Looking to capitalize on the growing interest among network operators for more open, disaggregated systems, HPE has developed a 5G standalone core system that, it hopes, will be seen as a viable alternative to the next-gen core platforms on offer from the industry's big three suppliers – Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia.
The ICT giant, which already has a sizeable telco customer base of about 300 operators for its BSS, OSS and existing mobile core applications (HLR, HSS, etc.), believes operators are increasingly looking for alternative suppliers to the major network equipment providers (NEPs). "Operators have seen 5G as the opportunity to break the stranglehold of the NEPs," stated HPE's VP of Communications and Media Solutions, Phil Mottram, during a media briefing in London on Tuesday morning.
So, just as the 5G standalone core market is about to gather pace (once the 3GPP Release 16 specifications are completed in the coming months), it has pieced together a 5G core offer, dubbed the 5G Core Stack, that leverages its telecom software heritage and the smarts of a key set of partners. That core system comprises: HPE cloud-native core functions, plus functions from key partners Affirmed Networks, Mavenir, Metaswitch, Casa Systems and Samsung; HPE middleware and orchestration software; and HPE hardware (Edgeline servers).
Mottram says HPE has six fully cloud-native 5G core functions: Unstructured Data Storage Function (UDSF); Unified Data Repository (UDR); Authentication Server Function (AUSF); Unified Data Management (UDM); and Network Exposure Function (NEF).
HPE plans to offer the full 5G core stack in a pre-integrated solution, starting in the second half of this year, but says customers can pick and choose the elements they want, claiming this is truly an "open" proposition. That means an operator can, if they so choose, source HPE core functions and host them Dell servers running Red Hat Kubernetes. Mottram says HPE's cloud-native 5G core functions have been designed to be truly open and not tied to any other element or application.
In addition, it also plans to offer its 5G core on a cloud-consumption, pay-for-what-you-use plan, using its GreenLake model that has proven popular with large enterprises as it avoids major upfront capital costs. Mottram says some operators are close to signing up to use 5G core functions using this model, whereby they would pay a fee for each subscriber registered to the core platform (though the details vary in each case, he notes).
This is all very well, but the 5G core is arguably the most important part of the 5G infrastructure – the 'brain' – that will enable the features and functionality that could open up the enterprise 5G services market with functionality such as slicing. Does HPE really think mobile operators will use an as yet unproven 5G standalone core platform in preference to technology sourced from their tried and tested mobile core supplier?
After all, the current mobile core market, worth US$8 billion in 2019 according to Dell'Oro, was dominated by Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia (not surprisingly) but also featured Cisco, ZTE and HPE partner Mavenir as the other names in the market's top six players.
Mottram is adamant that HPE has "mission-critical skills, credibility and trust" on its side, though it's worth noting that didn't help the company when it tried to help Telefónica advance its virtualization program (though that was five years ago…).
Despite that bullish view, he's not expecting major mobile operators to rock up to HPE's front door and take the full stack, it seems: The large telcos that aren't going with the major NEPs are "looking to build their 5G core themselves, using their internal teams and working with a system integrator" to bring in and pull together the best elements. Smaller operators that don't have large internal teams and limited funds for SI relationships, though, are interested in the complete stack, he claims.
And there is operator interest in what the company has to offer, he notes. Mottram says HPE is engaged in 50 or so 5G core-related projects that range from conversations to proofs of concept (PoCs) to "near deals." About ten of those involve tests and trials, one of which involved Samsung and Openet in South Korea (believed to be with SK Telecom).
And Mottram claims there is one major Tier 1 operator set to source 5G core functionality from HPE that will be deployed in its domestic market (rather than in a small regional operating unit), though currently he can't disclose which other that would be.
One industry analyst not surprised that operators are showing a keen interest is Karl Whitelock, Research Vice President, Communications Service Provider Operations & Monetization, at IDC.
"HPE is moving in the right direction for sure" with an offer that is "a solution, not just a hardware box or software application. The solution is designed to address the numerous 5G core network functions that, when coupled to a 5G RAN, provide end-to-end service management and, most importantly, data sharing between the RAN and core domains," he notes in an email to Light Reading.
The IDC man notes that HPE's 5G core stack "includes the operations and orchestration (OSS) capabilities needed to hook into existing systems and to provide the necessary functions tied to service onboarding, the details of slice management, NFV operations (MANO) and automated operations … what makes the HPE 5G Core Stack solution different is that it is the core network infrastructure functions combined with the E2E orchestration and operations management capabilities all in one" and which is available through the as-a-service model.
In addition, Whitelock notes the solution "also comes with analytics capabilities built in," which will enable the process automation needed for enhanced 5G service delivery. Ultimately, manual operations just won't cut it, notes the analyst.
"Any time a vendor can bring together a solution that can [simplify] day-to-day operations, I believe network operators will be all over it. It is no longer a best-of-breed mindset with the operators – it's all about time-to-market and simplifying operations management complexity for the humans involved," adds the analyst.
And others will follow suit. "Do I think HPE is the only supplier with this concept in mind? Of course not. A virtual network stack with operations included is the way in which networks will be designed and implemented in the 5G era. Solution suppliers understand this concept and are all moving to provide cloud-native network functions, often following a CI/CD delivery approach," states Whitelock.
Show me the money
So HPE appears to be on the right lines, but it will be named engagements with influential operators that will give HPE's 5G core pitch the credibility it will need to make a dent in a market dominated by big name suppliers. In addition, the network operator community has a long way to go before it can manage cloud-native functions at a day-to-day operational level.
Open, disaggregated systems and cloud-native functionality are certainly on the roadmap for mobile operators as they inch their way down the 5G path. Likewise, support for an alternative supplier ecosystem is growing (as we've seen from the support for open RAN developments from Tier 1 operators in the past 12 months) and that gives the likes of HPE at least the opportunity to introduce new models and, perhaps, loosen the stranglehold of the major vendors.
— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading