Rising frustration at the slow pace of telco network virtualization has been a strong theme of 2018, pouring cold water on the heady enthusiasm of earlier years, and the hopes that NFV and software-defined networking (SDN) would quickly transform the cost base and service models of the MNOs, well ahead of 5G.
In fact, first-stage 5G roll-outs are coming more quickly than major virtualization programs for most MNOs, particularly when it comes to the RAN, and operators are having to rethink the economics of their early deployments. One problem is that there are so many efforts to achieve the much-needed common framework. Some are conducted by open industry alliances, some by standards bodies, and in many cases they overlap or even conflict, raising the risk of fragmentation.
One company which is highlighting this challenge is Mirantis, provider of cloud computing services based on OpenStack. It says the problem is becoming even more urgent as telcos want to start deploying edge compute nodes along with their connectivity, to support low latency applications. But that means they must have simple, efficient and unified code to download and install at the edge – a goal that is enmired in the complex efforts to establish standards and reference architectures.
The company’s co-founder and CMO, Boris Renski, pitched LightReading with Mirantis’s view that telco initiatives are starting with the wrong angle in virtualization, and should be thinking of the edge first. Instead of “seizing the edge opportunity”, many operators, and their industry alliances, are focused on virtualizing the network core, often relying on incumbent vendors.
At the same time, standards bodies such as ETSI, and open source initiatives like OPNFV (Open Platform for NFV) are arguing about standards and reference architectures, but “have yet to produce some real, downloadable artefact that people who are building applications with VNFs can take advantage of”, he told the journal.
Of course, the company is launching its own solution to this, MCP (Mirantis Cloud Platform) Edge, a distribution of the Kubernetes open container platform specifically designed to run at the edge of an operator’s network, specifically in a regional POP or network aggregation point. MCP Edge supports high availability services running in a small footprint, Renski said, and is priced from $500 per node, a price point designed to encourage experimentation and early uptake – and implicitly, to wean operators off their usual network vendors as they adopt new architectures for edge compute.
MCP Edge also runs virtlet, a Kubernetes project that allows operators to use Kubernetes as a scheduler for virtual machines (VMs). Although containers are seen as a more modern and flexible solution than VMs in virtualized networks – especially resource-constrained edge nodes – many operators will need to use both technologies for some time. MCP Edge and virtlet, therefore, allow telcos to run their virtual network functions (VNFs) on either VMs or containers, and use OpenContrail (an open source orchestrator originally designed by Juniper) to coordinate them.
One operator which is looking to push virtualized, open architectures more aggressively and so rework the economics of telecoms is Indian new entrant Reliance Jio. RJio is heavily engaged with open source communities and start-ups to help it take a non-traditional, and low cost, approach to expanding its services. It is also working closely with Mirantis, aiming to create, as the telco described it recently, “an NFV infrastructure layer that becomes the foundation for every service to be put on the network as a VNF. Evolved packet core, for instance, then becomes a VNF of its own and so on. So each VNF associated with our core, our access and our services has a small microservices organization.”
Mirantis is helping it to develop this cloud strategy for internal use as well as enterprise customers.