The increasingly edge-centric nature of 5G networks is a golden opportunity for cloud providers to gain a strategic position in the telecoms market. At the least, this will provide them with new or increased revenues from operators; on top of that, it can even enable them to usurp operators in providing many service elements, especially to enterprises.
Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud have all been courting operators as customers and partners in recent years, and while they have clearly won the battle to build and monetize the centralized cloud, at the edge there is a different balance of power, at least for now.
Operators need to build or rent edge cloud infrastructure to support distributed cores and vRANs, and to enable new or enhanced user experiences for consumers and enterprises. They may choose to build that infrastructure, in which case it may be a valuable way for the hyperscalers to extend their own reach without having to invest in every location directly; or they may choose to place their applications, and even their vRAN functions, in a public cloud.
Microsoft recently set up its Azure for Operators initiative, headed by Tad Brockway, who last week announced a new Azure private MEC (multi-access edge compute) offering. This builds on the company’s existing Private Edge Zones product but introduces richer capabilities, enabled by the acquisitions of cloud-based core network companies Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch.
Customers of Azure private MEC can now add in the Metaswitch Fusion Core, which supports 4G and 5G virtual network functions, Open RAN hardware, Azure AI and other features. They can also add the Affirmed Private Network Service (APNS), a managed private cellular network service for 4G and 5G.
The offerings are targeted at enterprises or their service providers in manufacturing, healthcare and transportation, in particular. Brockway insisted this did not represent an attempt by Microsoft to take operators’ business, claiming that telco partners will be “critical for Azure private MEC to span the ecosystem of hardware, applications and the network. This enables operators and systems integrators who are building on top of our platform to create solutions that drive new innovations and enterprise digital transformation.”
Microsoft said it has support from AT&T Business, Vodafone Business, Lumen Technologies, Telstra and Telefónica Tech already.
While Microsoft is emphasizing core-as-a-service and network-as-a-service relationships with operators at the edge, Google Cloud has taken a different approach and assembled a wide portfolio of edge-focused development tools and services for telcos. It aims to drive and coordinate an ecosystem that is specifically tailored to operators so that they will see Google as their ‘friend’ in the battle to lead the enterprise edge market.
Google’s strategy centers on its Anthos for Telecom offering, which was launched in March 2020, and promises a flexible cloud platform with a broad range of software partners rather than a full stack. Google says it has increased its line-up of industry application providers from 30 a year ago, to 52, and claims over 200 edge-based applications from these partners.
Amol Phadke, managing director of telecom industry solutions at Google Cloud, wrote in a blog post that the new partners “span use cases like video analytics and smart surveillance, edge data storage infrastructure, artificial intelligence, as well as network management and control”. Beneath all that diversity, Anthos provides a consistent platform to enable solutions that rely on the Google edge cloud plus operators’ connectivity, especially 5G.
Among the newest partners to sign up are Ciena, which brings its Adaptive Network and network automation software to Google Cloud. Others include F5 Networks, Airhop, Casa Systems and Vapor IO.
Meanwhile, AWS has established the biggest headstart with operators via its Wavelengths and Outposts edge programs, and recently scored a major victory when it was chosen as the cloud platform for Dish Network’s 5G vRAN in the USA.
Its first Wavelength partners, announced last year, were Verizon and Vodafone, and the latter has followed its US counterpart in providing more details of the services it will deliver using the alliance. Wavelength allows operators to establish instances of the AWS cloud in their networks to support new applications, while the Outposts technology provides a consistent developer platform spanning the centralized AWS cloud and instances in on-premise or edge network locations.
Vodafone has been trialling the system in the UK for a year and claims to have achieved round-trip latency of 10ms, even in an edge cloud that does not look highly distributed (it is serving Wales and western England from a London data center). Now it will offer commercial services, initially in the UK and later in other European markets. It will expand its UK offering to northern England and Scotland in 2022 as a step towards supporting nationwide Wavelength services from four data centers. Vodafone Germany will launch its services during the second half of this year.
Vodafone said the applications it has tested include those related to sports technology, autonomous transport, biometric security, remote virtual reality and factory automation.