Nokia, BT and Orange aim to unite cloud-native and 5G at last in PaaS project

As outlined in several articles in this issue, one of the great challenges of designing the new-look mobile or converged network is to make open source technologies, designed for software-defined data centers, fit for purpose even for the most performance-intensive telco functions, up to and including the RAN.

That means closer cooperation between the standards effort for the 5G New Radio, and the various initiatives which aim to transform the mobile network into a virtualized, programmable, software-driven services platform to support the distributed cloud. The logic of the latter development is clear, because it will allow established or new mobile operators to expand their revenue models with rapid roll-out of new services and with flexible network-on-demand options.

However, they still have to ensure that their networks can handle vast levels of connections, signalling and transactions, along with the new latency requirements of 5G. Even Intel does not pretend all that can be done on standard COTS servers, especially when it comes to the intensive processing of the RAN itself, or the transport network which underpins everything else.

So the latest initiative from Nokia Bell Labs, under the auspices of the European Commission’s 5G PPP program, is welcome because it seeks to make modern cloud native platforms telco-capable. It is working with a 12-strong consortium of partners – including BT and Orange – on a project called Next Generation Platform-as-a-Service (NG PaaS).

This goes to the heart of Nokia’s own strategy to become far more software-driven, and to be a frontrunner in key trends which are starting in the 4G era, but will be accelerated by 5G network capabilities. These include creating on-demand platforms to support private cellular network operators, enterprise network-as-a-service models, and eventually full network slicing.

Nokia’s own product and services roadmaps are heavily focused on such issues, so the latest EU-funded project fits well for the Finnish firm. The project leader, Bessem Sayadi, who is research manager for Nokia Bell Labs, said in a statement: “The consortium’s ambition for developing a next generation PaaS is to enable developers to collaborate within the 5G ecosystem (operator, vendor, third party) in order to ignite new businesses; thereby increasing market scale and improving market economics.”

To bring PaaS models, prevalent in the enterprise, to telco land, the platform itself will need to be cloud-native. That means building VNFs specifically for the cloud from scratch, rather than reworking physical network functions, creating VNFs by stringing together different combinations of micro-functions.

Beyond that, the PaaS must support two key characteristics, according to Nokia. It must support the creation, delivery and running of “telco-grade” quality in VNF (virtual network function) applications, which means enabling 5G target levels of latency, capacity and reliability.

And it must be open so that many third party apps can be combined with those VNFs easily. That, says Nokia, allows the creation of versatile and powerful cloud objects which can break down the barriers between connectivity and computing, in order to support use cases like connected robotics or sensor-based machine learning for the IoT.

Sayadi says such a platform does not exist today.

The PaaS approach also aims to increase overall usable capacity, facilitate high levels of density, and improve energy efficiency.

The two-year project, unlike some of the first phase of 5G PPP efforts, is starting sufficiently close to commercial 5G roll-outs to be firmly focused on commercial potential rather than just technologies and architectures. The official announcement says: “The 5G standard is emerging at a particular time in technology history when the cloud is deeply transforming many industries and services. As such, innovations have to be cloud-native in order to be successful and this means adopting a model beyond the current telco Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) model. Instead what’s needed is a Platform-as-a-service (PaaS) model.”

Preliminary trials will take place early next year, followed by pre-commercial trials later in 2018. Other group members include IT provider ATOS,  Italy’s University of Milano-Bicocca, the Dansmark Tekniske Universitet, and Belgium-based technology hub IMEC.