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27 November 2019

Kubernetes containers start to eye the ultimate challenge, the vRAN

Last week’s KubeCon + CloudNativeCon North America event in San Diego, California had its eyes firmly on the migration of telecoms networks to cloud-native architectures in the 5G era, a significant opportunity to grow the containerized cloud platform in a previously untapped industry. Pat Gelsinger, CEO of data center virtualization stalwart VMware, has said that telco cloud and 5G represent a “great opportunity to participate in an enormous market”.

There was a ‘live’ 5G call between San Diego, Montreal Canada, and Sophia Antipolis, France, presented by Heather Kirksey, VP of community and ecosystem development at the Linux Foundation; Azhar Sayeed, chief architect for service providers at Red Hat; and Fu Qiao, project manager at China Mobile. Behind those public faces, the demo was enabled by over 100 volunteers from 15 organizations including A10 Networks, Alibaba, Altran, China Mobile, Commscope, Eurecom, Intel, Kaloom, Linux Foundation, Lenovo, Loodse, NetScout, OpenAirInterface, Red Hat, and Turnium.

The team were using a prototype 5G core running in a containerized environment, developed as part of the Kubernetes-based virtualized central office project. They used 5G NR radios, with commercial handsets in a custom-built Faraday cage, and spectrum borrowed from an unnamed MNO.  The network connected a live call over points-of-presence in the three cities.

Also at the event, Wind River announced a partnership with Dell EMC to develop virtual RAN (vRAN) infrastructure use cases. The embedded software provider will integrate its Wind River Cloud Platform with Dell EMC’s PowerEdge server. The Cloud Platform – a commercial implementation of the open source OpenStack-based StarlingX project – supports a cloud-native, Kubernetes and container-based architecture which can manage geographically separated infrastructure for vRAN and core sites. The platform promises single pane of glass, zero-touch management of thousands of nodes, and is optimized for distributed functions harnessing edge computing, such as RAN.

The architecture allows operators to deploy and manage thousands of sites as a single cloud-native infrastructure from a central hub, scaling down to a single server node at the far edge, plus deploying edge clouds from bare metal.

The huge numbers of nodes that a multinational operator will need to control and orchestrate will make virtual machines, and relatively heavy infrastructure like OpenStack, unsustainable for at-scale vRANs and edge clouds – hence the move to more agile, automated cloud-native and containerized approaches.

Wind River expects 5G vRANs to appear first in North America, followed by Europe, the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific, though it admits this will be a multiyear journey. “There is global operator interest and active pursuit of vRAN technology for 5G as the ideal approach to deploy 5G at scale in a disaggregated cloud framework model,” Miller said.

“As telecom infrastructure continues to evolve, service providers are facing daunting challenges around deploying and managing a physically distributed, cloud native vRAN infrastructure,” said Paul Miller, VP of telecommunications at Wind River, in a statement. “By working with Dell EMC to pre-integrate our technologies into a reference distributed cloud solution, we can cost-effectively deliver carrier grade performance, massive scalability, and rapid service instantiation to service providers as their foundation for 5G networks.”

Such cooperations, whether in open groups like Linux Foundation or between suppliers, will be vital to help address the daunting challenge of running a RAN in the cloud, and trusting the most expensive and vital part of the MNO’s network to the immature technology of containers.

“In a 5G world, new services and applications will not be driven by massively scaled, centralized data centers but by intelligently distributed systems built at the network edge,” said Kevin Shatzkamer, VP of enterprise and service provider strategy and solutions at Dell EMC, in a statement. “The combination of Dell EMC and Wind River technology creates a foundation for a complete, pre-integrated distributed cloud solution that delivers unrivaled reliability and performance, massive scalability, and significant cost savings compared to conventional RAN architectures. The solution will provide CSPs with what they need to migrate to 5G vRAN and better realize a cloud computing future.”