The battle for the telco cloud intensifies as Microsoft announces Azure for Operators

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

Sep 28, 2020

  • The telco cloud is key to supporting 5G, applying AI to network services, and building an agile infrastructure 
  • Microsoft wants to be a trusted telco partner and listed its partners and recent acquisitions
  • It’s banking on the convergence of the cloud and communications networks

Today Microsoft threw down its technology bid in the battle over who will provide the plumbing for what we’re currently describing as the ‘telco cloud’. It, along with Google and the current public cloud leader, Amazon Web Services (AWS) look like front-runners to partner with operators to provide cloud support and technology for telco services over the next five years or so. Add to that roster the possibility of some smaller players providing specialist cloud services, or a major cloud challenge (global politics allowing) from the likes of Alibaba (which is essentially the Chinese version of AWS) and there is your battlefield. 

At this point AWS is the clear leader, Microsoft’s Azure is considered to be runner up, and Google comes in third... for now. 

So today Microsoft, which has been particularly active in tooling up to support telco cloud requirements over the past six months or so, came out and laid bare its plans. 

It has announced what it’s calling Azure for Operators, “a strategy to partner with network operators to create new opportunities and provide core infrastructure, combining the power of cloud, cellular and edge for the lowest latency and largest reach at low cost.”

The focus appears to be on providing low latency links where they’re needed (to the edge and to AI and machine intelligence), and to promote the introduction of applications involving mixed reality (augmented and virtual reality - obviously something Microsoft would like to see developing). 

But Microsoft’s real telco gift is probably its ecosystem of developers, all schooled in the ways of Microsoft and its tools and ready to code for telcos and for telco clients. Microsoft claims the developer community will be able to rapidly innovate to take advantage of telcos’ 5G services. 

Changing outlook

Just a couple of years ago the conventional wisdom held that next gen telco infrastructure would of course be virtualised, in great part to cope with the demands of 5G -  but that the virtualisation would be instantiated on telcos’ private clouds, perhaps with a bit of public cloud thrown in where there were special circumstances involving the need for reach or out of territory expansion. 

But gradually the notion that public clouds will eventually actually provide the foundation for a serious telco network has become more and more accepted. At the extreme edge of the technology debate there are calls for network operators to drop their existing private cloud strategies (and even their private clouds) adopt public cloud instead and do it fast, on pain of being left behind. It’s worth noting however that the jury is still well and truly ‘out’ on this idea. (See this interview and ths Q&A discussion from TelecomTV’s recent Cloud Native Telco summit for more views and insights.) 

At the other end are many sceptics who still doubt whether virtualised networks of any stripe can consistently meet telcos’ demanding requirements around resilience.

Nevertheless there is a growing conviction by many that public cloud is ‘probably’ eventually going to be the dominant underpinning -  the questions are mostly around timings, the exact shape and ownership of the clouds involved, the migration strategy that telcos should adopt and the partners they should rely on to guide them on the telco ‘cloud journey’. 

Microsoft’s partnership approach 

Microsoft has certainly been on an energetic buying and partnering spree. Its partners for ‘Azure for Operators’ are Accenture, Ascos, AT&T, Etisalat, HPE, Intel, Mavenir, RedHat, Samsung, Tech Mahindra, Telstra, Tillman Digital Cities, Verizon and VMware.

Partners are good and necessary, but Microsoft has also recently put real skin in the game by splashing out on two important pieces in  the next gen infrastructure puzzle: Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch. 

Its purchase of Affirmed, which provides fully virtualized, cloud-native mobile network solutions along with a portfolio of 5G apps and services was followed quickly by its purchase of Metaswitch Networks, a respected and influential developer of virtualized network functions and traditional voice, data and networking systems. 

“As cloud and communication networks converge, Microsoft intends to leverage the talent and technology of Affirmed and Metaswitch and extend the Azure platform to deploy and grow these capabilities at scale in a way that is secure, efficient and creates a sustainable ecosystem,” noted Microsoft in its announcement at the time.

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