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Bharti Airtel taps OpenStack to modernise telco network

India’s Bharti Airtel turns to OpenStack to ready its network for emerging technologies such as 5G and edge computing

The advent of 5G networks presents new opportunities in the enterprise space, but telcos will also have to modernise their networks to cope with the demands of new applications such as robotics and edge computing.

This involves embracing a software-defined architecture, giving telcos the ability to reduce maintenance tasks, automate network operations and be more responsive to changing customer requirements at scale.

With this in mind, one of India’s largest integrated telcos, Bharti Airtel, decided to build a new telco network cloud, which would provide the foundation for its next-generation core network, analytical tools, and new consumer and enterprise services.

Dubbed Project Aura, the OpenStack-based platform was also a direct response to the limitations of current offerings by network equipment suppliers.

While these suppliers have been providing software-defined networks and network function virtualisation for over a decade, they lock telcos into a vertical cloud stack, limiting their ability to reap cost savings.

Moreover, those suppliers have also forked the cloud stack that they adopted from upstream OpenStack communities, reducing the openness of their technology, and locking telcos out of the benefits of a truly disaggregated horizontal cloud.

In building its own telco cloud platform, Bharti Airtel worked with IBM and Red Hat to achieve stability and performance at scale. It also implemented “extreme automation” across the application lifecycle, enabled by a public cloud-like architecture that supports containerised workloads.

Bharti Airtel has already used its cloud platform to deploy capabilities such as virtual evolved packet core (vEPC), a framework for voice and data processing and switching, and is looking to automate its network expansion on a just-in-time basis.

Moving forward, it will also use the platform to launch new digital services related to the internet of things and 5G, as well as onboard third-party services such as gaming, remote media production and enterprise services. 

“Our goal with this powerful, seamless, horizontal approach is to make our network future-ready and enable Airtel to efficiently serve the massive surge in data consumption,” said Randeep Sekhon, chief technology officer at Bharti Airtel.

“The hybrid cloud architecture will resonate with our customer obsession by providing improved flexibility, network stability and performance, and bringing agility and automation in our network operations,” he added.

Darrell Jordan-Smith, Red Hat’s global vice-president for vertical industries and accounts, added that by adopting a more agile approach to network operations, Bharti Airtel is building a “future-ready platform” to meet the evolving needs of its customers.

Major telecoms and hyperscale cloud companies are leading the charge in OpenStack adoption across the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region.

Besides Bharti Airtel, China Mobile is also using OpenStack to power its telco cloud and deliver public and private cloud services. According to 451 Research, the OpenStack market in APAC is slated to grow by 36% by 2023, accounting for a third of the $7.7bn global market. 

Tim Sheedy, principal advisor at Ecosystm, told Computer Weekly that the growth in demand for cloud services in China and APAC inevitably results in higher adoption of open source infrastructure software such as OpenStack.

“Many of the tools and platforms used by cloud companies are based on open source code, and many platforms that are seeing growth in the cloud, such as Docker and Kubernetes, are open source products,” said Sheedy. “The complexity of licensing traditional software in the public cloud meant that early adopters embraced open source software.”

Sheedy added that telcos and cloud suppliers were also more likely than others to contribute to open source projects, given that they mostly operate at the infrastructure and platform levels – rather than at the application level where code contributions are more unlikely due to competitive reasons.

“The ‘engineering’ focus of their developers and product builders means they tend to customise code – not just use it – and then often publish these changes back to the source code,” he said.

Read more about OpenStack in APAC

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