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Cloud-native 5G stand-alone core systems will bring ample disruption and opportunity

February 24 2021
by Brian Partridge


Introduction


The 5G era of connectivity is now well underway, with commercial 5G NR NSA (5G new radio, non-stand-alone) rollouts aimed at delivering enhanced mobile broadband experiences to those users lucky enough to have compatible 5G devices. Mobile cellular networks include a radio access network (RAN), which includes antenna systems and base stations, and a 'core' network that serves vital control plane functions. Most initial deployments of 5G have been supported by existing LTE enhanced packet core (EPC) networks and 5G radio networks (5G NR NSA). This was the most logical first step to ensuring service continuity and reliable fallback to 4G whenever users traveled outside of 5G coverage, while also avoiding a disruptive and costly core transformation.

This development can be described as an initial 'eMBB' phase or 'consumer' phase of 5G, as operators use their available low-band, mid-band and millimeter wave spectrum holdings to cover swaths of their population bases, and marque locations like the Superbowl venue or Times Square via a combination of 5G macro and microcells. These initial 5G rollouts, which are still getting underway, are intended to capture the early-adopter market and mindshare, and spur demand for 5G-capable smartphones, mobile data plan upgrades, or fixed wireless access services. This initial phase has been accompanied by large advertising investments and marketing one-upmanship to claim first and fastest networks, and has laid the network foundations for what's next.

The 451 Take

One of the penultimate drivers of the success of 5G will be telecom vendors and their customers mastering cloud-native technologies and practices. 5GSA deployments are where the rubber truly hits the road for 5G. For many telecom operators, it will be a symbolic jump into the deep end, because it will be the first time they are deployed as the foundation of core network operations and new commercial service opportunities. 5GSA will be a tipping point where telecom operators are forced to radically cloudify their core network operations and all that comes with it, good and bad. Over the next several years, the telecom market will offer some of the most complex challenges and richest rewards to the cloud-native ecosystem.

5G Phase 2 – 5GSA brings 5G to the enterprise


The eMBB phase of 5G is arguably the easiest since it represents 'more of the same.' While deploying a vast new footprint of RAN capacity is hardly trivial, especially in pandemic conditions, the demand-side dynamics of delivering faster mobile broadband connections and devices to consumers is tried and true. The next phase of 5G is when things will get more uncertain and challenging, and require significantly more planning in terms of internal processes and external positioning, including building new ecosystems to marry 5G capabilities with applications and outcomes.

As we have heard, 5G brings several important new capabilities including the ability to support three virtual network 'slices' delivered over one physical radio architecture – enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) and massive IoT (MMTC). These latter two capabilities have been designed with the industrial enterprise, public sector and transportation industries in mind, which opens new opportunities for creating further revenue pools and improved value chain positioning for global telecom operators, both of which are very much required to remain viable.

The URLLC and MMTC capabilities will become available as standards are ratified and commercialized by TEMs, and telecom operators deploy 5GSA core systems over the next two or three years. The Figure below was sourced from a survey that 451 Research conducted last year of global telecom operators, which reveals the expected timeline for deploying 5GSA. As we can see, most of the telecom network decision-maker respondents indicated they will commercialize 5GSA over the next three or four years.

In What Year Do You Plan to Meet the Following 5G/Edge Computing Deployment Milestones? In What Year Do You Plan to Meet the Following 5G/Edge Computing Deployment Milestones?

Already

2020-2021

2022-2023

2024-2025

2025-2027

2027+

No plans

5G - NSA

18%

40%

33%

9%

50% Coverage

8%

22%

29%

21%

10%

5G SA

25%

24%

26%

13%

13%

Slicing

14%

33%

34%

9%

3%

8%

Release 16/17

13%

36%

21%

16%

10%

Initial Edge

23%

27%

16%

21%

5%

5%

3%

Sub 10ms

in region

6%

23%

27%

34%

4%

5%

Complete

10%

30%

26%

27%

4%

451 Research, Q3 2020

5GSA benefits


With a 5G NR SA deployment, services are provisioned and delivered without the requirement to anchor to an LTE EPC. With an SA deployment, the full complement of 5G features and system benefits comes into view. The 5G core is specified to use a service-based architecture (SBA). This is most practically supported via a micro-services architecture that makes use of cloud-native technologies such as containers, while using organizational principals like DevOps and application lifecycle management based on CI/CD (continuous integration/continuous delivery).

This jump into the deep end of network cloudification holds the promise of massive increases in automation in core workflows and procedures such as testing, which will reduce operational costs and improve service quality. Bringing testing into the development process earlier is commonly referred to 'shifting left.' Speed, in terms of the timeline to create new services or enhance existing services, is a natural benefit that has been used with great effect by hyperscale cloud providers. They, in turn, have pivoted aggressively toward telecoms as enabling partners in this new world.

The ability to expose underlying network capabilities internally and externally via APIs will generate new 'platform based' business models. The performance benefits of 5G NR SA in terms of latency and throughput, QoS and security can be applied to a wide swath of existing use cases, and will be the most compelling alternative for emerging use cases with ultra-low-latency requirements such as autonomous robotics and vehicles or AR/VR experiences.

5GSA challenges and opportunities


Preparing for 5GSA will require an unprecedented degree of coordination and collaboration within the telecom ecosystem, meaning new platforms, skills, business models and ecosystems. Telecom CEOs will be asked to keep the airplane flying, so to speak, while changing out the wings midflight. This is about more than just ensuring an adequately scaled and secured NFV/CNF platform and interoperability testing among core function vendors. Global telecom operators will, more than ever, be taking ownership of their service portfolios and innovation cycles.

This cultural shift will face inertia and headwinds. New features will at times require small changes to software, not new boxes, and new capabilities will be released on a daily basis rather than two or three times per year. The opportunity that is implied by such changes is a true transformation from a communications service provider to a digital service provider. The good news is that there is no shortage of suppliers willing to help telecoms navigate this journey.

RAN leaders like Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei are all offering 5G core network functions as containerized applications, and have taken steps to upskill their own product, integration and services teams with cloud-native skills and processes to defend their core turf. Cloud-native opens the door to others to participate as well. Specialists like Mavenir and Aspen Mesh are addressing specific cloud-native components or infrastructures.

The giants of IT infrastructure are creating LOBs specifically tasked with generating telecom business through new platforms targeting 5G core functions (Dell, Cisco, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, Samsung) or as horizontal, hybrid cloud deployment environments (IBM/RH, VMware). Cloud service providers including AWS, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and Google have all recently announced multifaceted telecom engagement strategies, platforms and services with a shared focus on edge computing.

Global SIs are also stepping up to the plate. For instance, Accenture had a central role in Rakuten Mobile's cloud-native network deployment by helping design new business and organizational models optimized for Rakuten's environment and business objectives.