Marc Price, CTO of digital customer experience platform provider Matrixx Software (pictured, right), talked to Mobile World Live about how 5G is opening the door to a new approach to network design and operation in the form of virtualisation and open architectures, though noted the shift is not without its challenges.
Can software do it all or will operators need some physical infrastructure in the 5G era?
What’s important and impressive about the strides our industry is taking is that decisions regarding software and hardware can increasingly be made independently. While software may be chosen for its market agility, architecture, and performance, hardware decisions may focus more specifically on commercial terms. Does one wish to buy, rent, or pay for use of the commodity assets needed to run one’s business? Software will always need some sort of physical infrastructure, but modern cloud-native software increasingly enables platform independence and more options than ever before.
Why is 5G opening the door to virtual or software-based networks when other generations have not?
5G alone is not the catalyst. However, 5G design principles incorporate modern best practices. This includes aspects of web-scale design from companies like Amazon and Google, and cloud-native design principles from the Linux Foundation’s Cloud Native Computing Foundation. Previous attempts at virtualising network applications and isolating infrastructure decisions haven’t been very successful because of fragmented views as to how achieve this, and mixed success in realising the performance and agility needed.
Our industry is unifying around architecture patterns and a set of tools we can agree upon and breaking out of a telco-only mindset. As the tools improve, this makes these decisions easier. While Rakuten Mobile is deploying a 4G network with virtualised cloud-native network elements, we’ll see many more deployments of 5G core network elements in 2020 that use these design patterns to achieve success.
What key elements are required in software for virtualised networks, and are we there with this today or is there work to do?
Software in the 5G era must support distributed architectures well. This is the biggest challenge to achieving the scale and scope of ambition required. The variety of 5G deployments is staggering. It encompasses solutions for massive IoT, densification of networks, and ultra-low latency. It involves isolation of network slices as well as edge-based components. Microservices based functions must be independently scalable, and API first design should eliminate vendor lock-in. Software application vendors have a lot of work to do to design and develop solutions to support these needs. At the same time, agility and performance remain paramount while addressing these goals. Lastly, the technology is nascent from the Cloud Native Computing Foundation industry. While platform independence is paramount, we must have more mature solutions and support from the tools vendors to achieve success at scale.
Will virtualisation shake-up the traditional equipment vendor market, or are they well prepared for any shift in business model?
There’s a big shake up underway. The largest network equipment manufacturers were partly responsible for stifling success in the previous era, where proprietary NFV solutions didn’t provide operators the cost reductions, efficiency, or vendor independence that was promised. The industry as a community has finally made some tough decisions with 5G, and in the Linux Foundation. Our challenge is to innovate or become the dumb pipe that’s been feared. Open architectures and increased use of web-scale principles mean that the opportunity is there for the next tier of network software application vendors to thrive. It also means greater opportunities for vendors like AWS, Microsoft, Google, Dell, and VMware. Ultimately, it improves the competitiveness of the operator community and enables 5G to become a commercial success with new business models that will differ greatly from those that came before.
What does 2020 hold for the industry?
IoT and Mixed Reality (MR) have been on the rise, along with improved opportunities for service providers to collaborate with enterprises. With the 5G packet core finally becoming a reality in 2020, this is the time for a pivot towards services like these, and a dizzying array of other services and business models yet to emerge.
I look forward to seeing an expanded maturity as new emerging devices become more mainstream, networks become more like services, and lines blur further between telco and other industries.
This article was originally due to appear in the MWC20 Barcelona Show Daily newspapers as part of our conference speaker coverage. Due to the cancellation of the event we are instead publishing them online.