Nokia, ARM, twisting Intel bid to reinvent the TCP/IP stack for a 5G era

Re-jigging network protocols is a proxy war for data centre dominance in telco-land

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High stakes for ARM in an Intel world

For ARM, the stakes are very high here, given that SDN and data centre/telecoms convergence are golden opportunities for its rival Intel. Much of Nokia’s work on telecoms IT platforms so far has been done with Intel and so ARM’s presence in a leading role in the new Foundation is an important endorsement (and Enea, with its real time Linux expertise, will provide some of the leadership in this area which might otherwise have been offered by Intel’s Wind River unit).

The resulting stack will run on most major processor architectures – ARM, x86, PowerPC and MIPS, but ARM knows the value of being at the heart of the standards action. It needs to expand its reach beyond mobile devices and build ecosystems of similar weight in higher growth markets like cloud infrastructure and the IoT. This is seeing the UK firm increasingly spearhead or join broad industry alliances with powerful backers, which have the opportunity to shape future platforms – with ARM at their heart. Its own mBed OS and TrustZone environments for the IoT, and its founding membership of the Thread Alliance for the smart home, and now of the OFP Foundation, are all good examples, as it looks to replicate its mobile position as the spider at the center of a web of larger players.

Charlene Marini, VP of segment marketing at ARM, said: "Collaborative open source initiatives such as the OFP Foundation are fundamental in realizing a networking infrastructure built on flexible and heterogeneous compute platforms. The formation of this Foundation adds further momentum to the expanding ecosystem of open source communities that are focused on accelerating network applications through innovation and increased interoperatibility, while reducing fragmentation and time to market."

Nokia strengthens its IT role

For Nokia’s part, success with a broad industry platform would reinforce the progress it has already made in moving towards the cloud and IT markets, along with its mobile operator customers. Of the tier one infrastructure suppliers, Nokia has been the most ready to adapt to the SDN, IT convergence and virtualization trends, even though those threaten its still-hefty revenues from proprietary network hardware. When it completes its acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent, it will also add broad cloud platforms and a wider SDN portfolio to its arsenal.

So while, a few years ago, it would have been bizarre to see Nokia leading an open, cloud-oriented alliance like the OFP Foundation, now that comes as little surprise. The Finnish firm is succeeding in capturing some of that sphere of influence for the telecoms industry, rather than letting IBM and the IT giants make all the running, leaving the networks experts as supporting partners only. In this Foundation, not only are IBM and Intel absent, but HP Enterprise appears to be taking a junior role. Nokia’s Liquid Net was an early example of a network which was, by the standards of the time, very software-controlled, so that resources and capacity could be allocated flexibly where required, from RAN to core to transport.

That was followed by Liquid Apps, a genuine breakthrough in IT/telecoms convergence, which deployed certain applications and content on x86 servers close to the cell site; and this year, Radio Cloud completed the transformation of Nokia into a cloud and IP-based player, and one which could, potentially, cut the ties with its own hardware altogether and offer its platforms on third party and commodity servers, routers and base stations.

For now, however, Nokia’s launch of AirFrame in June showed that it will cling to hardware for as long as possible, even if that must be a new type of hardware. The ultimate vision may be that off-the-shelf x86 (or ARM-based) servers evolve to the stringent performance levels required by some network functions, but in reality, for many years, some of those functions will require specialized accelerators. Those will provide high value opportunities for chip and network providers, but will need to be integrated tightly with the servers themselves and with the IT functions that surround them.

Intel has been addressing that telecoms/IT convergence with a series of coprocessors, targeted at specific network activities including baseband processing, to act as companions for its Xeon server chips. AirFrame saw it intensifying its partnership with Nokia to create a telecoms/IT architecture which aims to offer the best of both worlds, in a highly integrated way – and to try to keep ARM out of the equation too – hence why the OFP group is unlikely to be welcomed at Intel Towers. ®

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