In a blog post, Microsoft proposes to sell global data transport and routing services to 5G network operators under its new Azure for Operators business. The proposition (described below) is to use a 5G overlay on Microsoft Azure’s cloud WAN.
“Operators spend a lot of money to manage and maintain their networks and peering relationships, but so does Microsoft. The question then is, why are two massive industries doing the same thing? Because both parties move packets around, doesn’t it make more sense for them to collaborate?” wrote Victor Bahl, Microsoft CTO of the company’s new Azure for Operators business, in a blog post to the company’s website. “Here, the well-managed, reliable, and performant Azure network should be thought of as the backbone that operators trust. With this shift in thinking will come all the advantages of innovation that IT companies like Microsoft are rapidly bringing in.”
Azure’s planet-scale WAN
Azure maintains a massive WAN with significant capacity and one that is continuously growing. We have over 175,000 miles of lit fiber optic and undersea cable systems. This connectivity covers close to 200 network points of presence (PoPs) over 60 regions, across 140 countries.
Azure’s network is connected to many thousands of ISPs and other networks with significant peering capacity. Our global network is well-provisioned, with redundant fiber paths that can handle multiple simultaneous failures, it also has massive reserve capacity in unlit dark fiber. These optical fibers are fully owned or leased by Microsoft, and all traffic between and among Azure datacenters within a region or across regions is automatically encrypted at the physical layer.
This combination of redundant capacity to handle failures, dark capacity for significant growth, and research advancements being made in increasing transmission speeds means that we have a massive amount of spare capacity to serve 5G traffic to a broad array of new operators.
Bahl said Microsoft is selling its network services to large, established 5G network operators that already manage their own routing and transport operations, as well as newer telcos that may not have developed such systems. Under Microsoft’s vision, 5G network operators can focus on erecting cell towers and central offices, but can rely on Microsoft’s Internet backbone to carry their customers’ traffic from those locations across the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Making Azure WAN great for 5G traffic
For many years, Microsoft researchers and engineers have been working on a hybrid-global traffic orchestrator for routing network packets across Azure’s WAN. Our orchestrator takes control away from classic Internet protocols and instead moves that control into software that we build and control for 5G traffic. We place the 5G flows that demand high performance on low-latency, high bandwidth paths to and from the Internet. Network flows that are cost-sensitive are instead routed through cheaper paths.
In effect, we have developed a fast-(packet) forwarding mechanism to build a 5G overlay on our existing WAN, thereby supporting a variety of 5G network slices with different wired transport properties, while avoiding interference with the operation of the underlying enterprise cloud network.
We have also extended our state-of-the-art network verification capability to cover complex network topologies by modeling Virtual WAN, Virtual Networks, and other network function virtualizations (NFVs), as well as modeling reachability using formal methods. Using fast solvers, we can verify reachability constraints on customer topologies, at deployment time or when undergoing a config change.
We have applied machine learning to predict the impact of peering link outages and congestion mitigation strategies and use the data to improve the availability of the WAN peering surface area.
Our expertise in optimization algorithms has been shown to ultimately reduce cloud networking spend. Techniques like these will be invaluable in carving out 5G paths on the overlay that are cost-efficient, but still meet the performance needs of every network slice.
The significant upside for operators
To reiterate, Microsoft is heavily invested in running a well-managed, always-available global network. We have been incorporating multiple groundbreaking technologies, including scalable optimization, formal verification of routing policies, machine learning, and AI. We envision operators to not only be able to use our WAN to transfer 5G packets, with low latency, but also to benefit from multiple network services such as DDoS protection, firewalls, traffic accelerators, connection analytics, load balancers, and rate limiters, many of which we use in running existing Azure network workloads.
At Microsoft, we bring the full power of research and engineering leadership into our networks, rapidly incorporating innovation and new features to provide reliable, low-latency, low-cost service. In turn, this effort will open up the significant potential of next-generation services and applications as envisioned by the community at large. It is no understatement to say that collaboration between operators and Azure is key to unleashing the true power of 5G.
Last year Microsoft acquired telecom software vendors Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch Networks, and subsequently introduced its Azure for Operators to “provide operators with the agility they need to rapidly innovate and experiment with new 5G services on a programmable network.” The company earlier this year doubled down on the opportunity with the purchase of AT&T’s Network Cloud operation, a move that positions AT&T to shift its 5G core network operations into Microsoft’s cloud over the next three years.
More broadly, Microsoft is one of a trio of massive cloud computing companies that are hoping to generate sales among telecom companies, including 5G network operators. Google, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft are all now selling various products and services into the telecom space.
Several telecom network providers including Canada’s Telus and Deutsche Telekom – are jumping at the prospect of partnering with a cloud computing service provider. Of note is Dish Network’s massive deal with AWS, whereby it plans to run all of its network software in the Amazon cloud and AT&T outsourcing its 5G SA Core network to run on Microsoft Azure cloud.
Gartner’s latest Magic Quadrant report for cloud infrastructure and platform services (CIPS) ranks Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud as the top cloud service providers.
Beyond the top three players, Gartner placed Alibaba Cloud in the “visionaries” box, and ranked Oracle, Tencent Cloud, and IBM as “niche players,” in that order.
The scope of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for CIPS includes infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and integrated platform as a service (PaaS) offerings. These include application PaaS (aPaaS), functions as a service (FaaS), database PaaS (dbPaaS), application developer PaaS (adPaaS) and industrialized distributed cloud offerings that are often deployed in enterprise data centers (i.e. private clouds).
Figure 1: Magic Quadrant for Cloud Infrastructure and Platform Services
1. Gartner analysts praise Amazon AWS for its broad support of IT services, including cloud native, edge compute, and processing mission-critical workloads. Also noteworthy is Amazon’s “engineering prowess” in designing CPUs and silicon. This focus on owning increasingly larger portions of the supply chain for cloud infrastructure bolsters the No. 1 cloud provider’s long-term outlook and earns it advantages against competitors, according to the Gartner report.
“AWS often sets the pace in the market for innovation, which guides the roadmaps of other CIPS providers. As the innovation leader, AWS has materially more mind share across a broad range of personas and customer types than all other providers,” the analysts wrote.
AWS, which recently achieved $59 billion in annual revenues, contributed 13% of Amazon’s total revenue and almost 54% of its profit during second-quarter 2021.
AWS’s future focus is on attempting to own increasingly larger portions of the supply chain used to deliver cloud services to customers. Its operations are geographically diversified, and its clients tend to be early-stage startups to large enterprises.
2. Microsoft Azure, which remains the #2 Cloud Services Provider, sports a 51% annual growth rate. It earned praise from Gartner for its strength “in all use cases, which include the extended cloud and edge computing,” particularly among Microsoft-centric organizations.
The No. 2 public cloud provider also enjoys broad appeal. “Microsoft has the broadest set of capabilities, covering a full range of enterprise IT needs from SaaS to PaaS and IaaS, compared to any provider in this market,” the analysts wrote.
Microsoft has the broadest sets of capabilities, covering a full range of enterprise IT needs from SaaS to PaaS and IaaS, compared to any provider in this market. From the perspective of IaaS and PaaS, Microsoft has compelling capabilities ranging from developer tooling such as Visual Studio and GitHub to public cloud services.
Enterprises often choose Azure because of the trust in Microsoft built over many years. Such strategic alignment with Microsoft gives Azure advantages across nearly every vertical market.
“Strategic alignment with Microsoft gives Azure advantages across nearly every vertical market,” Gartner said. However, Gartner criticized Microsoft for very complex licensing and contracting. Also, Microsoft sales pressures to grow overall account revenue prevent it from effectively deploying Azure to bring down a customer’s total Microsoft costs.
Microsoft Azure’s forays in operational databases and big data solutions have been markedly successful over the past year. Azure’s Cosmos DB and its joint offering with Databricks stand out in terms of customer adoption.
3. Google Cloud Platform (GCP) is strong in nearly all use cases and is slowly improving its edge compute capabilities. Google continues to invest in being a broad-based provider of IaaS and PaaS by expanding its capabilities as well as the size and reach of its go-to-market operations. Its operations are geographically diversified, and its clients tend to be startups to large enterprises.
The company is making gains in mindshare among enterprises and “lands at the top of survey results when infrastructure leaders are asked about strategic cloud provider selection in the next few years,” Gartner analysts wrote. Google is also closing “meaningful gaps with AWS and Microsoft Azure in CIPS capabilities,” and outpacing its larger competitors in some cases, according to the report.
The analysts also noted that Google Cloud “is the only CIPS provider with significant market share that currently operates at a financial loss.” The No. 3 public cloud provider reported a 54% year-over-year revenue increase and a 59% decrease in operating losses during Q2.
Separately, Dell’Oro Group Research Director Baron Fung recently said that hyperscalers make up a big portion of the overall IT market, with the 10 largest cloud-service providers, including AWS, Google, and Alibaba, accounting for up to 40% of global data center spending, and “some of these companies can have really tremendous weight on the ecosystem.”
The Dell’Oro report noted that some providers have deployed accelerated servers using internally developed artificial intelligence (AI) chips, while other cloud providers and enterprises have commonly deployed solutions based on graphics processing units (GPUs) and FPGAs.
Fung explained that this model has also spilled over into those cloud providers also building their own servers and networking equipment to better fit their needs while “moving away from the traditional model in which users are buying equipment from companies like Dell and [Hewlett Packard Enterprise]. … It’s really disrupting the vendor landscape.”
Certain applications—such as cloud gaming, autonomous driving, and industrial automation—are latency-sensitive, requiring Multi-Access Edge Compute, or MEC, nodes to be situated at the network edge, where sensors are located. Unlike cloud computing, which has been replacing enterprise data centers, edge computing creates new market opportunities for novel use cases.