August 29, 2023
Anyone checking out Vodafone's small "golden cluster" of open radio access network (RAN) sites in the UK will note the involvement of two critical software companies. Besides contributing electronics, South Korea's Samsung stumps up the RAN code that processes signals, deals with interference and points radios at gadgets. Propping all that up is a software management platform built by Wind River.
It is one of several mainly US companies trading in virtualization and cloud-native technology. The basic idea is to separate network or IT software from its underlying customized hardware and then run the whole shebang on the same general-purpose equipment with the same management tools. Wind River, Red Hat, VMware and a few lesser-known firms offer all this on a subscription, "as a service" basis. Increasingly, they are being labeled containers-as-a-service (CaaS) providers, where containers are the micro software elements that can be combined to form a cloud-native application.
Confused yet? The important thing to note is that it's a fairly big outsourcing of tech responsibility at a time when operators fear the balance of power tilting further toward their suppliers. What's more, the smallish CaaS companies are themselves under threat from much bigger beasts. AWS, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure, the trio lumped together under the hyperscaler and public cloud banners, are advancing from their central data facilities toward the "far edge" stamping grounds of Wind River and its ilk.
This "far edge" is not some expression of wonderment by a spaced-out hippie (even when uttered by someone at an organization named Wind River) but the network territory where a signal's journey effectively ends before it jumps onto a user device. In the RAN, it would be the many thousands of basestations that dot any country or region, and the aggregation points alongside them.
In the strictest sense, this is off limits to the public cloud. Putting standard IT resources into a centralized data center operated by AWS or Microsoft Azure is more easily doable because they are not sensitive to latency. The same is not true of more advanced 5G services where – to use the hackneyed example of remote-control surgery – lengthening the journey time by just a few milliseconds could be the difference between a successful operation to remove cataracts and a scene from a Luis Buñuel movie.
Not so public after all
The response of the public clouds, keen to hoover up whatever they can, is to mimic the CaaS approach. "You also have this other model of the public cloud technology stack deployed as a private cloud," said Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with Heavy Reading (a sister company to Light Reading), during a recent conversation.
Instead of putting network and IT workloads into premises owned by Microsoft, an operator could take Microsoft's platform and host this at its own facilities, whether a basestation or central office. This is actually the approach AT&T has taken with its 5G core, which uses Microsoft's technology stack at AT&T's premises, despite earlier reports that said AT&T had outsourced operations to the public cloud. Publicizing its readiness for cloud RAN as well, Microsoft was bandying about the "far edge" expression at this year's Mobile World Congress.
Where does all this leave Wind River, Red Hat and VMware? The former, in particular, has based its marketing largely on its far edge expertise, insisting rivals have been focused on the core. If Microsoft has been able to adapt, Wind River will have lost its key differentiator against some very big competitors.
But it has not given up the fighting talk and claims it still has the upper hand in the RAN market. "Our competition – Red Hat and even the hyperscalers – are coming at this from an enterprise, massive data center-type environment and trying to jam their product into a very small footprint at the far edge, and they're having challenges in this space for that reason," said Randy Cox, Wind River's vice president of product management for the intelligent cloud.
Share price movements of public cloud owners this year
(Source: Google Finance)
Since late 2022, Wind River says it has commercialized what Cox describes as a "single-core capability" in this far-edge environment. "What I mean by that is that on any specific node our platform only consumes one single core in that server," he said, referring to the microprocessor cores used in computing equipment. "If you take a 64-core, 32-core or 24-core processor and server, we are only consuming one core out of that. Our competition is somewhere between four and six."
It's a bold claim. If Red Hat and others were indeed hungrier for resources, there would be fewer cores in a server left for the RAN workloads themselves. That is likely to have some impact on the bandwidth and performance of the cellular network. And the companies approached by Light Reading – the same ones criticized by Cox – were unable to reject his claim.
"Red Hat OpenShift can operate production RAN workloads on a single node with two cores (four threads) for the control plane using cluster workload partitioning and hardware tuning capabilities," was the only reference to cores by Ian Hood, Red Hat's chief strategist for global industries, in a detailed statement sent by email. At the time of publication, neither AWS nor Microsoft Azure had made a direct rebuttal, either.
Rotten at the core?
What's unclear right now is whether this efficiency trumps all other far-edge considerations. So far, none of the hyperscalers has publicized any cloud RAN business, and Wind River boasts a lead over Red Hat – still its number-one rival – in this sector. "If you look at the data and where we are compared with where Red Hat is, there is no comparison," said Cox. "They do not have one single commercial deployment."
Wind River's flagship RAN customer is not Vodafone but Verizon. That's important because the US operator is widely recognized by analysts to have deployed a more extensive cloud RAN than any European telco. Across about 30,000 nodes, Wind River is the only platform supporting the distributed unit (DU), the server box where most baseband processing is done, said Cox. Red Hat, he acknowledged, is providing support for Verizon's core as well as some of its central units, which host other layers of the RAN software stack. But if far edge means DU, then Red Hat is nowhere, he said.
The criticism sometimes leveled at Wind River is that it is far edge only, while Red Hat and others straddle all the various domains. "Our strategy is to deliver a flexible, consistent open-source platform that extends from the core to the public cloud to the far edge, enabling edge deployments at scale across industries," said Hood in his statement.
In the cloud RAN area, the Red Hat executive went on to add, the "key aspects of our edge capabilities include security, real-time synchronization, energy efficiency, performance/latency, and especially simultaneous lifecycle automation and management for thousands of endpoints."
When Nokia recently decided to give up building and maintaining its own management platform for core network applications, it notably chose Red Hat as its future partner. The deal between the two companies saw 350 employees switch from the Finnish telco vendor to the CaaS specialist. As for Microsoft, it has similarly argued that its Azure offering covers all the various bases, making it a fully hybrid offer.
Nokia, whose cloud design center is shown above, has teamed up with Red Hat.
Yet Cox vehemently defends Wind River's ability to compete in the core and other areas. The deal that proves it is with Elisa in Finland, where Wind River is hosting the user plane function (UPF), a part of the core network supplied by Ericsson, he said. In some networks, Wind River supports both far edge and core applications, insisted Cox, although he did not cite names.
The big concern that surrounds all these cloud players is to do with portability and lock-in. Even before some governments warned them off using China's Huawei and ZTE, operators were nervous about relying too heavily on any one particular supplier. In theory, open-source tools like Kubernetes should make switching between cloud vendors as easy as changing clothes. But that turns out not to be the case.
"The goal of multicloud interoperability still has some way to go," said Scott Petty, Vodafone's chief technology officer, at a press briefing a few weeks ago. "We run some multicloud applications but there is significant engineering work to move workloads between different hyperscalers."
Often claiming they can run inside any public cloud, CaaS companies have previously been pitched as a kind of abstraction layer, giving operators the portability between hyperscalers that Petty craves. But this appears to mean foregoing some of the hyperscalers' own special sauce, not to mention being dependent on a CaaS provider instead of a public cloud. No single-core capability is going to address that.
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading
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