Industry Voices—Doyle: Communications server options abound for service providers

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Communications servers are helping service providers drive the deployment of NFV and other virtualized applications. (Pixabay)

Communications servers power the deployment of NFV and other virtualized applications that provide innovative services in the telecom market. 

Commercial servers based on Intel processors continue to dominate the more than $7 billion market opportunity, but communications service providers (CSPs) now can choose from many different platforms designed for the central office (CORD), the edge (MEC) and for virtualized radio access (vRAN) as they upgrade to 5G.

Doyle Research defines the communication server market as compute (server) platforms deployed either directly by CSPsincluding fixed, mobile, and cable providersand servers embedded by network equipment providers (NEPs) as part of their network solution.  

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Commercial servers are the most popular platform followed by ATCA designs and some NEP specific deployments. A communications server typically contains the following elements: compute, internal storage, internal networking, and software.

Communication server requirements

The telecommunications industry has specific requirements for the infrastructure required to deliver high speed, highly reliable communications to its customers. CSPs deploy data centers with different workloads than enterprises or hyperscale cloud providers.  

CSPs distribute their data center resources across central locations, aggregation points and local central offices.  Communication servers have the following requirements:

  • High reliability and redundancy
  • High performance for network applications
  • Scalability/Flexibility
  • Ability to support NFV architectures

Places in the network

CSPs have varying platform requirements based on the place in their networks and applications.  A couple of key places in the network include:

Network core—CSPs have large computing requirements at central locations to run a variety of applications, including mobile core, fixed core, video, security and MANO (management, automation, network orchestration). The majority of NFV deployments to date have been in the core of the network on commercial servers.

Central Office—Traditional telecommunications providers have hundreds, or thousands, of central offices that provide fixed line services. They are evaluating the upgrade of the central office to support NFV applications.  Central offices traditionally have required NEBs or near NEBs equipment standards. 

Multi-access edge computing—MEC is an architecture that applies the power of cloud computing and application flexibility at the edge of the CSP network, including mobile or fixed networks. By running applications closer to the customer, CSPs can deliver the low latency and high performance required by many applications such as mobile, video, IoT, etc.

Customer premises equipment—CSPs deploy CPE, such as routers, at their customers’ locations to provide advanced WAN services.  Service providers are evaluating compact, low-cost platforms to power virtualized SD-WAN, security, routing and other WAN services.

What will the impact of 5G be?

Leading CSPs are just starting to roll out their plans to migrate to 5G mobile networks. 5G promises significant improvements in bandwidth, in flexibility (such as network slicing) and new services.  While the architecture for 5G is still awaiting standardization, it will incorporate wide scale virtualization of the core and at edge of the mobile network.  The migration from monolithic RAN architectures to decomposed elements with standardized interfaces and white box elements will have a major impact on the communication server market. This impact will be felt as 5G reaches scale in the 2020 to 2024 timeframe.

Communication server platform options

CSPs have an abundance of options when selecting platforms for virtualized applications in their networks.  Here's a look at a few of those options:

• Commercial servers based on Intel processors are widely deployed by CSPs for a wide range of applications, including IT workloads, data centers and for virtualized applications in the core.  Commercial servers are strong contenders for virtualized workloads at distributed and edge locations as well.

• Most leading NEPs, such as Ericsson and Nokia, offer network appliances based on server technology with customized software. Cisco and Huawei are also leading suppliers of commercial servers.

• Central Office Reimaged as a Data Center (CORD) is an open source organization whose goal is to combine open hardware and software to bring data center economics and cloud agility to the central office. The architecture of CORD consists of Open Compute Project-based hardware, open source software including OpenStack, ONOS, Docker or XOS, and merchant silicon via white box switches. CORD offers a couple different variants, including Residential CORD and Mobile CORD.

• Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP) is a Facebook led organization designed to bring data center efficiencies to the telecom network. Its target applications include access, backhaul, core, and network management.

vRAN standards and platforms

A number of standard bodies and forums have sprung up to address the platform requirements for distributed RAN architectures that are envisioned for 5G. These include:

  • The xRAN Forum— Its mission is to accelerate open RAN architectures.  The goals include the abstraction the RAN control plane from the user plane, build eNodeB functionality on standard hardware, and open interfaces

  • Cisco Open vRAN —Its goal is provide an open, modular RAN architecture on COTS hardware
  • TIP OpenRAN – Its mission is the disaggregation of software and hardware in the RAN.

Recommendations for CSPs

Communications servers are a critical platform for CSPs' delivery of advanced services to their customers. Communications servers need to be powerful, reliable, flexible, cost-effective and able to support new applications, including containers, MEC and vRAN. As with any compute platform, the support for a broad application (ISV) ecosystem is critical.

The default communications server platform currently is commercial servers from vendors such as HPE or Dell running Intel processors. Many other communications server platforms are emerging, but none is guaranteed commercial success. CSPs should carefully evaluate their platform options based on use case, place in the network and viability.

Lee Doyle is Principal Analyst at Doyle Research, providing client focused targeted analysis on the Evolution of Intelligent Networks.  He has over 25 years’ experience analyzing the IT, network, and telecom markets.  Lee has written extensively on such topics as SDN, NFV, enterprise adoption of networking technologies, and IT-Telecom convergence. Before founding Doyle Research, Lee was Group VP for Network, Telecom, and Security research at IDC.  Lee holds a B.A. in Economics from Williams College. He can be reached at [email protected] and follow him @leedoyle_dc

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.