MADRID -- Zero Touch Automation Congress 2019 -- The UK's BT is working on plans to extend its cloud platforms to about 100 metro locations so that it can better support new types of service, including more advanced 5G applications that may take shape in the coming years.
BT's core network functions are currently hosted at between five and ten major exchanges in the UK, but under a program called "Network Cloud" it will extend these to roughly 100 metro exchanges, the operator revealed at a conference in Madrid earlier today.
Those exchanges will also be kitted out to host network applications from customers as BT eyes a key role in the future market for "edge" services.
By deploying network and IT resources in facilities that are much closer to customers, operators hope to reduce "latency," the roundtrip time for a signal on a data network. This reduction will lead to new service opportunities, they hope.
Experts say that applications based on artificial intelligence and virtual reality will demand lower latency than customers typically receive on today's 4G networks.
Explaining the move during a presentation at today's Zero Touch Automation Congress, Maria Cuevas, BT's head of mobile core networks research, said: "We need the flexibility to be able to deploy different functions in different parts of the network based on the needs of the service. Ultra-low latency means bringing user plane functions closer to the edge of the network. That dynamic flexibility will underpin a lot of 5G investment and opportunities for the future."
Slides shown in Madrid indicate that cloud platforms could eventually be extended beyond metro nodes and into some of the central offices BT maintains across the UK. BT currently has about 1,200 local exchanges that serve as a first point of aggregation, said Cuevas.
"We'll start with the first level of distribution to roughly 100 nodes across the network and will look to further expand according to the needs of different services," she said.
Cuevas did not disclose schedules for the rollout.
Average latency on BT's mobile networks is currently about 30 milliseconds, a spokesperson for the company previously told Light Reading, but that figure is expected to fall to about 20 milliseconds next year in areas where BT has deployed 5G networks. In the longer term, BT is aiming for latency of less than 10 milliseconds.
The core networks operated by EE, the mobile service provider BT acquired in 2016, currently use technology from Huawei, but the operator is removing the Chinese vendor's products from this part of its network to address security concerns.
Having ruled out Huawei as a provider of edge computing products, BT has been trialing technology from Nokia and Mavenir, Light Reading has learned.
But doubts still surround the business case for edge computing. Shahar Steiff, the assistant vice president of new technologies for Hong Kong's PCCW Global, blames slow progress in the last couple of years on investment uncertainty, and not technical challenges.
"Without a business case nothing will go forward," said Cliff Grossner, a senior research director at IHS Markit.
One concern for operators in this market is the challenge from cloud companies such as Amazon and Google. The latter believes its 7,500 edge nodes would guarantee the latency needed for Stadia, a cloud gaming platform it announced last week, holding out no immediate prospect of partnership opportunities with telcos.
Grossner says many cloud companies have now installed computing resources in data centers built by Equinix. Those would provide a roundtrip time of just 20 milliseconds for many customers, he estimates.
For some telcos, the concern is still mainly about technology readiness, and not the business case. Scott Petty, the chief technology officer of Vodafone UK, thinks pushing functions to the edge will bring new operational complexity and that telco edge applications are unlikely to arrive before 2023. "It takes a long time to figure out how to put in the right telemetry tools and operational capabilities," he previously told Light Reading.
He also takes issue with the suggestion that operators would need 100 or more data centers to support edge applications. "I think that is vendor wishful thinking," he said. "The use cases don't exist for why we would want to do that."
Petty's current expectation is that Vodafone UK would need roughly eight data centers to guarantee latency of between 15 and 20 milliseconds in the UK market. He doubts that number will rise above 64 even with the emergence of new services.
"The power consumption, security concerns and energy costs would outweigh the economic benefits," he said. "It is hardly surprising if the makers of x86 servers think otherwise."
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- SKT Boasts 60% Cut in Latency With Edge Platform Move
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading