June 28, 2021
Amazon Web Services (AWS) – the world's largest provider of cloud computing services – officially took the wraps off its full 5G strategy during this week's MWC trade show in Barcelona, Spain. And to help outline the contours of its message, the company called in two of its new customers – one established (Swisscom) and one upstart (Dish Network).
Amazon's overall goal is to convince wireless network operators of all shapes and sizes that a shift from private clouds to public clouds is inevitable. And, more specifically, Amazon is trying to convince them that a move to the AWS public cloud can produce both savings and additional revenues at the same time.
"It's an exciting time in the industry," said Adam Selipsky, the incoming CEO of AWS, during a virtual keynote appearance at the MWC trade show.
Selipsky said AWS is having cloud computing conversations with "virtually every telecom operator around the world." He namechecked recent AWS customers that include Dish Network, Telefonica, SK Telecom, Bell Canada, Verizon and Vodafone.
"I'm happy to work together with you, AWS," said Urs Schaeppi, Swisscom's CEO, in a virtual appearance during Amazon's MWC keynote. Swisscom this week announced a major new agreement with Amazon that will include an exploration of running its 5G core, supplied by Ericsson, inside the AWS cloud.
AWS Virtual Village
To underscore its ambitions in the 5G industry, Amazon hosted its own virtual event in conjunction with the MWC show. The event featured speakers from Nokia, Telefonica, Mavenir, Verizon, SK Telecom and other high-profile telecom companies.
In a lengthy presentation laden with technical details, Ishwar Parulkar, chief technologist for telecom at AWS, laid out the company's approach to the telecom market.
He said Amazon's role in 5G starts with virtualized, cloud-native network functions running inside containers on top of Kubernetes, all within the confines of Amazon's server farms. In the past, those server farms would live inside giant AWS data centers in Amazon's various computing "zones," but in recent years he said Amazon has been working to break up its centralized cloud computing design into pieces that can be injected more easily into a telecom operator's network. The result are AWS "local zones," which roughly translate to big cities, as well as Amazon's "Wavelength" and "Outpost" capabilities. Those, according to Amazon executives, support the full range of Amazon services but are small enough to run inside a computer installed at the base of a 5G cell tower.
But that's just part of Amazon's pitch. Parulkar explained that Amazon's computers can run on standard chips from the likes of Intel or AMD, but can also use the Graviton2 silicon that Amazon developed specifically for applications such as 5G. Introduced early last year, Amazon's Graviton2 processors use designs from ARM and, according to Amazon, are 20% cheaper than Intel x86 alternatives while using a third of the power.
The final portion of Amazon's 5G story involves helping operators transition from clunky databases to "lakes" of data. "Telcos have a wealth of data," said Parulkar, explaining that such data is often difficult to shift through. As a result, Amazon has invested in technologies to move all that data into "lake house architectures" so that it can be manipulated with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies. This, he said, allows operators to more quickly develop new services based on the data they already have.
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Dave Brown, VP of Amazon EC2, offered one firm example of the kinds of services that operators might be able to develop via a shift to the company's public cloud. He said T-Mobile in the US is using Amazon SageMaker Ground Truth to apply ML to its customer service data. The result, he said, are customer service applications that have reduced calls per account by 35%.
But it was Dish Network that played a starring role in the AWS Virtual Village. Indeed, three separate Dish executives – VP of Technology Development Sidd Chenumolu; 5G Principal Solutions Consultant Sundeep Goswami; and Chief Network Architect Marc Rouanne – spoke at Amazon's virtual event.
That's no surprise considering Dish will be one of the first major wireless network operators in the world to put virtually all of its network functions into the Amazon public cloud.
"It's a fully AWS-enabled 5G network," boasted Amazon's Brown.
Specifically, Brown said Dish will be using large AWS data centers as well as 15 "local zones." And he said an unspecified number of Dish cell towers will sport tiny Outpost servers running Amazon's Graviton2 silicon. They'll all be connected through Amazon's "Direct Connect" backhaul network.
"These technologies are really coming together," Brown said.
"We need to be competitive on the costs," explained Dish's Rouanne. That's perhaps the biggest driver for operators moving from private clouds to AWS – it promises to dramatically cut down costs.
But that's not the only motivation for Dish, according to Rouanne. "Our differentiator, beyond cost, is on speed of innovation," he said. "In the telco world, speed of innovation is too slow."
He continued: "We would like to dream in days instead of years."
By using the Amazon public cloud, Dish will be able to quickly develop new services based on customer desire, he said.
But Rouanne said the flexibility provided by Amazon won't affect its reliability. "We have had a lot of discussions on SLAs," he said, referring to the service level agreements that can provide connectivity guarantees to enterprises and other telecom customers.
"You just cannot have a glitch in the network," Rouanne said, noting that drones, autonomous vehicles and remote surgery require "extreme" levels of reliability.
Swisscom, and the rest of the industry
But few operators can follow the path laid out by Dish and Amazon. After all, Dish is building a new 5G network from scratch and won't have to take into account legacy technologies like 4G. And that's likely why Amazon executives also trotted out Christoph Aeschlimann from Swisscom – a longtime telecom provider in Switzerland – to discuss his company's new partnership with AWS.
"I'm really excited about this journey," he said.
Aeschlimann said AWS is playing two separate roles for Swisscom. First, the operator is planning to shift some of its IT functions into the AWS cloud. In doing so, Swisscom is walking a relatively well-trod path into cloud computing that a wide range of other companies in a variety of other industries have also taken.
But Aeschlimann said Swisscom is also planning to run its standalone 5G core, supplied by Ericsson, in the AWS Zurich region that's launching next year. That's the kind of business that Amazon is hoping to gain via its push into the telecom industry.
But Amazon is facing stiff headwinds in its pursuit of the telecom opportunity. Both Microsoft and Google – Amazon's two main rivals in the public cloud space – are also developing businesses specifically targeting telecom operators.
So far Amazon hasn't lost any ground. According to Synergy Research Group, Amazon continues to be the world's biggest provider of cloud computing services based on revenues, with a 30% share. Microsoft, though, is developing a solid follow-up position considering it has increased its own cloud computing revenues from a 10% share in 2017 to roughly 20% in 2020.
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