The first crop of 5G network deployments may look very little different from 4G networks, except for their spectrum and antennas, but the mobile operator community now knows for sure that it will have to adopt a dramatically different architecture if the business is to continue to be sustainable. Otherwise, while they are crushed under their debt mountains and the ongoing cost of running their physical, manual networks, others will deploy cloud platforms and all the tools of the webscale world, to steal away the most lucrative parts of the mobile business by leveraging agile, low cost technologies.
This was highlighted in the past week by the annual conference devoted to the Kubernetes container technology, a cornerstone of modern cloud-native platforms. These were once seen as several steps removed from the mobile network, but now a few operators already have roadmaps to take their 5G cores, and even their virtualized RANs, to a cloud-native environment. So while a vRAN demonstration at KubeCon + CloudNativeCon would have been surprising even a year ago, now it seemed to be something that the industry urgently needed to see.
Nokia, struggling with the problems that have hit its 5G radio technology, was emphasizing its advances in cloud and software platforms when it held its annual gathering of industry analysts last week in its Finnish headquarters. This is one example of a traditional mobile vendor looking to expand into the cloud territory before its established customers start to defect to new suppliers from the data center world – and enlisting new allies like Amazon AWS to help.
This battle goes right down to chip level, where Intel is defending the natural advantage it has in cloud-based telecoms, with its dominance of server architectures, from incursions by ARM and Nvidia (now working together on high performance platforms).
And some of the operators are starting to sign up their critical cloud partners. Last week we noted Telecom Italia’s intensifying moves to build out a cloud, working with Google in particular, and start to derive some of the same benefits that leaders, such as AT&T, Rakuten and Telefónica, are hoping for. A week later, Google had announced another major operator alliance, this time with Vodafone, centered on cloud AI (artificial intelligence).
If we have one prediction for 2020 that is sure to come true, it is that there will be an acceleration of this process of forming new alliances, between vendors and operators from the traditional telecoms world and those in the cloud environment, and a year from now, we should be seeing the first commercial cloud-native deployments in the core, and a far clearer sense of which firms have leadership potential in the ‘true 5G’ era.