BARCELONA, Spain – Norway-based telecom giant Telenor recently completed a proof of concept (PoC) with a handful of vendors that showed containerization platforms were getting closer to meeting the needs of operators, but still had some hurdles to overcome.
The PoC used components from five vendors to support virtualization and containerization over a mobile network. Vendors included Red Hat for a virtualization environment using OpenStack and its OpenShift container platform; a virtual radio access network (vRAN) from Altiostar; a virtual evolved packet core (vECP) from Affirmed Networks; a virtual policy and charging rules function (PCRF) from Openet; and Metaswitch Networks’ virtual IMS core.
The virtualized elements were deployed as virtual network functions (VNFs) in an OpenStack environment. The elements included virtual machines (VMs) and containers running inside VMs on a container engine in support of the IMS core.
Pål Grønsund, senior research scientist at Telenor, explained that while the PoC had containers running inside of VMs, they also could have been running within bare metal.
All of those components were deployed for a mobile network that was constructed virtually to support a local festival in Norway that does not traditionally have cellular coverage. The PoC was run in an existing lab, although it did use real base stations that were on the roof of the facility.
Grønsund explained that the goal of the PoC was to see how efficiently Telenor could orchestrate VNFs running in containers. He noted that the results showed it was possible to virtualize the entire mobile core and that containerization of some elements is possible today, with more being possible soon.
“We don’t have a clear strategy to deploy now but learned from the trial areas for where we are and gained some positive points in terms of when we could see a timeline for deployment,” Grønsund said. “Some of the vendors had already worked together before, but it was very efficient and went very quickly.”
The Telenor PoC laid out a handful of challenges still facing telecom operators looking at the container market.
It found that generic container orchestrators lack the ability to identify specific hardware capabilities or configurations. However, that issue could be tackled through the Enhanced Platform Awareness project currently working its way through the Kubernetes community.
There is also concern over possible resource needs associated with running containers. Those needs currently appear to be less than what is required to run an application on top of a hypervisor but could become a point of concern in what the PoC results noted were “more esoteric networking scenarios.”
Grønsund also said containers were not able to manage more complex workloads compared with VMs, which can allow some of those workloads to impede the performance of nearby workloads. The PoC noted that Intel was looking at this issue through its CPU-Manager-for-Kubernetes project that can guarantee high priority workloads are given exclusive access to needed processing resources.
Finally, the PoC found container security remains an issue of concern. It did note that containers by their very construct should be as secure as VMs, but that more work needs to be done to both achieve that and to prove that it is the case. That work is increasingly getting priority and moving forward.
Despite the challenges, Grønsund said telecom operators will need to continue to focus on containers to support network plans.
“For 5G I think containers are important,” Grønsund said, pointing to specific use cases for industry verticals and new services. “There are cases where you have a service that is rarely used, but when it’s called upon it can be spun up very quickly and then killed off just as quickly when done.”
The PoC wording was even more direct: “Containers represent the only viable route for telcos to build and scale networks which can deliver the diverse and contradictory requirements which 5G use-cases will place on them. This is a technology which telcos must embrace if they are going to be able to respond to the demands of a 5G world.”