Home Data & Expense Everything as a service, including 5G

Everything as a service, including 5G

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Today, you can get almost anything as a service: shipping as service (Amazon Prime), music as a service (Spotify), TV as a service (Netflix), mobility as a service (Uber), and, of course, infrastructure as a service (Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform).

This “as a service” thinking has profoundly changed the way we deploy IT infrastructure and build applications. Very few of us, today, construct (or even operate) our own data centers. Increasingly, we rent our IT equipment and data center capacity from the major cloud providers, including large players like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform, as well as specialized players such as Packet and Digital Ocean.

We are now seeing how cloud business models can be applied to wireless infrastructure. In particular, 5G as a service is here, and it is an innovative and flexible way for carriers and network operators to join the budding 5G revolution. Carriers and operators can purchase 5G as a service in the same way they buy cloud services from Amazon, Microsoft or Google. It allows the network operator to generate revenue from their new superfast 5G cellular network without requiring a large upfront capital investment.

5G as a service will revolutionize the way wireless operators deploy new services. It will increase market competition and accelerate the nationwide rollout of 5G.

The race to 5G

Today’s 4th generation (4G) cellular networks are approaching the end of their useful life. While 4G networks offer more speed and capacity than their 3rd and 2nd generation predecessors, they face ever-increasing pressure to deliver higher bandwidths and lower latencies. Demanding applications such as streaming video, augmented reality and IoT push these networks to their limit. To cope with this strain, mobile operators are looking to deploy next-generation 5th generation (5G) technologies.

As mobile operators upgrade to 5G, they will usher in new era of applications and revenue streams, but it will come at a cost. 5G infrastructure is complicated. Deploying it will be expensive. And, perhaps above all, it will take a great deal of time.

Whoever upgrades their network to 5G the fastest (and, at the lowest cost) is likely to win the lion’s share of the new revenue.

5G as a Service: It’s closer than you think

One of the most dramatic trends in wireless infrastructure is the emergence of Network Function Virtualization (NFV). NFV refers to the migration of network capabilities (“functions”) from proprietary, black-box, vendor-specific hardware to increasingly open software that can run on almost any white-box x86 or ARM server. Functions being virtualized range from low-level signal processing to higher-level policy management. As the wireless network becomes increasingly “virtualized,” NFV will require mobile operators to utilize thousands of servers across almost as many remote locations. Deploying thousands of servers is not for the faint of heart.

Fortunately, today’s NFV approach enables a unique pay-as-you-go model; NFV makes it possible for network operators to purchase 5G-ready infrastructure as a service, on demand, for a recurring fee, like the public cloud model. By leasing key infrastructure on demand, a carrier can rapidly enter new markets at less cost, focus on swift innovation, and improve their financial performance by shifting budget from CAPEX to OPEX.

By migrating to cloud architectures, operators can hire best-in-class developers and use modern development and DevOps practices, making it possible to deploy and operate a 5G telecom network as efficiently as Facebook runs its social network. Cloud native practices will fundamentally improve the innovation cycles for new wireless services, as operators leverage the learnings and code-bases from millions of cloud developers.

The underlying technology

The different technology trends that make 5G as a service possible have only recently converged. What would have been nearly impossible just a few years ago, is now both possible and practical because of the following trends and innovations:

Telco NFV and SDN: Telecommunications industry initiatives that include Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN) have made it possible for operators to move away from proprietary hardware, such as black-box cellular base stations, and towards general-purpose x86 and ARM servers, which are more flexible and less costly.

Powerful and Cost-Effective White Box Servers: Today’s general-purpose x86 and ARM servers are powerful enough to run the complex and latency-sensitive 5G network functions. Also, general-purpose hardware continues to be driven down the cost curve by the economies of scale in public and private data centers. They also benefit from collaborative standards and shared designs, such as those offered by Open Compute and Open19.

Modular Networking Components: The emergence of telco-specific FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) and NICs (Network Interface Cards), such as those offered by Intel as part of their FlexRAN initiative, make it easy to adapt off-the-shelf white-box servers to wireless networking.

High-performance edge computing infrastructure. To achieve acceptable latencies for 5G network functions, edge computing infrastructure must be used. Centralized data centers, often hundreds or thousands of miles away, will not work; the latency and cost of moving large quantities of data over those distances is prohibitive.

In today’s legacy networks, proprietary hardware is placed as physically close to the point of use as possible, such as at the base of the tower or in a nearby aggregation hub, to achieve suitable performance and latency. With the move to virtualized network functions, the need for proximity does not change. In fact, to achieve the gains expected from virtualization, at low capital and operating costs, telcos must consider leveraging the edge infrastructure being built out by third parties, such as landowners (e.g., Crown Castle) and public cloud providers (e.g., Packet).

Building the infrastructure edge

Enabling nationwide 5GaaS will require thousands of micro data centers embedded in the wireless infrastructure, at the very edge of the last mile network. Specifically, this is known as infrastructure edge, and it is the optimal place to deploy 5G network functions. By placing micro data centers within the wireless infrastructure, then stitching them together with high-speed fiber, providers can use shared infrastructure to create an “edge cloud” for running network functions. On this edge cloud, network functions can be deployed as needed, in software, and achieve the low latencies required.

Fortunately, there are a number of companies—cloud providers, data center operators, and owners of wireless infrastructure—which are collaborating to build out shared data centers at the infrastructure edge.

The cloud business model for 5G

The growth of the major cloud providers, including Amazon Web Services, demonstrates the power of pay-as-you-go infrastructure. By leveraging cloud provider facilities and services, enterprises can focus on developing innovative applications as opposed to operating commodity infrastructure at scale.

The flexibility of a pay-as-you-go model will prove crucial in making widespread 5G network deployment a reality. Carriers and network operators of all sizes will benefit greatly from the option of purchasing 5G as a service. In those markets where it makes sense, operators will lower their CAPEX investment, speed up their time-to-market, and be able to leverage the skills and workflows of cloud-native developers and devops. With the pressure that many carriers and network operators are under to achieve their 5G network rollout targets, the 5GaaS concept and its pay-as-you-go model provides a valuable option.

5G at the kinetic edge

5G as a service is also a great example of the flexibility and value of what we’ve come to call the Kinetic Edge—an edge infrastructure that spans an entire metropolitan region by stitching together a dozen or so micro data centers with high-speed fiber and meshing them together with software. When network functions are virtualized on the Kinetic Edge, 5G itself can be thought of as another app which is operated from a high-performance Kinetic Edge infrastructure. As we collectively invest in this kind of edge computing infrastructure, we build a platform that is future-proof and adaptable to many different use cases, including 5G as a service.

Matthew G Trifiro is the CMO of Vapor IO, a company focused on rolling out Kinetic Edge infrastructure nationwide with partners like Crown Castle. The company recently announced a 5G as a service offering with bare metal cloud provider, Packet.

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