Microsoft is mounting a more comprehensive effort to position multiple services, some developed internally and others brought in via acquisitions, for 5G operators. The company’s recently announced Azure for Operators platform is a realization of Microsoft’s vision for the market, including services for the cloud, edge computing, IoT, network functions, and artificial intelligence (AI).
“You can’t get from the intelligent edge to the intelligent cloud without transiting with the carrier, so from our perspective the ability to work together to create an experience which is flexible, and resilient, and reliable, is dependent on our ability to partner closely with the operator community,” Shawn Hakl, a partner at Microsoft, told SDxCentral.
It’s also a recognition that the ascent of IoT and the growing relationship between cloud providers and network operators needs to be synergistic, the former longtime Verizon executive said in a phone interview.
Microsoft’s 5G strategy links the private Azure Edge Zones service it announced earlier this year, Azure IoT Central, virtualized evolved packet core (vEPC) software it gained by acquiring Affirmed Networks, and cloud-native network functions it brought onboard when it acquired Metaswitch Networks.
Combining those services under a broader portfolio allows Microsoft to “deliver virtualized and/or containerized network functions as a service on top of a cloud platform that meets the operators where they are, in a model that is accretive to their business,” Hakl said.
“We want to harness the power of the Azure ecosystem, which means the developer ecosystem, to help [operators] monetize network slicing, IoT, network APIs … [and] use the power of the cloud” to create the same type of elastic and scalable architecture that many enterprises rely on today, he explained.
Azure Edge Zones Set the Stage
That vision is split into two parts: the Azure Edge Zones, which effectively extends the cloud to a private edge environment, and the various pieces of software that Microsoft has assembled for network operators. On the latter, Hakl said Microsoft “could have gone out and had our customers teach us that over time. Instead, we acquired two companies that brought in hundreds of engineers that have telco DNA and understand the space.”
Microsoft also gained more than 700 operator customers via Metaswitch and more than 120 customers with Affirmed, he added. “The needs of the operator are unique and we needed to have the DNA in house to make that work.” Azure for Operators is a more formal view of how Microsoft’s various assets are now coming together to service mobile network operators, Hakl explained.
At the base level, Microsoft is providing a common platform layer that allows operators to manage and control orchestration, lifecycle management, security, and DevOps. The next layer of services, containerized and virtualized network functions, includes Microsoft’s internal offerings via Metaswitch or Affirmed, and third-party services it offers in partnership with Nokia, Mavenir, VMware’s VeloCloud, NetFoundry, Palo Alto Networks, and others.
As such, Microsoft’s network operator customers can customize according to their requirements, and purchase one, many, or all services through these various channels. “It’s too early to tell in the market and the industry which one’s going to be adopted,” Hakl said. “We’re going to meet people where they are, and know that it’s a journey. … The model’s got to flex a little until we latch into patterns that work for people’s businesses.”
Azure for Operators Capture’s Microsoft’s 5G Vision
Meanwhile, the company is staffing up under the Azure for Operators umbrella, designating it as a specialized practice area targeted for growth potential.
“We’re coming into this humble, we’re coming into this in the listening mode,” Hakl said, adding that Microsoft understands there’s deep industry expertise that it still needs to embrace via other vendors. “We view the carriers as partners, not competitors. … It’s their customer, it’s their product, it’s powered by our technology.”
Unlike traditional suppliers that have much to learn about the cloud, and cloud providers that need greater understanding of telecom, “we bring both to the table, and it doesn’t mean that we’re locking you in,” he said.
Overall, Microsoft intends to have the greatest impact on 5G in delivering ubiquitous compute, strengthened IoT, and AI and machine learning at the edge to develop near real-time dissemination of data for models and insights, Hakl said.
“We’re fundamentally a platform play,” he said, adding that Microsoft has no plans to lock operators into one vendor or create a vertically integrated stack. “We think that to be meaningful and relevant in this space, we’ve got to foster an environment where there’s innovation, where there’s diversity of capabilities and suppliers, and that comes together in a way that leverages the traditional cloud strengths that lets the operators hyperscale.”
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