Orange needs Sylva bullet as telecom mushrooms clouds

A multitenancy 'horizontal' platform is Orange's ultimate cloud objective, but today there is still a plethora of options, says the French's operator's group CTO.

Iain Morris, International Editor

April 8, 2024

7 Min Read
Orange office in Paris
Outside Orange's facilities in Paris, France.(Source: Iain Morris/Light Reading)

A Bordeaux looks and tastes nothing like a Chablis. But the two come in bottles of relatively uniform size and shape that can easily be racked in a wine lover's cellar. Without this basic standardization, the average cellar would be a bottle-strewn pit of bespoke containers and racks, making it a complicated and hazardous maze for any tipsy owner. This is, effectively, the environment in which many telcos operate.

Unlike vintners, the vendors of network products have tended to come with their own unique bottles and racks, the infrastructure platforms hosting the virtual and cloud-native network functions (VNFs and CNFs) that telcos want to consume. At worst, it threatens a mushrooming of platform silos, each designed for one application tenant, inside a telco. Laurent Leboucher, the group chief technology officer of France's Orange, is determined to have a single platform that would make telecom look more like the world of wine.

"We are very strong believers that at the end of the day we need to move to a horizontal architecture where we deploy network functions on a multivendor cloud stack, be it for VNFs or even more for CNFs," he told Light Reading. Orange's preferred approach is to base this horizontal platform on Sylva, an open-source initiative managed by the Linux Foundation, a not-for-profit group with headquarters in San Francisco.

The challenge is persuading vendors to come onboard. Sylva is barely 17 months old, having publicly launched in November 2022, and the names of big and well-known telco suppliers were included in the initial release. But enthusiasm levels evidently vary. "We have vendors who are open to using it, we have vendors who are already committed to it in the ecosystem, and we have some vendors who are still a bit reluctant and not really contributors," said Leboucher.

Platform proliferation

The problem all those vendors face is choosing between the multitude of platforms that now exist. Leboucher welcomed the decision by Nokia last year to abandon its own platforms – which were never intended to support other companies' applications – and name the more accommodating Red Hat as its "primary" partner. He thinks Ericsson "could make a similar decision" in the long run. And he points out that Red Hat is now involved in Sylva. But this still leaves numerous all-purpose platforms, plus the Sylva project, in the mix. AWS, Google, Microsoft, Red Hat, VMware and Wind River all boast offers.

Ericsson, moreover, says it has no intention of following Nokia into Red Hat's embrace. A big telco like Orange might have the resources to integrate Ericsson's applications with a third-party platform, and the Swedish vendor is pursuing its own partnerships with Red Hat and some of the other main providers, but smaller telcos like the option of buying a pre-integrated "full stack" from Ericsson, it recently told Light Reading. Some 80% of Ericson's deployed network functions sit on its own platforms, which today serve about 290 customers.

Nokia's latest decision to burn platforms has also thrown up a few concerns. "We need to investigate with them how we will replace their platform because for 5G core we bought their stack in the past, when they said a few years ago that it was the best choice," said Leboucher. "We still have to fix that, and we need to fix it quite soon because I know that by 2027 it will no longer be supported or evolve." Options include moving Nokia's applications to Red Hat or Sylva.

Ideally, Sylva should address the problem of fragmentation by providing an assembly point for the industry on platform development. "I agree that today there are too many options, and I think that we should at least avoid as operators creating a private solution just for us – just for Orange," said Leboucher. "That is exactly what we want to avoid with Sylva. Having said that, we still have too many options and there might be some consolidation."

Bar Orange, Europe's big telcos, some of which profess support for Sylva, look as guilty as anyone of spawning additional platforms. BT of the UK has a DIY cloud, as Microsoft would disparagingly call it, built with the support of Canonical, a UK software company, using Juniper Networks for orchestration plus Cisco and Dell for compute. Deutsche Telekom, Europe's largest operator, also has an "internally developed" platform it calls TCaaS, where the last four letters are the standard acronym for containers-as-a-service.

Both those platforms seem to predate Sylva, and neither BT nor Deutsche Telekom is a vocal champion of the Linux Foundation project. BT's name was notably missing from the list of founding telco members (it is currently identified as a "follower" of Sylva on this site). Ivica Cale, the head of cloud infrastructure at Deutsche Telekom Cloud Services, sounded uninspired by it as recently as November. "I am aware of it, but I would not comment," he told an audience at the Network X event in Paris.

No exclusion for the public cloud

This seems to leave Orange as Sylva's most outspoken telco advocate. But Leboucher freely admits the operator's wine cellar is not as tidy and uniform as it could be. "It's true that it's still a mixture, and we still have some vendors who really prefer to bring their own vertical stack," he said.

Much like BT, Orange has for three years been developing an in-house platform – Orange telco cloud – that is now operational in about 20 countries and supporting roughly 40 "instances," said Leboucher. But for some applications it also uses a Red Hat platform based on OpenStack, another open-source initiative. And in some areas Orange is not averse to a heavier reliance on third parties, which could include the public cloud providers.

Today, the main objection to AWS, Google and Microsoft as hosts of network software comes from regulators, according to Leboucher. "Most of the time they will complain if we move to the public cloud," he said. Concerns about national security and data sovereignty largely explain this resistance. "There are some ways to address it, and we will definitely have a look at it, and this is not something that we exclude."

A solution could be what some operators, including Deutsche Telekom and Orange, have pitched as the "sovereign cloud." In this setup, a hyperscaler such as Microsoft would ensure its technology stack is hosted in the appropriate jurisdiction, possibly in premises owned by a telco. Microsoft increasingly talks about Nexus, the platform developed originally for AT&T's workloads, as a "hybrid" cloud mixing public and private elements. Even in the AT&T network, the 5G core runs on Microsoft technologies inside AT&T facilities.

Where allowed, the public cloud does hold major attractions, as far as Leboucher is concerned. One option he is investigating would keep the main core on premises, for national security reasons, but take advantage of public-cloud capacity for parts of the user plane, the network's traffic cop. "This is something that could come quite soon," he said.

With the public cloud, Orange would also gain access to a huge community of software developers already familiar with the hyperscalers and their technologies. Additionally, it would not have to go elsewhere for artificial intelligence and machine-learning tools, most of which are either built directly or funded by the Internet giants. This, said Leboucher, is "something we cannot do at the same level of innovation with private, on-premises infrastructure."

A hyperscaler accommodation with Sylva would conceivably make it easier for Orange to split the core between a public cloud and any private one, as in the user plane example given by Leboucher. Yet none of the hyperscalers has shown much public interest in Sylva. Meanwhile, in parts of the Middle East and Africa, Orange wants to continue working with China's Huawei, whose seemingly permanent status on the US Entity List could prevent a hyperscaler platform from supporting it.

However Sylva develops, it won't end all "lock-in," Leboucher concedes, because it does not cover much of what the hyperscalers offer in data analytics and artificial intelligence. "Of course, that means there is a bit of lock-in in that case," he said. "I think that is something we accept because we have to." In the meantime, the tidy wine cellar remains a work in progress.

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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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