Debating the role of hyperscalers in 5G
LAS VEGAS – #MWC22 – Mike Murphy has a unique view into the future of 5G.
Murphy has been developing wireless technologies for almost four decades, first at Nortel, then at Nokia and now at Ericsson. Today, he's the North American CTO for Ericsson, the only network equipment supplier currently providing midband 5G gear to all of the big US operators: AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile.
And here at the MWC trade show, Murphy said there's one new technological quandary that's soaking up his attention: How 5G providers will work with hyperscale cloud providers. He said the problem is difficult enough – and important enough – that he has assigned four top-level Ericsson technicians to work on it full time, in order to organize and drive the company's work on the topic across hundreds of employees inside Ericsson and with its customers.
"That's all they do," he said.
Broadly, Murphy said he's trying to figure out how the cloud computing market and the telecom market might work together. "How do you converge the two worlds?" he asked.
It's a question that some of the world's biggest technology companies – from Dell to Amazon to AT&T to Google to Ericsson to Qualcomm – are struggling with.
"We are at an inflection point in the industry where the cloud is being adopted more and more by the telecom segment," said Ishwar Parulkar, the chief technologist for telecom and edge cloud at Amazon Web Services (AWS), here at the MWC show.
AWS, Microsoft (via its Azure cloud) and Google Cloud have all made their intentions plain: They want to bring the telecom industry into the cloud.
To do so, each company created telecom-specific business units, staffed by a large number of well-known telecom veterans, and have been sending phalanxes of executives to the telecom industry's biggest trade shows.
That's not really a surprise, of course. A wide range of industries – from media to government to financial services – have already put much of their core digital infrastructure into the cloud. Why shouldn't telecom?
And to a degree, telecom network operators have already done so. Many have moved significant portions of their systems – from customer service programs to IT operations – into the cloud. The next obvious step is to put their newly virtualized, software-defined network functions into the cloud too.
After all, the cloud is endlessly scalable and instantly available.
At least, that's the argument.
Cloud native, cloud wary
"No hyperscaler supports five nines," Ericsson's Murphy said, citing the 99.999% network-uptime goal that most telecom providers share.
Murphy explained that most of today's cloud computing providers can't provide the kind of orchestration, data management and security services that network operators need for their core network services.
Nonetheless, it's an area that Ericsson needs to explore. Murphy explained that the company has already created virtual, software-only versions of its 5G baseband products.
Meaning, the company's customers can now download Ericsson's CU (centralized unit) and DU (distributed unit) and run them inside of an off-the-shelf server from Dell or HP. The only piece of hardware that Ericsson still needs to physically build is the 5G radio that sits atop a cell tower; everything below that is now just bits and bytes.
However, according to Murphy and others, they're not bits and bytes that can run inside of any old cloud.
For example, Rakuten Symphony CMO Geoff Hollingworth said Rakuten Mobile built its own cloud in Japan for many of the same reasons.
He said Rakuten Symphony works with hyperscalers like AWS for some services but does not recommend placing core network operations – those requiring low-latency connections between radios and DUs – into the public cloud.
It's partly a matter of economics, Hollingworth explained. He said the hyperscale pay-as-you-go model simply doesn't make sense for the massive amounts of data handled by high-speed 5G cell sites.
Dish Network has already designed much of its new 5G network to run inside the AWS cloud. But the company also uses VMware's cloud services at its cell sites. Dish is unique though in that it's a "greenfield" operator, and is in the midst of building a brand new 5G network from scratch.
AT&T, meantime, is an established "brownfield" operator, with networking equipment that is, in some cases, decades old. Nonetheless, it's working to shift some of its core network functions into Microsoft's Azure cloud environment.
The move makes sense, according to AT&T officials, because part of Microsoft's Azure for Operators is based on the cloud that AT&T originally built for its own network.
AT&T and Dish are among a vanguard of operators across the globe essentially kicking the tires on "cloud-native" network operations. Such operations are designed to run entirely in a cloud environment.
And that's why big 5G equipment suppliers like Ericsson are spending so much time on the hyperscale question. Their customers are trying to figure out how many network services they might put inside the cloud, and exactly what kind of a cloud (public, private or hybrid) they might want to use.
For example, AWS, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure each handle security slightly differently – making the selection of a cloud partner a difficult one for network operators to make.
"It's happening right now," Murphy said of the work. He said he expects the 5G core to be the first thing to move into the cloud. "Literally decisions are happening every week."
Importantly, Murphy said he believes both sides will need to make changes in order to accommodate the other.
He said hyperscalers will probably need to adjust their operations in order to address the specific needs of telecom network operators – and telecom operators may need to adjust how they handle some of their core network functions if they want to make use of the savings and flexibility provided by the cloud.
"Mutual adaptation is required by both parties," Murphy said.
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