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29 July 2019

Verizon and Ericsson reach major cloud-native core milestones

Verizon is often overshadowed by AT&T when it comes to cutting-edge network architectures in the USA, but it also has significant roadmaps for virtualization, 5G and the cloud-native core.

It has just started a new core network trial with Ericsson, designed to ease the migration path to Standalone 5G, which requires a full 5G core. It is not putting a timescale on the commercial launch, but the US majors are expected to switch on 5G Standalone at an early stage, possibly before the middle of next year.

This trial is the first of a container-based, cloud-native 4G evolved packet core (EPC) in a live network, said the US telco. The 5G core will build on development and investment made in this platform, which supports 4G and Non-Standalone 5G.

This will be the basis of the 5G platform, said Akhil Gokul, head of core and cloud in the CTO office of Ericsson’s Verizon customer unit. Like many advanced MNOs, Verizon will move from virtual machines and NFV towards cloud-native containers with 5G Standalone, but it is implementing these capabilities first in a 4G platform.

Santiago Rodriguez, head of 5G Standalone packet core and communication services for Ericsson North America, said: “What we’re doing here is combining network functions for 5G SA with functions for NSA into the same platform: all cloud-native, all operating in the same way. So this will make it easier for operators to jump from NSA to SA.”

Verizon said it will also examine the potential to move legacy LTE core to the cloud “opportunistically and selectively”.

Verizon’s VP of technology development and planning, Bill Stone, said the new core will help the operator “achieve new levels of operational automation, flexibility and adaptability”, while Ericsson believes transitions like Verizon’s will reduce the cost of network software upgrades by 90% for MNOs in future, and cut hardware infrastructure costs by 90%.

That should help with network robustness, since software upgrades will not require parts of the network to be taken down. “It’s in our DNA to operate very reliable networks,” said Stone.

This trial, conducted in Hillsboro, Oregon, involved the Mobility Manager Entity (MME) virtual network function (VNF), enabled by Ericsson’s Packet Core Controller.  It leveraged key features of a container approach, such as docker images and helm charts, to support a constant stream of software updates (about one every two weeks, says Ericsson).

Tom Nolle, president of CIMI and a prominent critic of NFV as a telco platform, told FierceWireless the trial was significant for two reasons. He said: “First, the release never mentions NFV, which I hope means that both companies recognize that for multi-tenant functionality, NFV is the wrong approach, period. Second, it’s a container-based approach, and it’s been clear that in the broad market containers are exploding as the hosting strategy de jour for applications. The only qualifier is that you can do containers and not-NFV and still not be cloud-native, and they don’t provide the details of what their architecture is.”

Stone was looking beyond the core, saying: “We see opportunities to use and leverage cloud-native container-based technology not just in the core network, which we’re doing here with this proof-of-concept trial, but we see opportunities to take advantage of that technology as we virtualize network functions that will run at the edge of the network as well.”

The RAN will be in his sights, and Verizon has already engaged in tests of vRAN. In May it demonstrated a fully virtualized RAN baseband, enabling edge computing, in its network in California, working with Intel and Nokia. An earlier trial, held in January in Houston, Texas, used MEC equipment and software in a 5G testbed and claimed to have cut latency in half.

“Now that we can separate the software from the underlying hardware, it gives us more flexibility, and it’s important because it reduces latency. We also believe over time this is going to become a more efficient and cost-effective configuration,” Stone said at the time. “The two things combined, California and Houston, are where we plan to go in the future. As we move forward with 5G deployment, it’s a critical part of our strategy to deploy these general purpose platforms toward the edge and take advantage of virtualizing more of the baseband functions while also preparing to host additional applications.”

The trial used Nokia’s AirScale All-in-Cloud Base Station architecture, Intel Xeon Scalable processor-based servers and the Intel FlexRAN reference architecture, which supports the RAN stack running on servers.

Verizon is working with other vendors including Ericsson and Samsung, and will conduct more vRAN trials this year. “As we continue to proceed with 5G and modernizing the network, all of the new network functions that are being put in place will be cloud-native and fully virtualized,” Stone said. “This is table stakes.”

Adam Koeppe, SVP of network planning at Verizon, said in a statement: “Massive scale IoT solutions, more robust consumer devices and solutions, AR/VR, remote healthcare, autonomous robotics in manufacturing environments, and ubiquitous smart city solutions are only some of the ways we will be able to deliver the promise of the digital world. These advancements in technology are critical steps towards that realization.”