‘Some telcos are cognizant’ – Red Hat on the hyperscaler game at the edge
Lord knows what Red Hat does, exactly, if you’ll excuse the language, but Christ knows it is good to talk to. And clearly, on the interplay between cellular networking and cloud computing at the enterprise edge, it should be listened to – as the (holy) ghost in the edge-cloud machine, if you’ll excuse the pun, providing open-source software and middleware to knit systems together, and string them out across distributed computing infrastructure.
Enterprise IoT Insights is on the phone with Azhar Sayeed, chief technologist for cloud and virtualization at Red Hat, researching the topic for a new report. In the end, and as always, stuff gets left on the cutting room floor; sometimes, as with this conversation, from back in November, it never even makes it off the tape (excess workloads). Which is wrong, and was a mistake on this occasion – because it was a candid exchange about a confused subject.
What exactly are hyperscalers up to in the 5G space? It looks like industrial encroachment, by any measure – going farthest with Microsoft’s twin purchases of core network providers Metaswitch and Affirmed Networks in 2020, and AWS’s move to bundle partners’ network supplies into its own-branded private 5G offer at the end of last year. All the while, the operator community at large is annexing (MEC) space in their networks to host hyperscaler workloads.
Sayeed picks up the line of enquiry. “Yes, so what’s the play? Does Microsoft want to be a service provider? Does it have the connectivity of an AT&T, say? No, it doesn’t. But does it have data centers in some markets, where it can light up edge services? Absolutely. Does it intend to stand-up an enterprise edge with its own edge? Yes. Can it use its 5G new capabilities to map enterprise edge traffic into its cloud? The answer is, yes, again. That’s the motivation.”
It is the same for AWS and Google Cloud; it is the same essentially for Facebook, he notes, whose Magma project to develop mobile core network software came under new management at the start of last year, with the Linux Foundation. “Facebook is partnering with small and medium SIs to provide a free 5G core network, so they can deploy across the globe – in rural and suburban 5G ‘mushroom’ networks,” he says.
But let’s back up, again, and say something about Red Hat itself. What is it that Red Hat does again, exactly? Because most of us, probably – some of us, maybe – need reminding. The Raleigh-based open-source software firm, owned by IBM since late 2019, is there everywhere and nowhere, it seems – always in our peripheral vision and rarely in plain sight.
As enterprises move their IT (and OT) operations into centralised cloud engines – for easier flexibility and scalability, and faster innovation – and as the cloud moves in the opposite direction into enterprises’ localised IT/OT functions – coupled often with private 5G installations for higher-fidelity computing and higher-grade security – Red Hat is like a will-o’-the-wisp (a ghost) in the cloud machine, providing the platforms and plugins to make the whole system work.
And as the 5G story unfolds, increasingly as an application on top of distributed compute infrastructure, Red Hat is playing both (all?) sides of the line; providing the edge-cloud middleware and operating systems so telcos can virtualize and containerize their network functions on big cloud platforms, and also so telcos and enterprises can, respectively, sell and buy easy-going network-and-compute solutions in order to drive digital change.
Red Hat works with just about everyone on the telco side, it says – with Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile in the US; Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica, and Vodafone in Europe; Airtel and Vodafone Idea in India; NTT and KDDi in Japan. “Literally, you could pick any of the large telcos,” comments Sayeed.
It is the same (using the telco view of the tech food-chain) on the enterprise side; Red Hat is supplying open-source cloud tools to the same ‘verticals’ the rapidly-fragmenting telecoms sector is going after with private LTE/5G networking – which equates, effectively, to all-of-industry. Sayeed says: “We’re talking to pretty much everyone – they are all our customers.” He name-drops Siemens, BMW, Delta Airlines, Bank of America; only to make a point.
Basically, for any business joining the dots in software along the edge-cloud continuum, Red Hat ‘has it covered’ – in “financial services, transportation, manufacturing, healthcare etcetera”. He explains: “We have solutions for each industry, but they are all geared around digitalization, cloud migration, software toolsets and things like that. The primary focus is to enable cloud usage and cloud adoption for these customers.”
But the cloud interplay with private 5G at the enterprise edge is interesting, and an important line of business for Red Hat. The availability of dedicated and shared ‘vertical’ spectrum in major industrial economies is driving interest, notes Sayeed, and serving a need in Industry 4.0 circles for higher performance and closer control. He outlines three private 5G models, with various edge-cloud interactions: standalone networks, with everything at the edge; hybrid networks, with the control-plane in the cloud; and sliced networks, hived off of public 5G infrastructure.
In each case, he says, the interplay is different. “The cloud platform riding underneath is tuned differently – enabled differently,” he says. “In a private environment, for an ad hoc small-number of users, you need a small footprint, shrink-wrapped for a small number of nodes, so you can host and bring it up as quickly as possible. If you’re deploying a network slice off of a telco, you need to partition network functions to provide that hybrid service.”
He goes on: “These things are enabled on the [cloud container] platform, and it’s the platform that allows you to be able to either host these workloads in an isolated or shared manner, and then partition the traffic out of that.” Which is where Red Hat’s OpenShift containerization software, based on the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) system, managed in Kubernetes, is finding purchase. It is the baseline operating system for their private 5G offers, he says.
“All the underpinnings are Red Hat; it is part of that platform-as-a-service (PaaS) layer – not just CaaS (container-as-a-service) or IaaS (infrastructure-as-a-service), but a PaaS, with a whole bunch of tools, middleware, software, and data management. And then all the telco services are layered-in on top.” Related, Red Hat has optimized its RHEL distribution, as RHEL for Edge, for low-power IoT devices at the edge.
Sayeed comments: “RHEL is secured and optimized for containers, and microservice deployment, and it’s mostly deployed in enterprise data centres for enterprise workloads. But when you deploy an operating system to manage IoT gateways at the edge, where you are collecting data in low-power devices, it has to be manageable and familiar. We’ve optimized RHEL for that type of environment – so the experience at that far edge and in the cloud is identical.”
But then, that’s enough about Red Hat; we want to talk again about wider concerns. Clearly the 5G market remains embryonic, and will develop in various directions to capture varied customers, but it appears – suspiciously, inescapably – like the hyperscalers want a piece of the telco action, and would probably prefer not to rely on public 5G operators for private 5G installations.
It is difficult not to think the telco community must be gripped by some collective existential hypertension. After all, mobile operators have watched the likes of Google – among hyperscalers, and Apple and Facebook et al besides – ride over-the-top (OTT) in the consumer smartphone market in the 4G era, making them channels-to-market in the mobile-internet rush. Is this correct, as a clumsy caricature of a developing carve-up in the private 5G market?
“Certainly, but look; there is a lot of co-opetition out there.” Sayeed switches the focus to Google Cloud, referencing its 10-year ‘co-opetition’ deal with Telus, which sees the Canadian operator leverage Google Cloud’s enterprise platform to drive efficiency and flexibility in its network, and also to double up on delivery of 5G and multi-access edge computing (MEC) services.
He comments: “What does Google want? To get more workloads onto its cloud. Why did it sign with Telus? Because there was a balance-of-trade conversation where Telus provides connectivity to Google and Google provides cloud services to Telus. Now, can they work together to build MEC services? Yes they can. These are the motivations; it’s not black-and-white – where they say, ‘Oh, you’re my competitor; I won’t work with you’. That’s not the case.”
It is a carbon copy, more or less, of the deals signed by the big cloud providers with mobile operators across the planet. “Public cloud providers are walking into telcos across the globe, and saying, ‘Provide me co-location capabilities inside your network infrastructure, and I will build that edge platform for you’. All of them are doing that. And it’s a fascinating conversation,” he says.
But we are still suspicious about the balance of trade and the balance of power; is the deck not stacked against the carriers, even as the cards are laid-out on the table and the game is fixed as a draw? I mean, do they have much to gamble with? Do they even have much to play for? Because the network is a functional layer in the stack; all the high-rollers in the new 5G house are upstairs, playing with bigger chips somewhere above their heads.
Is there a way for the old carrier community, moving their infrastructure into the cloud and inviting the cloud into their infrastructure, to get skin in the game, beyond scrapping over the supply (management) of network infrastructure in enterprise premises? It’s a jumbled point, asked in a jumbled fashion; but Sayeed plays along. “You’re not off the mark. Some telcos are cognizant they’re walking into this kind of a paradigm, and trying to be proactive,” he says.
“[They know] what happened with broadband and wireline, where they provided the connectivity, and others took the cake.” He cites the (almost-classical) example of Japanese operator Rakuten, the first operator anywhere to virtualize (and then commercialize) its network. “How did Rakuten start? With a cloud-based 5G network. Where is it now? Building services and adding value on the Rakuten Communications Platform – and even offering it to others.”