics of their networks and supporting a huge increase in data volumes, network behaviors and service types, while harnessing spectrum and network resources with maximum efficiency.

Huawei argues that operators will have to adopt a cloud-based architecture if they want to move beyond their current (and struggling) mobile data model, and to adopt 5G in a commercially meaningful way. To support service diversity – which is emerging on mobile networks for the first time as everything gets connected, not just handsets – “a modern network needs efficient resource utilization, on-demand module deployment, and agile service provisioning if it hopes to achieve long term development. And building a cloud-based network is the only way to make that happen.”

In the mobile network itself, Huawei offers  Cloud AIR, CloudRAN and CloudEdge (the core), to form the ERRA (Edge RAN AIR) platform (see inset). This will increasingly work alongside the cloud-based data center and fixed wireless platforms, and to achieve “full cloudification”, it will also be essential to have apps platforms with open APIs, storage, data analytics and cloud management, in order to improve the business case for operators to turn their networks inside-out, and to encourage partners and innovators from across the chain.

CloudAIR – the missing link in an MNO cloud strategy:

Huawei has been assembling its cloud platform for mobile networks piece-by-piece for two years, as part of its broader ‘cloudification’ program for service providers. First came CloudEdge for the core network, launched in 2014; then CloudRAN in April 2016; and then a cloud-based air interface, CloudAIR, in November 2016, allowing for dynamic allocation of spectrum bandwidth across multiple bands.

“We launched the CloudAIR solution to help reshape the air interface,” said Edward Deng,  Huawei’s president of wireless solutions. “Our focus is on improving the efficiency of the air interface, enabling operators to deploy services more flexibly and, of course, enhancing user experience. CloudAIR is designed to enable more efficient sharing of air interface resources like spectrum, power, and channels.”

CloudAIR aims to accelerate the shift from localized, discrete deployments to an end-to-end strategy encompassing most of the network, since Huawei claims it will significantly improve the cost justification for a cloud core and RAN, as well as allowing operators to make far better use of their most precious asset, spectrum. Like its stablemates, it is designed for implementation with LTE/3G/2G networks, the catalyst often being a move to LTE-Advanced and a broader virtualization roadmap.

But it also clearly prepares the network architecture for future migration to the 5G radio, given that the most important aspects of 5G are expected to be its software-driven nature, its programmability and its extreme flexibility, including network slicing.

Indeed, the new addition to Huawei’s portfolio is perhaps the one which is most clearly geared up for 5G. The main justification for 5G migration, particularly an early-stage one, will be its ability to support many services, enterprises and service providers, each of them with different requirements in terms of network behavior (data rates, quality of service, security, bandwidth, signalling load and so on).

The ability to virtualize the network from RAN to core to backhaul will be critical to the business model, to deliver virtual ‘slices’ for each service, on-demand and optimized for its particular requirements – whether those are sub-ms latency of multi-Gbps speeds, or even both.

CloudEdge provided the first step in this direction, supporting multiple radio access technologies (RATs) and looking ahead to slicing networks in order to deliver “tailored scenario-based solutions”, as Huawei called them. This now has 10 commercial deployments.

CloudRAN will be commercially available in the third quarter of this year. It has passed business verification tests in China, Italy, South Korea and Japan. Huawei solutions have been in trials with several operators, sometimes in pre-commercial form, and heavily tailored for individual carriers’ architectures. The important next step for virtualized RANs will be the availability of simplified, standards-based solutions with open interfaces, rather than the complex and hand-crafted platforms adopted by the trailblazers such as SK Telecom, NTT Docomo and China Mobile.

But the core and RAN will not be enough to deliver the flexibility and efficiency that will rescue the mobile business model. Dynamic, on-demand delivery of network resources has to extend to the most pressurized and expensive of all the elements, spectrum. CloudAIR takes a step towards making this high concept into practical reality, because it supports flexible sharing of spectrum, power and radio channels.

Deng said: “The air interface is the most valuable resource that operators have. And if this most valuable resource doesn’t support efficient, on-demand, and agile network deployment, then a mobile network isn’t truly cloud-based.”

With CloudAIR, different RATs can share the same spectrum, and spectrum resources can be allocated automatically where traffic requires. This maximizes spectral efficiency and helps get new RATs online more quickly, while also preventing legacy terminals from occupying spectrum for long periods of time.

There will also be support for sharing power, RANs, spectrum bandwidth and cell sites between operators, laying the foundations for multi-operator networks. Like spectrum flexibility and virtualized RAN, multi-operator support may be optional in 4G, but will be essential to many aspects of the 5G environment, especially ultra-dense networks – though the barriers in its way are not just about technology, but about operator resistance and regulatory roadblocks.

Another interesting aspect of CloudAIR is support for channel sharing driven by artificial intelligence (AI), a technique in which operators are showing increasing interest as a way to automate the management of their resources in a highly flexible way (see Wireless Watch November 21 2016). AI-based scheduling enables received signals to be recognized as available multipath resources to enable better site selection.

As well as supporting early enablers of 5G network slicing and massively multi-operator virtualized networks, the ERA platform provides a significant element of 4G-to-5G migration, dual connectivity. This allows 4G and 5G to share spectrum and operate in tandem, to increase throughput and allow the 5G radio to be introduced gradually, and only where required. Operators will not tolerate another big bang, wide area RAN upgrade, but will often deploy 5G for density or for new enterprise business cases, in selected areas. In the meantime, they expect to continue to enhance their LTE networks for another decade, because these will still be providing wide area coverage and mobility, complemented by 5G on a case-by-case basis.