Public or private: the future of the telco cloud

06 September 2021 | Annie Turner

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The cloud is forcing many to define how – and where – the telco of the future should operate. Annie Turner examines the implications and outlook

Telco cloud is an evolutionary shift in how networks are built, run and managed. Operators are striving for virtualised and programmable infrastructure by leveraging technologies such as NFV, SDN, AI, automation and distributed computing, to change how they operate networks and how they perform.

Neil McRae, managing director architecture and strategy, BT Group, outlines four key areas of network operation in which telco cloud enables BT to innovate: “On-demand resources, reliability, automation, scalability are the big, big things in cloud.” He stresses all are fundamental to the customer’s experience.

Yves Bellego, director of network strategy at Orange, describes telco cloud as “the cloud hosting network functions, managing real-time traffic. It is a very specific cloud, different from the others that we also put a lot of effort into – for example, for data and AI.”

He explains this separation is necessary because the network has different requirements for latency, security and resiliency that are particular to today’s network functions and require a dedicated cloud.

Bellego adds: “My message is [Orange’s telco cloud] remains a specific one that is not being removed or going into the public cloud – or at least not yet.”

Mark Newman, chief analyst at TM Forum, comments: “Two or three years ago, most operators would have agreed, but positions are softening because they are having such problems evolving towards cloud native on their own. Now, in their own private cloud, they are more open to approaches from public cloud companies to find different ways of doing it.
“There is particularly urgent discussion around 5G core. Some operators are starting to deploy now and are putting some core functions in the public cloud”.

A lot has changed in a year. Last September, Telefónica Germany revealed plans to build its 5G core and network functions for industry-specific use cases in the cloud, with help from Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Ericsson. The operators said this was “an industrial use case proof of concept”, adding that 5G core and first wave of network functions are expected to be commercially available in Germany this year.

Newman noted: “That’s the first example I’ve seen of an operator putting core networking in the public cloud specifically to meet customer requirements.”

The Telenet Belgium announcement in March had a similar flavour, combining traditional telecoms equipment vendors Nokia and Ericsson, with whom it already has relationships, with Google Cloud’s Anthos in its data centres.

In April, Dish Network claimed an industry first, announcing it will use AWS infrastructure and services to build a cloud-based, 5G Open RAN to deliver “consistent, cost-effective performance from core to the edge”, with AWS Outposts and AWS Local Zones to provide low-latency 5G applications and services for industrial applications.

To some, Dish didn’t really count because it was a greenfield build, but then the first Tier 1 domino fell in June: AT&T announced it would shift its 5G mobile core network to Microsoft Azure’s hybrid cloud for day-to-day operations and its evolution. As part of the deal, the cloud provider gains AT&T’s intellectual property and engineering expertise to strengthen its Azure for Operators telco offering.

AT&T’s in-house software engineers built ECOMP (for Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management & Policy) as part of its pioneering efforts to harness virtualisation and cloud technologies. It contributed ECOMP to the Linux Foundation, where it evolved into Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), an alternative to ETSI’s Open Source MANO (OSM).
Justin Hart, CTO, cloud and edge business unit at Ribbon Communications, says: “By the time the two came together, it was too late. The broader web world adopted Kubernetes and containerisation, and that had really accelerated. The Cloud Native Computing Foundation’s (CNCF) number of participants ballooned.

“Against that backdrop, AT&T realised they just haven’t got the resources they have previously expended in that direction… and they just decided to switch gears… to adopt more of the CNCF mentality because the software is more mature, more people are using it and more people are contributing towards it.”

Days later another former incumbent, Bell Canada, announced “a significant relationship” with Google Cloud “to power Bell’s company-wide digital transformation, enhance its network and IT infrastructure, and enable a more sustainable future”.

It’s far from over for the private telco cloud, though. TM Forum’s Newman points out: “There are immediate synergies between US operators and public cloud companies because they both have large physical assets… the physical footprint of public cloud companies tells you where you might see most operators committing to public cloud.”

He adds: “Putting their core network in the public cloud gives them opportunity to experiment with edge solutions that can be delivered to enterprise customers. Where the network edge and the enterprise edge start is a moot point.”
Orange’s Bellego agreed: “Edge in the US is not the same as edge in Belgium or Switzerland because of the size: in the US, what you call local is national in Belgium.

“Edge in [European] mobile networks is close to the base station, close to the users. That is everyone’s big hope [but] there are a lot of things to do before we can get to that… I believe it is possible for Open RAN to become the cloud on which edge will live.”

BT, like many other operators, is not going the open RAN route – although it has not ruled it out at some future time. Like Orange, BT’s telco cloud is remaining strictly private for the foreseeable future, and to address the edge it has built a distributed Network Cloud platform with about 120 locations. McRae said more locations could be added at every telephone exchange or base station, as necessary, and to customers’ premises for their applications.

He said BT will also work with all the hyperscalers to accommodate customers’ preferences, such as running a managed firewall service in its own cloud or on AWS, as required. It also wants to enable developers to run applications on its own telco cloud to meet particular use cases.

McRae concludes: “We are absolutely unfazed by using whatever delivers the best outcome for our customers. Today we believe that is the BT Network Cloud and tomorrow that might change. With 5G we are bringing the power of the cloud with the connectivity to build solutions, probably mostly enterprise, that improve our customers’ efficiency and make their operations – whether it’s a power plant or manufacturing – work better.”