Is Kubernetes the Cure to Cantankerous 5G Core?

The full arsenal of technology required to deliver on the promise of 5G hasn’t reached commercial networks – yet. Ultra-reliable, low-latency communications, network slicing, edge services, and converged access hinges on the adoption of cloud-native and containers by telecommunication providers.

Nokia argues the only way to achieve these goals is to have a cloud-native core. The Finnish vendor isn’t the only one doubling down on that idea. A report from ABI Research contends that the “momentum of enterprise 5G will come to screeching halt without a cloud-native platform.”

Thus, telecommunication vendors are shifting their gaze toward cloud-native technologies and specifically Kubernetes for the resilient, flexible, scalable, and automated capabilities inherent to their architecture. The container orchestration platform is being tasked with managing the container-based infrastructure that will be needed to support 5G networks and related services, automating what previously would have been manual labor-intensive operations.

Even as operators roll out 5G networks, there remain several hurdles to clear before their 5G arsenal is complete.

KubeCon Demo

The idea of a cloud-native core is more than just a theory.

At last year’s KubeCon + CloudNativeCon North America event in San Diego, Loodse demonstrated a cloud-native 5G network on an open architecture using its Kubermatic Kubernetes platform. Loodse demonstrated how its Kubermatic platform could serve as standardized base compute infrastructure across different cloud providers, and delivering greater consistency from cloud to core to edge.

The demo was born out of the Linux Foundation’s LF Networking (LFN) Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV) group, which allows for the testing, iteration, and a collaboration framework for common NFV infrastructure (NFVi). The OPNFV project also tapped into work from its Verification Program (OVP) that verifies the labs, infrastructure, and virtual network functions (VNFs).

AT&T, for example, runs its 5G and FirstNet service as a VNF. Containerized network functions (CNFs) are the next evolution of VNFs in that they run applications or functions in a cloud-native container environment, which allows for quicker updates and iterations.

Evolving from VNFs to CNFs
The open source ecosystem made a concerted push into the traditional telecom market last year with the launch of the Cloud native Network Function (CNF) Testbed. The test bed was developed as a partnership between the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) and the LFN group. Its purpose was to show the ability to run the same networking code running as VNFs on OpenStack and as CNFs on Kubernetes.

Although still quite young, CNFs are beginning to establish a stable footing in the market thanks to their advantages in performance, resource savings, and elasticity. And Kubernetes is nearing the point where it is being used in lieu of OpenStack, which many operators have used as a basis for their virtualization efforts.

In a move to increase compatibility and reduce the deployment time and complexity of VNFs and CNFs, Red Hat and Intel recently created a cloud-based onboarding service and test bed for VNFs and CNFs. The work aims to bridge the gap between the two technologies.

Other vendors have also jumped into the test bed process. Red Hat rival VMware, for example, struck a deal with Nokia last November to increase interoperability testing of Nokia VNFs and CNFs running on VMware’s Telco Cloud platform.

Language Barrier

Considering how often 5G is in the news, it may come as a surprise that talk of how telecommunication companies plan to replace their aging networking hardware with 5G equipment has been sparse.

“We have to rethink networking,” said Azhar Sayeed, chief technologist of cloud and virtualization at Red Hat, in regards to solving the complexity of telecom networking needs.

And Juniper Networks wants to help enterprises adopt container and Kubernetes technologies. There’s just one problem: containers still aren’t part of the conversation for most network companies.

Scott Sneddon, senior director and evangelist for cloud at Juniper, told SDxCentral that the first step to making significant progress as an industry would be to get the security, networks, and cloud-native DevOps teams speaking the same language.

“Often times security teams are perceived as the people that slow stuff down, the networking team is often still doing manual process and generally takes a long time to get stuff done, and the cloud and DevOps teams either go into public cloud to get around that, or they’re deploying on top of servers and they’re not asking a lot of the network team,” Sneddon said.

To this end, Sneddon explained that a fundamental goal of the work that Juniper is doing with its portfolio of Contrail software is to try to give the network and security teams tools to speak the same language as the DevOps team.

“Once we have a common language, once we have a little bit more understanding of how to deliver a network-as-a-service to DevOps teams, then Kubernetes applications become production ready because the requirements of the network were thought of in advance because security policy was designed in,” Sneddon added.

Maturation Concerns
As telecommunication vendors journey down the cloud native and Kubernetes rabbit hole, one of the bigger challenges still facing the community is managing its steep maturation ramp.

Heather Kirksey, VP of community and ecosystem development at the Linux Foundation, believes telecom could bring about the next phase of maturation for Kubernetes because “when telecom adopts a technology it tends to bring a maturity perspective.”

That said, vendors like Cisco, Red Hat/IBM, and Dell/VMware have been aggressive in launching managed platforms designed to level that ramp.

A number of vendors are also repackaging the Kubernetes core in a way that allows the platform to operate in resource-constrained environments at the edge, which is an important part of 5G deployments. Vendors like Rancher Labs, CDNetworks, and Edgeworx have all rolled out platforms built on variations of Kubernetes that can live in these environments.

“Containerization in 5G is not only possible, but it can be here today,” said Bill Mulligan, Kubernetes advocate at Loodse, in an interview last year. “The industry is changing and if telcos want to keep up they’d better start examining these technologies.”

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