In Hillsboro, Oregon, Verizon is running a trial that it says is both an industry first and a glimpse of its network’s future: a fully cloud-native, container-based element of its Evolved Packet Core, operating on its live network and serving customers.
The proof-of-concept trial with Ericsson is the first container- based wireless EPC technology deployment in a commercial network in the world, according to Verizon and Ericsson.
“This particular proof-of-concept and the capabilities that we’re seeing with the benefits of cloud-native — that absolutely is a glimpse into the future,” said Bill Stone, VP of technology development and planning for Verizon.
Stone said that Verizon has been diligently working to virtualize a good portion of its core network, and “this is the next step in the process, where we’re moving from virtual machines to cloud native.”
That’s important, according to Stone, because while virtualization provides some reduction in operational and hardware expenses, moving to contained-based operations “greatly increases some of the operational simplicity.” He said that in the trial, Verizon is leveraging orchestration capability from open-source Kubernetes that enables it to bring in additional capacity much more quickly, with much greater agility.
“The network is becoming much more dynamic. You have different network functions scaling up and down in different locations — that’s a lot more complexity. But that all ties back to the capabilities that come with orchestration by Kubernetes and being able to actually manage the network,” Stone said. “This technology existed prior to it being applied in telecom networks, or networks such as our own — in the traditional cloud space. But we’re finding that the technology maps very well.
“The capabilities we get with better orchestration enables us to remove and abstract some of that complexity,” he went on. “Automation with orchestration is absolutely key, and critical in our being able to manage and provide the type of reliability that Verizon is known for. The lesson learned is that, this technology is applicable to our networks and it does what we need it to be able to to do, to maintain the reliability and the service levels going forward in a more complex environment.”
He said that upgrades can be accomplished “without any down time, without any outage time.” Verizon’s PoC leverages docker images and helm charts, the company said, with expected updates on the software from Ericsson every two weeks.
“Part of what we get when we move from the virtual machines into the cloud-native, container-based environment is basically, the applications, the network functions themselves are being scaled and built differently: microservices, instead of having big, monolithic code,” Stone said. “We have much smaller, more granular chunks of code, which enables us to scale up and scale down the network function — think of adapting to different capacity levels, with much more granularity. That also enables us to do software upgrades in a much more easy manner, where we don’t have to take down big chunks of code.”
While the PoC involves an LTE core network element, using Ericsson’s Packet Core Controller deployed as a cloud-native and microservice-based Mobility Management Entity (MME) in an existing pool, the trial has more implications for Verizon’s 5G ambitions than it does for its LTE network, according to Stone, who referred to cloud-native implementations like this one as “directional technology” for the carrier.
“That was one of the primary reasons why we engaged with Ericsson on this, because we’ve had our eye toward this for the next-generation core,” Stone said. “This is a glimpse into what we’re going to be capable of.”
As Verizon evolves its network toward 5G and new use cases, Stone said, it needs additional functionality in its network. With cloud-native, containerized network core elements, “it’s easier for us to bring that new functionality into the network much more quickly.” Being faster with bringing new capabilities is another key area being explored with the trial, Stone said — as is the fact that the cloud-native MME is co-existing with Verizon’s legacy systems, both custom hardware-based network elements and virtual machine versions.
“This is real network elements, serving real network customers,” he said. Verizon is calling it a proof of concept “because it is not scaling it out or deploying it widely just yet, but thus far, the proof-of-concept trial has gone exceedingly well and has met our expectations.”
He went on to say that Verizon’s plan is to eventually, fully deploy a next-generation 5G network core based on cloud-native, container technology.
“Going forward into 5G, that’s the path,” Stone said. A 5G core, he added, is key to enabling network slicing, which he said Verizon sees as very important for the many use cases that it wants to take advantage of. And althought this PoC focuses on cloud-native at the core, Stone said that the company isn’t neglecting the edge in its efforts.
“I would fully expect that cloud-native and container-based technology will be part of our ongoing virtualization of he baseband, or BBU, function at the network edge, and that’ll continue as we move forward with other edge network capabilities for 5G,” he said.
While the POC trial for the MME involves an LTE network element, Stone noted, “I wouldn’t frame our direction as evolving the entire 4G set of functions to cloud-native containers. Basically, we’re going to decide where that makes sense. … There are certainly going to be sweet spots” where it will make sense to go cloud-native with elements of its LTE network. Verizon will pursue going cloud-native in LTE “in particular components,” Stone said, as it looks at the overall life-cycle and where it has the most requirements or new areas of focus. While it’s possible that Verizon’s LTE network may end up evolving to be fully container-based and cloud-native, Stone said, he “doesn’t see that as mission critical. That’s more opportunistic. … We’re certainly going to take advantage of doing that where it makes sense to do so.”
But, he said, “the emphasis is going to shift from the 4G core to the 5G core over the next couple of years. That’s why the plan is to have a fully cloud-native, container-based on 5G from day one.”
Verizon and other U.S. operators have not yet said when they plan to move to a 5G Standalone implementation, as opposed to the NonStandalone version of 5G with which they are starting deployments; NSA relies on an LTE core. But, Stone said, “we’ll be moving into tests and trials with vendors in the not-too-distant future, later this year, for using more cloud-native and container-based capabilities on the ongoing plans to deploy and move to 5G. … The focus is more on the 5G core.”