Core blimey, that's edgy: HPE makes a play for next-gen 5G market

No need to be an also-RAN

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HPE is entering the 5G game with a new 5G core network software stack that aims at wooing telcos away from the large network equipment providers, such as Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson.

The new core stack will be a cloud native infrastructure, meaning it will be built on a 5G phase 2 core, which can reach theoretical speeds of 100Gbps.

Several big operators, such as Vodafone and Sprint, have already deployed their non-standalone 5G networks. These networks, referred to as NSA (non-standalone) 5G, run on top of a 4G core, and can hit theoretical speeds of up to 150Mbps download and 50Mbps upload, which can bottleneck how fast the whole network can process data.

By comparison, HPE's core will use 5G cells for both signalling and information transfer. This not only ensures higher speeds and lower latency, but enables added functions to the network.

One of these, which HPE is branding Aruba Air Slice, will enable enterprises to prioritise certain kinds of traffic on their network. For example, a video conference could be given priority over streaming music. Another, Aruba Air Pass, will enable traffic to seamlessly pass from a 5G to a Wi-Fi network.

No operators have yet commercially deployed a 5G standalone core - telco standards people at 3GPP have slated it for completion in June 2020 - but several, including AT&T, Verizon, as well as several Asian telcos, are planning to do so later this year and next. In January, South Korean telco SK Telecom successfully completed the "world's first standalone 5G data session" using equipment from multiple vendors on a commercial 5G network. It plans to deploy its standalone 5G service in July.

Mix and match

HPE's push into the area comes at an important pivot point for the telecoms industry. Whereas previous generations of cellular networks relied on proprietary systems for a small number of incumbent suppliers, 5G is designed to take advantage of open, cloud-native platforms. This means that it is ideal for a multi-vendor environment.

Phil Mottram, veep of communications and media at HPE, reckons this could "break the stranglehold" of the big operators by allowing organisations to "mix and match" their networks.

Still, many of the core kit makers, such as Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson, are still pushing customers into an all or nothing approach. By comparison, HPE's 5G Open Stack is open to third-party vendors for network functions.

"I think about it like a layered cake," Mottram said in a press conference this morning. "You've got infrastructure at the bottom, software is the next layer to run the infrastructure, and then the top part of the cake is the 5G network functions."

"In an ideal world, we want the full cake delivered by HPE. But [the customer] may well say, 'You know what, we've been through your network functions, and I like these ones, but I think a different company might do the other ones better'."

HPE plans to offer the new cloud networking products on a consumption-based model as part of its Greenlake portfolio, allowing carriers to buy their way into a 5G core with minimal up-front investment. It described this as "telco-specific hardware and software blueprints" for edge and core workloads. Mottram says that HPE will negotiate the charging triggers with its customers individually, but that so far most customers are being charged when a 5G subscriber is registered on the network.

Gabriele Roberti, a researcher at IDC, said: "HPE, like other IT providers, is trying to play a role in the transforming telco market, capitalizing on its experience in enterprise IT. Being a top player in the core network transformation is not easy as it needs to fight with established vendors for telco equipment.

"On the other side, this transformational shift to software defined infrastructure and network function virtualization opens the market up for competition and brings down some of the barriers and vendors' lock-in."

The new network solution could even help bolster HPE's slinking hardware sales, according to Chris Dando, HPE's chief techie for the media, communications, and entertainment industry. "I think there will be an uptick in hardware requirements as we move towards some of the new technologies and capabilities," he said.

"So if you think about IoT, edge computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning - some of those capabilities are going to drive good old compute demand because people are going to be analysing much more data than they have historically."

HPE plans to start selling the new 5G Core Stack in the second half of this year and said it was in conversations with more than 50 operators around potential deployment. ®

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