Nokia harnesses ReefShark for edge server targeted at C-RANs and IoT

Nokia has arguably been the most edge-focused of the major network vendors, throwing heavy support behind ETSI’s MEC (Multi-access Edge Computing), and behind services that would leverage a combination of wireless connectivity and a distributed cloud.

Now it has gone a step further and announced its own edge server, a compact addition to its AirFrame cloud infrastructure platform, sporting an open architecture and Nokia’s own new ReefShark chipset. First shown at the recent Zero Touch and Carrier Automation conference in Madrid, this is designed to support ultra-low latency processing, whether to support the links between the edge and the central cloud in a Cloud-RAN, or to enable IoT services for consumers and industries.

As such, it fits well with operators’ move away from a highly centralized view of their virtualized networks, and towards one in which resources can be flexibly divided between center and edge depending on use case. However, it could also help Nokia to provide the type of distributed, connected cloud environments which will enable other players – from Internet giants to private network operators – to squeeze the MNOs in the most high value 5G markets.

Increasingly, the combination of localized small cell clusters with edge compute resources, in shared or industry-specific spectrum, could enable new service providers, targeting particular locations, verticals or applications, and relying on the MNOs for wide area roaming, rather than for full MVNO deals.

Nokia has been putting together the pieces which could make this scenario a reality. To name just a few, there are its:

  • Cloud Packet Core
  • Enterprise and urban small cells
  • Wing IoT connectivity platform
  • Network slicing developments
  • Collaboration with Amazon AWS to integrate MEC with AWS’s Greengrass IoT development platform
  • Work on flexible spectrum schemes like the US’s CBRS

All these could be harnessed by its traditional MNO customers to support a more flexible, cost-effective 5G network, able to support more revenue streams than just enhanced mobile broadband. But they could equally well be used by private network operators, localized ‘thick MVNOs’ with their own infrastructure, cloud providers or neutral host operators. Nokia itself could even seek to offer network-as-a-service, based on cloud infrastructure and slicing, to a broad landscape of service providers – a direction in which Wing takes a few steps in the IoT.

To add to the enablers above, there is now the new AirFrame edge server, optimized for processes requiring very low latency – such as distributed C-RAN, industrial IoT and virtual reality – and therefore best placed close to the user.

The AirFrame Open Edge server runs on Intel Xeon processors with the ReefShark chipset and will start shipping in the third quarter. ReefShark chips will accelerate a range of functions including Layer 1 network processing, security, compression and neural networking, while the new servers also support third party accelerator chips including FPGAs.

The server is ultra-compact so that it could be deployed almost anywhere, including at base station sites – Nokia has long been a supporter of the ETSI MEC idea that base stations and edge compute nodes (storage, memory and CPU) would logically live together. This MNO-centric view has recently lost some ground to the OpenFog idea, emanating from the IT industry, that the nodes should be placed anywhere in the network, from center to edge, according to use case.

The hardware comes with a real time OpenStack distribution, optimized for small data centers, and compatible with OPNFV (Open Platform for NFV), an open source reference platform for ETSI Network Functions Virtualization. Nokia will also offer services and

Cloud Collaboration Hubs to help operators plan and execute their edge cloud deployments, it said.

“The edge cloud will play an essential role in delivering the compute power required for 5G,” said Marc Rouanne, president of mobile networks at Nokia. “By expanding our AirFrame and 5G Future X portfolio we can provide a network architecture that meets the needs of any operator and their customers. Used with the Nokia ReefShark chipset and our real time cloud infrastructure software, the open edge server will deliver the right decentralization of 4G and 5G networks.”

As well as being the most enthusiastic of the big OEMs about a very distributed edge, Nokia has also been the most willing to take the difficult route of embracing open source technologies. It is planning to contribute its design to the Facebook-led Open Compute Project (OCP), which was set up to drive down the costs of cloud infrastructure through industry collaboration and open source technology. Facebook followed that up with its Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which might also be the recipient of some future Nokia developments. An example of Nokia’s new outlook is that it mainly supports open APIs (application programming interfaces) for its accelerators, and is considering opening up its remaining proprietary interfaces.

In this open, software-driven networks world, OEMs risk losing their ability to differentiate, and to protect margins. One of Nokia’s answers has been to invest in its own processors in order to push the performance limits of its equipment and move beyond its telco base and further into the cloud and webscale sectors. Chips like ReefShark and the FP4 processor, which powers Nokia’s top end router, are key to retaining its value.

ReefShark was announced at the start of this year, initially as a component of the latest AirScale 5G-ready base stations, but with a remit to evolve to run a wider range of applications. By investing in these processors, Nokia is creating a broad integrated platform which can be targeted at webscale and data center giants, as well as telcos. It is also setting its cap against the merchant chip vendors, most notably its close ally Intel, which also has visions of an architecture to power the virtualized carrier and webscale networks of the future.

The hallmarks of 5G RAN – virtualization, Cloud-RAN, Massive MIMO, ultra-density, ultra-low latency and what Deutsche Telekom calls “brutal automation” – have one thing in common. They all require massive compute power.

That means processors and accelerators will remain a source of high value and differentiation in the network, and far harder for others to challenge, or operators to replace, than a clever piece of software.

This is why Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft all work on inhouse processor projects, because they are similarly reliant on driving ever-higher levels of compute performance, at lower cost and power consumption, into their platforms. Nokia’s telco customers will face the same challenge, and if Nokia cannot deliver those capabilities, there will be one more reason to move one’s virtualized network to run in the AWS cloud.

Even if that proves to be the end game, Nokia will still have a strong role in the value chain if it can continue to drive the physical elements, like the antennas, and even provide the processors to the webscale giants, as it hopes to do with the FP4 and the petabit routers.