Given the potential and promise of 5G, it comes as no surprise that the next generation mobile network is dominating technology industry headlines. However, while 5G is a generational boost for wireless networks, it’s important to recognize a more significant technology shift which impacts the migration to 5G networks: telco cloud.

When we think about telecommunications, we tend to think of large towers supporting bundles of fiber optic cables, copper wires and other heavy infrastructure. Yet today, telcos are moving to the cloud in a big way.

In recent years, the cloudification of communication networks, or telco cloud, has become a byword for telecom modernization. Today, as the industry moves to 5G, operators will have opportunities to move forward on a path to an increasingly cloud-native future. 

Cloud native have been buzz words for many years, though often they have different meanings for different people. As the authors of a recently published Microsoft ebook stated, ask 10 colleagues to define cloud native, and there’s good chance you’ll get ten different answers.

Cloud-native systems are designed to embrace rapid change, large scale and resilience. Therefore, the main benefits of cloud native computing are speed, agility and scalability.

The Cloud Native Computing Foundation provides an official definition:

“Cloud-native technologies empower organizations to build and run scalable applications in modern, dynamic environments such as public, private and hybrid clouds. Containers, service meshes, microservices, immutable infrastructure and declarative APIs exemplify this approach.”

Red Hat’s Chief Architect, Azhar Sayeed, defines the term telco cloud as “heavily virtualized, software-defined, highly resilient infrastructure, allowing telcos to add services more quickly and centrally manage their resources.”

Service providers are now building a telco cloud environment that spans across multi-vendor and multi-site cloud infrastructures, designed to meet the performance and scalability requirements that 5G will require.

When it comes to telco clouds, the basic concept is similar, though the implementation varies from operator to operator. Some have built their own cloud infrastructure, or private clouds, and others are embracing public clouds.

Depending on their purposes, ambitions, and technology readiness, operators have moved to cloud native in many different ways.

Japan’s Rakuten is widely regarded as being at the forefront of the industry's move toward virtualized, cloud-native, open wireless networks. From the outset, the aim was to build “the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized cloud-native network.”

In April, the company succeeded in commercially launching its virtualized 4G network, and claimed it saved 40% CAPEX and 30% OPEX compared with conventional monolithic networks. The company also said it expects to spend around $1.8 billion upgrading to 5G by September.

Rakuten represents the shift away from reliance on hardware and legacy infrastructure and plans to hire no more than 350 people to operate the entire cloud-based network, compared with thousands of employees working for the incumbent DoCoMo. As a result, it can offer comparable packages at about half the price of its competition.

Like Rakuten, many operators will soon find themselves moving away from CAPEX-centric models of network operation and embracing the OPEX model afforded by cloud services.

They may also deploy traditional public clouds and adopt managed cloud services, whereby providers such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google move their infrastructure into telco datacenters.

Telco partnerships with large cloud providers could be just the ticket for merging infrastructures in ways that make 5G more affordable and able to turn a profit faster.

AT&T started its migration to the cloud by building its own private cloud infrastructure, called AT&T Integrated Cloud, to run both network operation and IT systems. But the company realized “it wasn’t optimal to combine both types of workloads on a single cloud.”

In July 2019, AT&T and Microsoft announced a $2 billion, multiyear deal to collaborate on cloud, artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G. As part of the partnership agreement, Microsoft will be AT&T’s preferred cloud provider for non-network applications.

“AT&T is becoming a ‘public cloud first’ company by migrating most non-network workloads to the public cloud by 2024,” the company said in a joint statement with Microsoft.

“That initiative will allow AT&T to focus on core network capabilities, accelerate innovation for its customers, and empower its workforce while optimizing costs.”

Meanwhile, the company has developed a private cloud, called Network Cloud, optimized for its network workloads. Now, AT&T is operating in a typical hybrid cloud environment.

Vodafone Idea, created through the so-called “world’s biggest telecom network integration” between Vodafone India and Idea Cellular, has opted to migrate to its own “universal cloud”, using an open source infrastructure based on Red Hat’s OpenStack.

All the operator’s telco workloads, IT operations including the billing system and enterprise applications are run on this cloud platform.

"Through our collaboration with IBM and Red Hat, we are adopting open standards and leading with highly automated, machine learning based hybrid cloud solutions to create India’s first Open Universal Hybrid Cloud that supports our most mission-critical operations across network and IT systems, and B2B enterprise customer offerings. This is part of our transformation journey to set up a robust, future ready network,” said Vishant Vora, CTO of Vodafone Idea Limited.

All the exciting things that the industry is talking about, like 5G, relies on highly flexible, dynamic, programmable networks that can perform at scale. None of this can be done as envisioned without deploying telco cloud technology.

However, the reason it is often referred as “the journey to the cloud” or “migration to the cloud” is because undertaking such a move can be a long, grueling process.

For the likes of Rakuten, a company coming from a strong internet background, building a cloud-based network may not be as difficult as it would be for incumbent operators with generations of legacy networks.

The hype surrounding 5G is largely based on its potential standards and the triumvirate of use cases that assume extreme sophistication in mobile networks.  

However, making those use cases a reality require operators to find an affordable way to rapidly scale their infrastructures, and to deliver distributed resources wherever they're needed.  That means embracing the concept of telco clouds.