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Embracing the cloud (mobile network): myth and reality

When did you last read/hear about the importance of the cloud1 for mobile networks, especially 5G? Only hours ago, I assume. The cloud—in its various guises (e.g., private, public, hybrid)—has been part of the mobile network transformation discussion, a discussion that NFV (network function virtualization)2 changed dramatically.

Coincidentally, a Greek myths book recently reminded me of the story of Nephele, whose name derives from the Greek word for cloud (“nephos”). Zeus created this cloud nymph in the image of his wife Hera to test the integrity of Ixion, a Greek king. Although the “too good to be true” appearance of this Hera lookalike should have alerted Ixion, he failed the test. The penalty was horrific3.

But what does the cloud (in mobile networks) have to do with this ancient myth? We know what the cloud is about. Or do we? And there are no horrific penalties for us. Or are there?

Cloud mobile networks: myth

It all (arguably) started with NFV. NFV became the buzz word for the mobile industry and a crucial technology for transformation. Debates around operations began to highlight the changing—virtual and hybrid—nature of a previously physical-only network infrastructure. Then, the topic of virtualization expanded to cloudification and other IT concepts such as SDN (software defined networking), open architectures and DevOps.

The cloud’s promise (starting with NFV) to mobile network operators was undoubtedly impressive: service agility, operational efficiency, and new revenue streams. Like Nephele, the cloud was probably “too good to be true” but still hard to resist.

Benefits aside, fervent proponents helped create a myth around cloudification. According to this myth, the—virtual and—cloud network transition was imminent. It would be more-or-less issue-free and barely affect operations. The distinct mobile network requirements (e.g., four to five 9s reliability), complex architecture, dynamic radio environment or unique characteristics of certain network components/functions were no major cause of concern.

Even challenges in monitoring and troubleshooting or assuring mobile services could be addressed. Only culture and processes appeared high on the agenda. In other words, the cloud mobile network was there, waiting for our embrace…

Cloud mobile networks: reality

No, it is not just a myth. The need for flexibility and scalability can only be addressed by inherently flexible and scalable solutions. Like cloud. Mobile networks would hardly cope with data demand, investment requirements and diverse use cases without an innovative—cloud-based—approach.

But challenges should not be overlooked, particularly for 5G. To reliably support mission-critical (e.g., health-related) applications, 5G exacerbates past network challenges. Furthermore, the “intangible” cloud nature should not hide its (data center) energy requirements. Unsurprisingly, energy efficiency has become a headline theme for 5G and beyond.

This “intangible” nature is also operations related, for example when discussing 5G network slicing4 and monitoring solutions. Although virtual probes can be instantiated as virtual network functions, the associated “footprint” cost and “right” data focus must be optimized. In general, cloud networks can be resource-intensive and require a well-performing underlying physical infrastructure foundation (e.g., fiber).

Moving from cloud-enabled/ready to cloud-native mobile networks, such as 5G standalone, we are bound to witness accentuated, if not additional challenges. Intelligence (including AI) and automation (including network and service orchestration) will be even more crucial. This is the cloud mobile network reality.

So… cloudification is key for mobile network evolution. The cloud is not an illusion, a Nephele we should be afraid to embrace. No Zeus is trying to trick us, and getting tied to a fiery wheel3 seems rather unlikely. But there will be consequences unless we are careful.

We should see the cloud for what it is, without underestimating or disregarding its challenges. Zeus’ Nephele trickery deceived Ixion, because Ixion only saw what he wanted to see. Keeping an open and questioning mind would be essential as mobile networks move further into the cloudification era. A move that should make for another great but less horrific (cloud) story…

For more information on the main aspects, benefits and challenges of cloudification, please contact EXFO. You can also check our webinar with Light Reading on (intelligent, infinite, cloud) connectivity.

1  A well-known concept today, the “cloud” is a network of servers linked together and operating as a single “entity” to store/manage data, run applications and deliver content (e.g., video streaming), reducing the need for local/dedicated hardware. The advent of cloud mobile domains and networks—and need for cloudification—was effectively driven by the benefits that IT concepts could bring to a rigid, expensive infrastructure struggling with data demand.

2  We typically refer to virtualization and cloudification as distinct terms/trends, although these may sometimes be used interchangeably. Both are key concepts/components of the IT “invasion” that has been transforming mobile networks. For simplification reasons, this blog assumes that cloudification includes virtualization.

3  Ixion’s punishment was to be tied to a fiery wheel that would spin for eternity. By the way, according to one version of the myth, Nephele gave birth to hybrid—partly horse (from the waist down) and partly human (from the waist up)—creatures, the Centaurs. Their hybrid nature could be associated with today’s hybrid mobile networks, food for thought for a future blogpost…

4  Check this 5G network slicing blogpost for more details.