BT bets big on Canonical for core 5G network

The Charmed OpenStack distro will be a fundamental part of BT's future operations, with the telco hoping to switch on pilot proof of concepts before the year ends

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The foundations for the future of BT's 5G network will be open source, with practically every virtualised aspect of the future infrastructure to be delivered and managed with Canonical's Charmed Openstack distro.


Roughly 18 months ago, the British telco powerhouse was assessing a few options around how to deliver its cloud-based 'Core' network, which will include all future 5G services.


The firm knew it wanted to lead with open source, with some proprietary vendors also featuring in the rollout, with Red Hat, Canonical, or possibly an in-house developed platform the leading options. It ultimately opted for Canonical.


Group chief architect for BT, Neil McRae, told Computerworld that it was the vendor's appetite to get started on the project immediately, its competitive price point, and especially the "expertise they have in-house and the availability of that expertise to help ensure we land this project well", that helped it stand out.

Absorbing expertise


While BT has some of the strongest network engineers going, its internal expertise, like many telcos, was not around building cloud platforms, so the team hoped to absorb some of Canonical's experience in that field – not to mention the vendor's deep heritage in Linux, open source, and Openstack.


The hope is that Canonical's Openstack distribution – as part of BT's wider network functions virtualisation (NFV) plans – will help the telco separate network hardware and software, allowing it to roll out new updates along the principles behind continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD), helping it to scale quickly, deploy applications faster, and to allocate resources as and when they are needed.

Supporting 5G services


This approach will form the basis of BT's 5G initiatives and also assist with on-demand content distribution, low-latency services, video conferencing, and gaming.


"As we progress in moving towards a cloud-native infrastructure, this platform will be critical for us to take our 5G ambition and many of our other platforms around content forward," said McRae, "and be a core foundation for our overall network infrastructure for the foreseeable future."


From a customer perspective, the platform will support the majority of the firm's future services. "Everything from the core network that supports our mobile platform, to some of the platforms that support broadband, and some of our new cloud security products that we're offering," McRae said. "Pretty much anything that's delivered as a virtualised solution will end up on this platform."

Community impact


Additionally, BT hopes to open up the project to developers and other companies to build with, as well as selling their own services on top of the platform.


McRae aims to have the first test applications running later this year, when the team will begin experimenting with proof of concepts and other bigger applications such as the 5G network on the platform.


"We've got a lot to do in a very short space of time, but things are progressing well," McRae said, adding that while Canonical is providing extensive support at present, so too are partners that have started onboarding onto the platform.

Growing cloud skills


BT hasn't required a significant retooling of its hardware infrastructure, but McRae says that the project is requiring a rethink of its skillset more than anything. Although it has extensive experience in networking, including in mobile, he admits that in core cloud skills, the firm is growing and investing in that capability now.


"Our vision for this platform is very much a dynamic platform where we can change things very quickly, we can onboard new ideas, we can create a development platform for us to fast-fail new ideas," he says. "Today when a new capability comes out, it takes us a long time to deploy it. We want to get to a place where the capability is released and within a few days, if not a few hours, we're able to roll it out and give benefit to our customers."


The majority of BT's platforms are Linux-based, but McRae explains that what's changing is that open source is "probably much more in the forefront of some of the core systems we're using".


"But open source is not the only thing we're using," he says. "What we're trying to do is blend open source and other things to come out with what's best for our customers."


He hopes that the Canonical contract will assist in developing this open source mindset further across the organisation, as well as helping to "really land the benefits" of it – which in the near future likely means "leveraging other open source technologies like Kubernetes for microservices" and further entrenching itself as a cloud-native organisation.


"Canonical has given us a fantastic foundation for that," McRae says.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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