At the recent Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona, there was one topic on everybody’s lips: the move to 5G. Carriers including T-Mobile, Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom announced plans to bring 5G to their customers. And technology providers such as Intel and Qualcomm showcased how 5G will transform everything from smart cities to virtual reality.
The fact that this would be the main area of discussion at the event was no surprise. Since the new 5G standard – 5G New Radio (NR) – was agreed upon in December last year, the global mobile industry has been grappling to begin large scale trials and commercial deployments, with the first expected as early as 2019.
“While broad rollout isn’t expected until after 2020, operators are already keen to position themselves as leaders,” explains Rick Lievano, Microsoft’s worldwide director of Industry Technology Strategy for Telecommunications. “At Microsoft we have a significant part to play in this shift – we are helping carriers to achieve the scale they need to deploy networks rapidly and with a lower capital expenditure than in the past.”
This scale can only be achieved with the cloud. “Many of the strategies imply a reliance on a suitable cloud platform to perform certain tasks,” explains Eric Troup, chief technology officer for the telecommunications industry at Microsoft. “Network workloads are being virtualised as what could be seen as an interim step. What is actually needed, however, is cloudification of the network. This implies several things. First, the network functions software architecture must be rewritten to be truly cloud aware, not just virtualised. Second, a stable cloud platform system is necessary to host these workloads consisting of a distributed network of both hyper-scale and edge data centres that can perform the various cloud tasks required. It also requires software defined networking (SDN) within the data centres and software defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) between the data centres and out to 5G edge devices. Finally, it requires artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) for enhanced management of resources.”
This is where Microsoft’s proven cloud offering comes into its own. “Microsoft Azure is a truly software defined everything environment,” Troup says. “It is capable today of hosting the operators’ network workloads and IT workloads in a consistent and easily managed way.”
AI and ML are also fundamental to Microsoft’s approach. “Although service providers recognise that AI is unchartered territory, they also understand if they’re not at the table, they’re on the menu,” says Lievano. “There’s a real opportunity for Microsoft to be a trusted partner in helping telcos craft their AI strategy, provide them with technical expertise, and with the breadth of our internal resources such as our Cognitive Services Lab. Currently we’re working to help telcos leverage AI to process big data, improve operations, and increase revenue. Specifically, telcos are integrating AI within the body of the company through network systems, products and services as well as leveraging AI to empower their customers through digital agents, bots and new speech capabilities.”
Looking ahead, it seems certain that the telco industry will continue to leverage hyper-scale cloud providers to an increasing degree to host both network and IT workloads. “Microsoft Azure will likely serve an increasingly significant role by enabling network efficiencies at the edge or via agile, hyper-scale cloud. This will be enhanced with AI and data analytics to provide the most cost-efficient infrastructure to telco companies,” concludes Troup. “Edge cloud will also play an increasingly important role as 5G rolls out during the 2020s. The Azure stack is well positioned to extend the capabilities of Azure in an operationally consistent manner to include any low-latency or edge processing requirements in the future.”