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16 March 2020

ONF turns attention to private networks with enterprise edge system

One of the many aspects of enterprise edge computing which may prove a double-edged sword for operators is the move towards private networking.

Many industries are interested in enhancing existing processes, or implementing new ones, with cellular connectivity, and they are also increasingly interested in the edge cloud to improve security, latency and control for these applications. But they want the connectivity to be under their control, rather than just using the public mobile network, to ensure it meets their particular requirements. And so there is a clear logic to combining private cellular networks with edge nodes and even a localized packet core.

That could be an opportunity for an MNO, to use its spectrum and radio expertise to offer the whole edge/cellular platform, together with tools and security, as a managed service. But it could also be a chance for specialized private operators or neutral hosts, or even cloud providers, to take some of the richest pickings in the 5G/IoT environment for themselves, leaving the MNO with just spectrum fees (or not even those, if shared or enterprise spectrum is used).

The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) has done a great deal to help operators make the painful migration to the cloud with open source developments like CORD (Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter). But its latest initiative could equally well be adopted by a challenger to the established MNOs. It has released a platform, which draws on several of its existing projects to support 4G or 5G connectivity-as-a-service for enterprise private edge clouds.

The platform, called Aether, is based on Kubernetes, and according to Timon Sloane, VP of marketing at ONF, it combines edge cloud, multi-access edge computing (MEC) and open RAN specifications to enable “new forms of collaboration and new open business models”. Sloane said: “The goal here is to support the APIs so that applications that are written to run in those public clouds can also run natively at the edge cloud.”

Aether supports licensed and unlicensed spectrum and all the major public cloud platforms. It is built on three of ONF’s foundation platforms – CORD, ONOS (open network operating system) and OMEC (open mobile evolved core). The aim is to enable larger-scale deployment and management of edge connectivity for IoT devices, as well as on-premise control of data and edge services.

A production pilot has already begun, with a group that includes Intel and Infosys trialling the platform as a single network that spans multiple edge locations. “Aether is really natively combining connectivity with an edge cloud, so a centralized control plane oversees all of the mobile core user planes at multiple edge sites,” said Oguz Sunay, chief architect for mobile networking at ONF.

This is where the threat for MNOs comes in. That control plane would usually be run exclusively by operators, but ONF believes that enterprises must have the option to take control themselves and manage their data and connectivity independently.

“We think we’re creating a new collaborative place where the industry and community can come together to help drive some maybe consolidation and critical mass behind a common platform that can then help common functionality proliferate in these edge clouds,” Sunay added.

ONF had planned to release and demonstrate Aether at the Open Compute Project’s Global Summit last week, but the event was cancelled because of concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

Despite being heavily operator-driven, the ONF has been developing several platforms that will help give enterprises, or their specialized deployment providers, greater self-sufficiency. OMEC, which was unveiled a year ago, was presented by Sloane as a potential alternative to operator-managed network slicing, which relied instead on creating a separate core for each service – an approach that could be harnessed by industrial players as well as MNOs.

OMEC is part of the broadening umbrella of CORD, which aims to define open ways to harness NFV and SDN to deliver cloud economics to the telco’s traditional networks and locations (including the central offices and, eventually, the cell sites).

Based on a development originally done by Sprint, OMEC includes seven co-repositories for the functionality called for in the 3GPP EPC standards. Sloane said: “It’s optimized for IoT and 5G. It’s virtualized, disaggregated and then distributable, so you can place the pieces wherever they make the most sense. Very explicitly we’ve disaggregated the user plane and the control plane. This then allows the components to be placed where best suited anywhere in the network all the way from the access to perhaps even a public cloud or telco cloud or anywhere in between.”

The OMEC work will be one project feeding into the more specifically 5G-oriented COMAC (Converged Multi-access and Core) initiative, which addresses the convergence of 5G and fixed broadband networks, and the ability to deliver a seamless user experience and subscriber management regardless of access technology, and even as users move between different connections. Treating all access variants the same is essential to network slicing and to many edge, cloud and enterprise applications.

The first COMAC reference design was launched in February 2019, supported by AT&T, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Google and Türk Telekom. The initial vendor supporters were Adtran, Intel, Radysis, gslab and HCL. COMAC leverages SDN and cloud to create converged access and converged core capabilities on a single platform. The access architecture is based on disaggregated RAN, core and Broadband Network Gateway (BNG) components, and it draws on the work of other open groups – such as ORAN for the disaggregated RAN, and SDN from the ONF’s SDN-Enabled Broadband Access reference design, as well as its Virtual Optical Line Termination Hardware Abstraction.

Elements of the RAN, core and gateway will be redistributed and aggregated into a unified access layer, creating a control plane powered by SDN, and a user plane powered by P4, the open language which allows for the programming of packet forwarding planes, to support flexible and customized services. The resulting stack will manage high speed subscriber traffic regardless of a user’s access link. COMAC will be configurable for mobile 4G and 5G as well as PON, WiFi, DOCSIS cable and fixed wireless.