5G Future Begins with Cloud Native NFV Today

As 5G network architecture plans begin to take shape, they are looking distinctly cloud native. Some network operators are realizing that they will have to build networks in a very different way to support 5G-based services and applications. Network virtualization will be a crucial element of future network design, but it’s not going to resemble the early implementations of Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) that we’ve seen so far. Rather, it will be cloud native.

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Recent industry activity shows how “cloud native” is a growing priority for communications networks. The OpenStack Foundation’s new Airship project, spearheaded by AT&T, Intel, and SK Telecom, aims to make it easier to manage and build cloud infrastructure via a fully containerized, cloud native platform. AT&T has said that Airship will be the foundation for its network cloud that will run its 5G core network.

Containers? Microservices? That’s right. The cloud native concept is leaping from the pages of slideware and into real communications networks for early 5G implementations. Since we’ve been developing cloud native VNFs for years, we couldn’t be more delighted to see the industry’s embrace of cloud architectures and design principles.

It’s understandable why 5G marks a natural transition for new cloud network architectures. 5G has a broad set of disparate requirements to support a variety of use cases, from mobile broadband to massive machine-type communications to ultra-low latency applications. To support all these applications, and the ones we’ve yet to dream up, the network needs the flexibility and scalability enjoyed by the likes of Google and Netflix to deliver their cloud-based services, in addition to closer proximity to users via edge computing.

Cloud native NFV is more than just moving functions to less expensive hardware. The practice takes advantage of the cloud's key advantages: it is an entirely new kind of distributed computing environment, one that is horizontally scalable, resilient and fault-tolerant in a way that doesn't require the one-to-one redundancy that is common in traditional telecom networks. With the right technology in place, the 5G network will self-heal and scale smoothly to meet almost any spike in demand or consumption, all while remaining profitable to manage and maintain, thanks to the shift from custom-built to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware.

Cloud native network design is driving the need for cloud native virtual network functions (VNFs). Cloud native VNFs are based on microservices that are deployed in virtualized containers. Microservices are small independent processes that are highly composable and reusable, scale independently, and can be incrementally deployed and enhanced. Microservices essentially enable service providers to introduce and upgrade applications more quickly.

Compared to virtual machine (VM) deployments, containers are lighter weight, considerably faster to instantiate and more able to interact through RESTful application programming interfaces (APIs). Container-based processes are also easier to scale, chain, heal, move and back up.

Cloud Native NFV Today, 5G Tomorrow

Operators don’t have to wait for 5G to get started with cloud native NFV. The growth of LTE-based services is forcing operators to look for efficiency gains and flexibility in their current networks. Metaswitch’s Clearwater Core vIMS is one of the few cloud native VNFs that is ready to be deployed and, in fact, is deployed in production today. Operators can start the journey to cloud native by making the architectural changes required to support VoLTE. This is a best-of-both move – that is, operators can leverage cloud native capabilities to quickly add new IMS-based services and create new revenue opportunities today while at the same time lay the foundation for 5G.

Beginning a cloud native transformation now to take full advantage of IMS-based services will create the network foundation and development environment that operators will need for 5G.