Huawei Global Mobile Broadband Forum 2017: From Connected Cows to 5G Core Network (R)evolution

David Snow – Principal Analyst, IP Services Infrastructure

Summary Bullets:

  • This year’s Huawei Global Mobile Broadband Forum included a strong focus on 5G core network evolution.
  • Unlike discrete access technology evolution, the 5G core network must evolve smoothly into a radically new form (and so must carrier organizations).

This year’s Huawei Mobile Broadband Forum (MBBF 2017) was held in London and boasted a record attendance of 1,400. Nevertheless, that particular number (of people) was completely eclipsed by the ‘number clouds’ appearing on massive screens behind Huawei’s CEO, Ken Hu, as he delivered his opening pitch. Driven by the increasing number of machines which will be connected to the 5G network in the coming years, cows – connected cows; one billion of them – were his first 5G use-case illustration.

Now, the purpose of this blog is not to repeat Huawei’s ‘connected cow’ proposition, also amusingly referred to as the ‘cash cow’ business case. Instead, it is to consider a few of the implications for the carrier core network as it evolves to support 5G and all those cows, lampposts, cars, bicycles, shipping containers, anything and everything else comprising the Internet of Things (IoT). Most of these implications are well known, but some were also vividly illustrated during some of Huawei’s 5G core breakout sessions. Above all was the proposition that 5G not only requires a radical re-architecting of the core (revolution), but it must also get there smoothly (evolution).

  • The 5G Core Network (R)evolution Must Be ‘Backwards Compatible’

While RAN evolution to 5G is marked out in terms of interim and discrete steps such as 4.5 and 4.9G, so too the network core is undergoing its own evolution. However, the key difference between core network and RAN evolution is that core network evolution must be capable of supporting different and multiple generations of both mobile and fixed access concurrently. To this end, Huawei presented its ambitious ‘2/3/4/5G Convergence for One Core’ solution, and as it did, several operators were evidently daunted by the prospect. This is hardly surprising, given the pain that many have experienced in moving from TDM to IP and IMS over the past decade or more; ‘smooth’ simply does not characterize the path of core network evolution to date.

  • The 5G Core Network (R)evolution Must Be ‘Virtualized’ Both Technologically and Organizationally

However, NFV is the technology which will make this smoothly evolving core network a real possibility. Operators represented at the show appeared to be at very different stages of their NFV journeys. For example, Verizon said that it has had VNFs in production for three years, while BT (and others) bemoaned the replication of expensive single-vendor NFV silos. Nevertheless, in roundtable discussions, over and above the technical challenges of NFV loomed the organizational challenge. China Mobile Hong Kong talked about the need not only to virtualize the network but also to ‘virtualize’ the organization. It accomplished this not by creating a brand new and disruptive NFV organization, but by creating a ‘virtual’ NFV team drawn from the existing organization. It seemed a smart strategy and generated much operator interest; and not only that, it appeared to work.

  • The 5G Core Network (R)evolution Must Be ‘Radically Decomposed’

Returning once again to the technology, Huawei outlined its 5G core architecture. All the expected components were there: ‘Layer 1’ 3GPP-defined network functions (NF) such as the AMF, SMF and UDM and their decomposition into ‘Layer 2’ NF services. Huawei also took the opportunity to add its own ‘Layer 3’ decomposition into microservices deployed in containers. There was little new in that concept, though the company clearly wanted to highlight that its 5G core is much more than just an architecture, but is in the implementation phase, ahead of rivals such as Ericsson and Nokia in the latest round of IMT2020 system testing.

So, wherever you look in the new core network, 5G and IoT are radically shaping both the way it is being implemented and the way in which it must be operated. As Huawei’s Global Mobile Broadband Forum 2017 illustrated, the challenge is not just in ‘getting the cows connected,’ but in making the 5G core network – and its human custodians – work together. Operating more like an ‘organism’ than an ‘organization’ will not be easy, but it’s surely the only way to achieve 5G’s lofty goals.

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