IBM taps telcos for hybrid-cloud push, defers decision on private 5G management
IBM has said it is undecided, as yet, about whether to offer 5G network management services to enterprises, despite commentators repeatedly suggesting the New York firm might yet shape up as a prime candidate to handle the ‘run’ phase of new private cellular deployments.
The company told Enterprise IoT Insights it is focused on the supply of hybrid cloud and analytics services in conjunction with traditional telecoms providers. It is working variously with Nokia and Samsung, among kit vendors, and AT&T, Telefónica, and Vodafone, among mobile operators, to integrate compute and connectivity into edge bundles for enterprises seeking to get on the road with digital change.
Marisa Viveros, the company’s vice president of strategy and offerings in IBM’s telecom, media and entertainment division, said: “What we are doing, primarily, is consulting – on spectrum, on architecture. Plus, we are also doing integration. Right now, the market is focused on how to put [private 5G] together and build it – as opposed to operating networks. So it is still to be seen whether or not IBM will operate [private 5G networks].”
Viveros said both traditional telecoms operators and specialist system integrators (SIs), painted frequently as competitors in the new enterprise 5G market, have roles to play in the ‘build’ and ‘design’ phases of private cellular networks, including in collaboration with the likes of IBM. They are candidates for the final undefined ‘run’ phase, as well, potentially, she said.
Interest from enterprises to manage their own private 5G estates is more a symptom of the industry-wide gamble on brand new networking infrastructure, she suggested – which stakes significant investment, in terms of finances and future-scaping, against the excitable odds of digital change. But for certain enterprises, with specialist resources or paranoid dispositions, the novelty will pass and the trend will be to outsource industrial network management.
“At some point enterprises will say it is not their core business. ‘Why should I be deploying networks?’ To an extent, it is fun to [engage with network management] today – because it is a new investment, and it is intellectually motivating. So they are definitely interested. But in the future, most [enterprises will] want someone else to manage, whether an SI or a telco. And telcos are good candidates because we depend on them for outside connectivity.”
The market for private cellular, as a base-level platform for really change-making digital pyrotechnics, is finding its feet, the message goes; roles and responsibilities are being defined. The point for IBM, investing in the telco space, appears to be that specialist SIs will likely be engaged in the design and build phases, and that mobile operators surely will be. In the end, they have to be, said Viveros, even if just to track items outside of private edge complexes.
“There are different ways to deploy this. [At the moment,] it is very centred around [operation of the network inside] the enterprise. And SIs can operate and maintain these networks, or enterprises can do it by themselves – if they have the right engineering resources. The other option is to outsource to telcos, which is the model we are seeing in Japan, say – where retail companies, for example, are giving everything to KDDI.
“So in Japan, it is quite typical for telcos to control this. And, at some point, you need a telco for the transport layer [anyway] – at some point you need to connect to the outside world, beyond the enterprise premises. Plus, there is demand for a hybrid environment, where enterprises want certain control over their deployment, but also want help to manage it – because they don’t have the resources to do it themselves. So it is a work-in-progress.”
An explanation, here, of the potential slant in IBM’s market lens: the firm has various ‘hybrid cloud’ deals with the likes of Telefónica in Spain and Argentina, Lumen Technologies (formerly CenturyLink) in the US, and Vodafone in Portugal, among others. It has close ties with Samsung, to bundle-up edge networking equipment and hybrid compute and analytics. Viveros cites partnerships with AT&T and Nokia, as well.
The company has a new-ish Cloud for Telecoms proposition, with 40-odd partners, to virtualize mobile networks across edge locations, from cloud to premises. The service promises to “increase automation, speed [service] deployment, and new enterprise value”. It uses IBM’s managed Cloud Satellite solution, offering localised cloud services, access policies, and security controls. Several “major transformation deals” will be announced with global telcos next week at MWC.
But the company’s position is interesting because upstart-parts of the private networking market have perceived some jeopardy for the old telecoms set, looking to re-organise as sales agents for digital change. Fragmented enterprise sectors require specialist knowledge, they argue; increasingly, private mobile networking, newly available off-the-shelf in cut-down self-automated cloud-based platforms, does not, they say.
Or that is the gist of it, anyway; the deal-breaker for enterprises is ‘vertical’ knowhow, and not telco experience, reckon the naysayers. IBM appears to agree, without responding directly. “Automation is fundamental in this environment,” said Viveros. “The more you can automate, the less the need for highly skilled engineers. And adoption [of edge infrastructure] will get higher if we make it easy for enterprises to use and deploy and operate.”
She explained: “We provide the platform. There will be roles for telcos and SIs in this environment. [But] whoever you go with, the platform will be IBM inside. The most important thing is to integrate the technology in such a way that customers don’t need to do pre-integration and testing. That is what we are executing on with Nokia and Samsung. [This way] at least, we ensure the platform is pervasive and easy to use, and it has all the required functionality.”
As it stands, the notion IBM will step up as a mega-SI to form a new enterprise 5G managed services division to handle the ‘run’ phase for private cellular is not really up for discussion. At least, not the part where IBM goes against the carrier community. Instead, Viveros paints a picture of IBM as the perfect partner for mobile operators looking to sell private LTE and 5G to industry; it has the vertical knowhow and the edge-cloud smarts to bind the 5G sale.
“Our emphasis is on building the platform to run all those solutions. But the other side of it is to bring that industry expertise. We work in 122 industries – in manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, retail, and others. So our perspective is unique – in terms of co-creation, and developing use cases and applications. And [cracking] the enterprise market is key for the telecoms industry to make a profit on everything it has invested in 5G.”
Viveros said the go-to-market strategy works both ways, with IBM introducing telecoms players into its conversations with industry, and telecoms players bringing IBM into the co-creation mix to patch-up on cloud functionality and, presumably, on bespoke industrial acumen. “We are in the initial phase, working with telcos and enterprises. We bring clients from other industries into the conversation, as well, to jointly work on use cases and innovation.”
She added: “[But] to answer your question, the go-to-market is [both] through telcos’ own enterprise footprints and…” Playback is muddied, but there is something as well about addressing the whole market, with innovation cascading down from larger-sized early adopters. The question comes again, just to double-check: so the message is IBM and its carrier partners are introducing each other into the conversation, during the design and build phases?
“Exactly. That is what we are doing with Vodafone in the UK, on a project started a couple of years ago – selling into Vodafone’s customers, and bringing Vodafone into our clients. The same with AT&T [in the US]. These types of practices are already established.” Are these carrier deals on edge compute and connectivity infrastructure exclusive?
Officially, no; practically, in a way, yes. Just because IBM is somehow working differently with each carrier partner, especially where they crossover. “They are strategic, not exclusive. [But we are] providing differentiation to each of them, and to ourselves.” Again, like with all of this, nothing is defined and everything is to play for. It is just these are ‘early days’; that’s that the point, right? “Exactly.”