Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Telco grade or Cloud grade?


For as long as I can remember, working in Telco, there has been the assumption that Telco networks were special. 

They are regulated, they are critical infrastructure, they require a level of engineering and control that goes beyond traditional IT. This has often been the reason why some technologies and vendors haven't been that successful in that space, despite having stellar records in other equally (more?) demanding industries such as energy, finance, space, defence...

Being Telco grade, when I cut my teeth as a telco supplier, meant high availability (5x9's), scalability and performance (100's of millions of simultaneous streams, connections, calls, ...), security, achieved with multiple vertical and horizontal redundancies, and deployed of highly specialized appliances.

Along comes the Cloud, with its fancy economics, underpinned by separation of hardware and software, virtualization, then decomposition, then disaggregation of software elements into microservices. Add to it some control / user plane separation, centralized control, management, configuration, deployment, roll out, scalability rules... a little decentralized telemetry and systematic automation through radical opening of API between layers... That's the recipe for Cloud grade networks.

At the beginning, the Telco-natives looked at these upstarters with a little disdain, "that's good for web traffic. If a request fail, you just retry, it will never be enough for Telco grade...". 

Then with some interest "maybe we can use that Cloud stuff for low networking, low compute stuff like databases, inventory management... It's not going to enable real telco grade stuff, but maybe there is some savings".

Then, more seriously "we need to harness the benefits of the cloud for ourselves. We need to build a Telco cloud". This is about the time the seminal white paper on Telco virtualization launched NFV and a flurry of activities to take IT designed cloud fabric (read Openstack) and make it Telco grade (read pay traditional Telco vendors who have never developed or deployed a cloud fabric at scale and make proprietary branches of an open source project hardened with memorable features such as DPDK SR-IOV, CPU pinning so that the porting of their proprietary software on hypervisor does not die under the performance SLA...). 

Fast forward a few years, orchestration and automation become the latest targets, and a zoo of competing proprietary-turned-open-source projects start to emerge, whereas large communities of traditional telco vendors are invited to contribute charitably time and code on behalf of Telcos for projects that they have no interest in developing or selling.

In the meantime, Cloud grade has grown in coverage, capacity, ecosystem, revenues, use cases, flexibility, availability, scalability... by almost any metrics you can imagine, while reducing costs and prices. Additionally, we are seeing new "cloud native" vendors emerge with Telco products that are very close to the Telco grade ideal in terms of performance, availability, scalability, at a fraction of the cost of the Telco-natives. Telco functions that the Telco-native swore could never find their way to the cloud are being deployed there, for security, connectivity, core networks, even RAN...

I think it is about time that the Telco-natives accept and embrace that it is probably faster, more cost efficient and more scalable to take a Cloud-native function and make it Telco-grade than trying to take the whole legacy Telco network and trying to make it Cloud grade. It doesn't mean to throw away all the legacy investment, but at least to consider sunsetting strategy and cap and grow. Of course, it means also being comfortable with the fact that the current dependencies of traditional Telco vendors might have to be traded for dependencies on hyperscalers, who might, or not become competitors down the line. Not engaging with them, si not going to change that fact. 5G stand alone, Open RAN or MEC are probably good places to start, because they are greenfield. This is where the smart money is these days, as entry strategy into Telco world goes...

Friday, September 18, 2020

Rakuten: the Cloud Native Telco Network

Traditionally, telco network operators have only collaborated in very specific environments; namely standardization and regulatory bodies such as 3GPP, ITU, GSMA...

There are a few examples of partnerships such as Bridge Alliance or BuyIn mostly for procurement purposes. When it comes to technology, integration, product and services development, examples have been rare of one carrier buying another's technology and deploying it in their networks.

It is not so surprising, if we look at how, in many cases, we have seen operators use their venture capital arm to invest in startups that end up rarely being used in their own networks. One has to think that using another operator's technology poses even more challenges.

Open source and network disaggregation, with associations like Facebook's Telecom Infra Project, the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) or the Linux Foundation O-RAN alliance have somewhat changed the nature of the discussions between operators.

It is well understood that the current oligopolistic situation in terms of telco networks suppliers is not sustainable in terms of long term innovation and cost structure. The wound is somewhat self-inflicted, having forced vendors to merge and acquire one another in order to be able to sustain the scale and financial burden of surviving 2+ years procurement processes with drastic SLAs and penalties.

Recently, these trends have started to coalesce, with a renewed interest for operators to start opening up the delivery chain for technology vendors (see open RAN) and willingness to collaborate and jointly explore technology development and productization paths (see some of my efforts at Telefonica with Deutsche Telekom and AT&T on network disaggregation).

At the same time, hyperscalers, unencumbered by regulatory and standardization purview have been able to achieve global scale and dominance in cloud technology and infrastructure. With the recent announcements by AWS, Microsoft and Google, we can see that there is interest and pressure to help network operators achieving cloud nativeness by adopting the hyperscalers models, infrastructure and fabric.

Some operators might feel this is a welcome development (see Telefonica O2 Germany announcing the deployment of Ericsson's packet core on AWS) for specific use cases and competitive environments. 

Many, at the same time are starting to feel the pressure to realize their cloud native ambition but without hyperscalers' help or intervention. I have written many times about how telco cloud networks and their components (Openstack, MANO, ...) have, in my mind, failed to reach that objective. 

One possible guiding light in this industry over the last couple of years has been Rakuten's effort to create, from the ground up, a cloud native telco infrastructure that is able to scale and behave as a cloud, while providing the proverbial telco grade capacity and availability of a traditional network. Many doubted that it could be done - after all, the premise behind building telco clouds in the first place was that public cloud could never be telco grade.

It is now time to accept that it is possible and beneficial to develop telco functions in a cloud native environment.

Rakuten's network demonstrates that it is possible to blend traditional and innovative vendors from the telco and cloud environments to produce a cloud native telco network. The skeptics will say that Rakuten has the luxury of a greenfield network, and that much of its choices would be much harder in a brownfield environment.

The reality is that whether in the radio, the access, or the core, in OSS or BSS, there are vendors now offering cloud native solutions that can be deployed at scale with telco-grade performance. The reality as well is that no all functions and not all elements are cloud native ready. 

Rakuten has taken the pragmatic approach to select from what is available and mature today, identifying gaps with their ideal end state and taking decisive actions to bridge the gaps in future phases.

Between the investment in Altiostar, the acquisition of Innoeye and the joint development of a cloud native 5G Stand Alone Core with NEC, Rakuten has demonstrated vision clarity, execution and commitment to not only be the first cloud native telco, but also to be the premier cloud native telco supplier with its Rakuten Mobile Platform. The latest announcement of a MoU with Telefonica could be a strong market signal that carrieres are ready to collaborate with other carriers in a whole new way.