If 2020 was the year that containerized applications became more commonplace in telco networks, then 2021 will most certainly be the year that service providers move aggressively toward cloud-native networking. But what exactly does cloud-native networking mean in the telecom world?
Cloud native is a term that comes from the IT industry that is used to describe the building and running of network functions that take advantage of the cloud computing delivery model. This model, which usually involves software containers, allows service providers to develop and deploy networks more quickly, making it possible for them to respond quickly to growth in mobile data traffic and add new services. Cloud native also typically involves automation tools that allow service providers to become more open and agile.
Containers fit into this cloud-native architecture because they make it possible to break network functions down into smaller, configurable components.
Although some operators may choose to move to standalone 5G (5G SA) without the benefit of a cloud-native architecture, many experts view having a cloud-native network as being critical to 5G. "We see cloud native as an important and foundational element to build on the promises of 5G," said Anders Rosengren, head of architecture and technology for digital services at Ericsson. "Our 5G core for 5G SA is cloud native. You really need cloud native to deliver 5G to the fullest extent."
Rosengren said that Ericsson has more than 30 commercial contracts with service providers that will be deploying their 5G core with cloud-native capabilities and that six operators are live today with it. "2021 will be the year commercial 5G SA and 5G core with cloud native will be deployed," he added. "We are moving there quickly."
That theory is backed up by Raj Yavatkar, CTO of Juniper Networks. Yavatkar said that Juniper is seeing service providers still support their legacy virtualized network functions while introducing containerized functions. But at the same time, operators are indicating they want to move to a cloud-native network and many are issuing requests for proposal (RFPs) in search of the right architecture.
A step at a time
But moving to a fully cloud-native network architecture won't happen overnight. Instead, service providers are migrating in that direction at different stages, and a big element in that decision is whether there is a business case for it. "Different operators are at different stages," said Steve Scarlett, who is part of Nokia North America's customer CTO team, adding that while some service providers are doing interesting things with cloud native most have not scaled the technology yet. "What we haven't seen yet is widespread adoption," he said.
Some of the reason for this, according to Scarlett, is that service providers need a business case to make them want to shift legacy functions into cloud-native functions. "There has to be compelling use cases that will drive the adoption of this."
Absent those compelling use cases, Scarlett said that he believes that some functions will never move to cloud native. "Cloud native is more powerful when you need to scale," he said, adding that legacy SMS is one example of a function that probably won't be moved to cloud native.
But others believe that all applications and functions will eventually move to cloud-native architecture, even operating systems and back office systems like billing. "All our applications will be cloud native in the coming years, and not just functions but also OSS and BSS," Rosengren said. However, he admitted that OSS and BSS functions are more difficult to convert because they are integrated into the operators' business functions.
One business opportunity that may make operators move more quickly to cloud-native is the demand for private 5G networks. Juniper's Yavatkar said that cloud-native network architecture will make it easier for service providers to move quickly and provide turn-key private 5G networks for different vertical industries. He explained that open radio access network (open RAN) technologies coupled with the ability to disaggregate the core and run it in the cloud will help operators build these private networks quickly.
And that may be critical because Yavatkar believes that network operators are going to see competition from the hyperscale companies like Amazon and Google that will also be able to build private 5G networks for enterprise customers. "This is a logical extension for them," he added.
Ericsson's Rosengren agrees that enterprise use cases will be a big driver for cloud-native because the cloud-native platform will enable operators to support different network speeds, offer flexibility and also develop new services. "Operators need to have a holistic view on how this will allow you to orchestrate workloads and drive different software lifecycles as part of your operations," he said.
Code that never sleeps
Automation plays a key role in cloud-native architecture. Nokia's Scarlett notes that without automation and the tools to manage it, service providers won't get as much value out of their cloud-native network architectures. He believes 2021 will be the year that will usher in this change. "Cloud native is inherently more powerful when you have automated or dynamic workloads," he said.
By adding automation to their cloud-native platform, service providers will be able to fully take advantage of these new tools and get operational savings. Rosengren said that Ericsson estimates having cloud-native architecture and automation in the core network will result in service providers seeing 20% operational savings on infrastructure costs.
Rosengrens describes automation as "code that never sleeps," meaning that the software connection between the vendor and the operator is continuous. In other words, operators are constantly able to update different platforms and functions and roll out new services more quickly.
As the telecom industry looks ahead to 2021, expect to hear a lot more on the benefits of moving to a cloud-native network architecture. And though it's likely that we will see more 5G SA deployments, don't expect all of those networks to be running on cloud-native architectures. In fact, Scarlett believes that 2021 will be a year of transition. "We are in the pragmatic stage. 2021 will be the year of the shift. Some early adopters will do cloud native and more will come online."
— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.