Nokia was very clear, at its Global Analyst Forum in Helsinki last week, that it would be essential for operators to go cloud-native in order to reap the full benefits of 5G. In particular, MNOs must start planning to deploy a fully cloud-native 5G core when they move to the Standalone version of 5G New Radio (current networks use Non-Standalone, which works with the 4G core).
The company acknowledged that not all the building blocks or skills are in place for this migration, except for operators which take on a very highly customized inhouse implementation (as sometimes seen in Japan, Korea and China). But the platforms are starting to come together, and the vendor outlined the benefits on offer, in its presentations and an accompanying blog post.
There are five business objectives for 5G which can only be achieved with cloud-native platforms, argued the company. These are:
- Greatly improved bandwidth, latency and density
- Extension of services via network slicing to new enterprises, industries and IoT markets
- Rapid service deployments defined by agility and efficiency
- New services that go beyond traditional broadband, voice, and messaging
- Introduction of digital services that harness end-to-end networking to capture more revenue.
“What’s needed is a core that can operate in any cloud environment, whether that is based on virtual machines or containers, and that has a breadth of cloud-native capabilities,” according to the blog. Those capabilities include microservices, agnostic infrastructure, open APIs (application programming interfaces) and DevOps processes.
“This allows operators to deploy a cloud-native core that can competitively support all access technologies, mobile and fixed,” Nokia explained. “It can be rolled out to support existing 4G services, and it’s ready to deliver the more exciting business opportunities when the move to 5G Standalone deployment is made.”
A new report from ABI Research makes similar arguments, saying that the “momentum of enterprise 5G will come to screeching halt without a cloud-native platform”. It forecasts that revenues from cloud network elements in 4G and 5G will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 25%, to reach $20bn by 2024.
One of the big decisions for operators is whether to build their own telco cloud, or host their network functions in a vendor’s cloud (evolving a well-established managed networks services option), or in the public cloud. Nokia acknowledged that the public cloud was an increasingly common strategic choice for telcos. Most are starting by moving IT and back office functions to platforms such as AWS, Microsoft Azure or Google, but others are plotting roadmaps to move network functions in the core, and even the RAN, to this scalable infrastructure with its predictable costs and performance.
AT&T, for instance, has adopted a “public cloud-first” policy for IT functions and is weighing up possible future extension of that strategy to the network itself, once it is fully ‘cloudified’.
This trend is bringing the mobile suppliers and operators closer to the major cloud platforms. AT&T recently announced a major alliance with Microsoft Azure while Telecom Italia teamed up with Google. AWS is the most common platform for vendors of cloud-based telecoms equipment to support, and Nokia said last week that all new cloud-native functions and applications in its Common Software Foundation (CSF) would be available on AWS from the day of their release.
Nokia already offers customer experience, service fulfilment and orchestration applications on AWS and will now “prioritize 5G solutions including mobile core, network and service orchestration, and device management and operational support systems suites” for AWS.
The two companies have extended their engineering cooperation as Nokia looks to smooth its customers’ path to cloud-native, but they have been working closely together for years, and especially since late 2017 when they announced their first “strategic collaboration” spanning wireless, wireline, IoT and 5G technologies.
That initial program used CSF to containerize network functions and applications based on a unified model, which enabled the Nokia solutions to be hosted on AWS cloud infrastructure in containers. That led to the creation of a CSF-based, cloud-native system for automating application integration and customization on AWS.
Another important cloud-native partnership which Nokia has announced this month is with VMware, a giant of enterprise virtualization. The two are working to improve
interoperability between VMware’s Telco Cloud platform and Nokia’s applications, so that it is easier for operators to run Nokia’s containerized network functions on VMware cloud infrastructure.
And the Finnish vendor also recently announced a deal with Microsoft to combine its 4G and 5G-ready solutions with the Azure cloud. This alliance is targeting ‘Industry 4.0’ applications in areas like manufacturing, logistics and transportation, whose processes are set to be transformed by a combination of cloud and edge computing, AI and machine learning, and next generation connectivity. The two vendors will upgrade several Nokia services, such as its Digital Automation Cloud (DAC), by moving them to Azure, and Nokia’s 5G-ready private cellular radio will also be powered by Azure.
This shows the 5G vendors, like some operators, moving towards use of the webscale cloud platforms, as a more cost-efficient approach than building their own clouds. The networks and industrial services that Nokia and others need to support for enterprise customers are extremely demanding on cloud infrastructure, and the required scalability and optimization may often be best left to the leading platforms.
The new combined approach will harness several Azure assets including its cloud infrastructure, plus Azure IoT, AI and ML suites. These will support Nokia’s 4G and 5G-ready private network equipment, as well as its IoT, industrial automation and SD-WAN offerings. The DAC will be upgraded with on-premise Azure elements.