Nokia last year chose Red Hat as its 'primary' cloud partner, abandoning its own efforts. Ericsson insists it shan't be doing the same.

Iain Morris, International Editor

April 4, 2024

6 Min Read
Technician in data center
Ericsson both competes against and collaborates with Big Tech in the market for cloud platforms.(Source: Ericsson)

Smartphone apps aren't much good without a smartphone, including the operating system and components supplied with it. By the same token, virtualized and cloud-native network functions need infrastructure platforms as hosts. But for some time, major telcos have complained about the packaging of these functions with the same developer's own platform. Network applications from Nokia have come joined to Nokia's infrastructure layer. The same goes for Ericsson, not to mention smaller vendors. It threatens a profusion of platforms within a single telco.

That's far from economically or operationally ideal. What telcos increasingly demand is the freedom to run all or most third-party software on a single platform, horizontally stretched like a Kardashian on a sunbed across the whole operation. For this stated reason (albeit without mentioning the Kardashians), Nokia last July decided to quit the platforms game and concentrate solely on the applications. IBM-owned Red Hat would take the place of Nokia Container Services (NCS) and Nokia CloudBand Infrastructure Software (CBIS) as Nokia's "primary" platform, picking up 350 Nokia employees in the process.

Cue lots of industry chatter about the likelihood Ericsson would soon follow. Indeed, during an interview with Light Reading shortly after the Red Hat partnership was announced, Fran Heeran, Nokia's general manager of core networks, cloud and network services, said the "competition is probably privately kicking itself it didn't think of it before we did." Vendors typically avoid speaking a rival's name, like Hogwarts students discussing Voldemort, but he clearly meant Ericsson.

Well, that's not quite how the Swedish company sees things. Much like Nokia before Red Hat, Ericsson has been maintaining two in-house platforms – the somewhat prosaically named NFVI (network functions virtualization infrastructure) and CNIS (cloud-native infrastructure solution). Both still hold appeal for many of Ericsson's customers, according to Anders Rosengren, the head of strategy and portfolio for Ericsson's core networks business. And while Ericsson insists on its willingness to partner with other providers, it has no plans to abandon either of its own platforms.

"We definitely have a strong belief in the benefits of having the cloud infrastructure and the network functions as a combined offer," said Rosengren. "But we are also very open to working closely with other cloud infrastructure vendors, like Red Hat or Microsoft, to ensure our network functions run as efficiently as possible and that we are reducing the effort for the operators that choose that path."

More successful than Nokia

Ericsson's rationale is that plenty of customers still like this "full stack" approach and that giving up on NFVI and CNIS would leave them in the lurch. It offers a seemingly harsh assessment of Nokia while flaunting some numbers to support its argument that in-house platforms have been a success. "One big difference between us and Nokia is that we have been very successful, actually, in selling and deploying our cloud infrastructure – both the virtual one and the cloud-native one – and we have over 290 customers today," said Rosengren, directly naming his chief rival.

By "the virtual one," he means NFVI, while "cloud-native" refers to CNIS. The difference is akin to that between Nokia's CBIS and NCS platforms. For each vendor, the virtual platform referenced first was built on OpenStack, an open-source initiative, and manages resources through a layer of software sometimes called a hypervisor. A more cloud-native setup would base applications on Kubernetes, a newer open-source system originally developed by Google. With CNIS, Ericsson can dispense with the hypervisor and run Kubernetes directly on "bare metal" servers, as the expression goes.

"This virtualization layer adds complexity and has a performance impact, and we say the TCO [total cost of ownership] saving is roughly 30%," said Rosengren in championing bare metal. South Korea's SKT is the most prominent example of an Ericsson customer deploying on bare metal with CNIS. As regards the entire market, around 80% of Ericsson's deployed network applications are running on its own infrastructure. But that appears to be mostly NFVI, and Rosengren rejects the description of this as a "legacy" platform.

"We consider it as a current deployment model with a lot of strengths and an installed base, and it is something we are going to support for a long time," he said. "Then, gradually, we will see the market moving over to bare metal, but that process is a longer journey."

Harsh critics will undoubtedly see Ericsson's numbers not as proof of customer demand for a "full stack" but as evidence there have been no alternatives. Yet Rosengren points out that many telcos do not have the resources to work on integrating lots of third-party applications with a single platform. "Some are not so focused on the technology and operations side," he said. With a full stack, they get something "more pre-integrated and supported, and one hand to shake across the cloud infrastructure and network functions."

There is certainly evidence of demand for this model. One requirement of Three UK, which has put its core network up for tender, is that the applications and platform must come from the same provider (although it insists this does not rule out a pre-integrated package from Nokia, its current vendor, and Red Hat). What's more, Ericsson says it can now support other companies' applications on NFVI and CNIS. "We have a certification service so that third-party applications can certify on our cloud infrastructure," said Rosengren. "And then, of course, we see operators deploying several third-party applications parallel to our own on our cloud infrastructure."

The cloud gang

This does not, however, mean Ericsson is attempting to compete with Red Hat or Microsoft as an all-purpose infrastructure platform. "We spend a lot of time together with the third-party cloud providers like Red Hat to put together target solutions for those where we try to be as prescriptive as possible when it comes to all the layers in the cloud infrastructure to reduce the effort for our joint customers," said Rosengren. "But it is still going to be more effort than if you do a full-stack deployment."

Conveniently, the names of the main players could all fit onto a post-it note – AWS, Google and Microsoft, from the "hyperscaler" community, along with Red Hat, VMware (owned by Broadcom) and Wind River (whose parent is now Aptiv). Less convenient is the apparent desire of some telcos to build what Microsoft has disparagingly described as "DIY" clouds. The UK's BT, for instance, has a bespoke cloud it developed with Canonical, a UK software company, using Juniper Networks for orchestration along with Cisco and Dell for compute.

"I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that there is an integration effort from our side," said Rosengren. "So having a lot of different variants is driving the overall effort." Despite this, BT has been able to deploy Ericsson's 5G core network applications on its own platform, and without NFVI or CNIS, according to executives at the UK telco.

Nevertheless, for any telco, the horizontal platform approach may have its limits. At the "far edge" of the network near basestation sites, an operator could feasibly be running just a few applications on a single server. Whatever the underlying infrastructure, it looks more dedicated to specific tasks. "There is no real benefit from the horizontal cloud because it is one application, or maybe a few, and one single server with cloud infrastructure on that," said Rosengren. For a local packet gateway or cloud radio access network, the "full stack" may be hard to resist.

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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