Special Report—How service providers are using containers and Kubernetes

The planets are aligning for both telco service providers and enterprises to tap into containers to help them manage their multicloud environments as well as scale out new services and applications for edge computing, 5G and IoT.

Hyperscale cloud service providers, such as Microsoft Azure, Google, Amazon Web Services and Facebook pioneered the initial adoption of container software in their data centers, but most telcos are just starting to explore their use.

Containers are lightweight, standalone, executable packages of software code that share an operating system, such as Linux, that that can run large distributed applications. Since containers have the bare minimum software that's needed to run an application, they can be more efficient than virtual machines (VMs).

"In short, a properly containerized application is easy to scale and maintain, makes efficient use of available system resources and is portable," said IHS Markit's Vladimir Galabov, senior analyst, in an interview with FierceTelecom. "For telcos specifically, with the rollout of NFV, containers also allow for quicker provisioning and maintenance of virtual network functions (VNFs)."

Google-developed Kubernetes is now the hands-down de facto standard for orchestrating and managing containers across public and private clouds. Earlier this year, OPNFV's sixth software release, which is called "Fraser," added more support for Kubernetes integration while CableLabs' SDN/NFV Development Platform and Stack Project (SNAPS) project also added support for containers and Kubernetes.

Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services support Kubernetes while VMware announced its Kubernetes-as-a-service offering for multicloud in June. Kubernetes was also discussed in depth at Cisco Live the same month

Galabov said that commercial vendors, such as Red Hat and Mesosphere, started throwing their support behind Kubernetes earlier this year.

"A lot of the improvements of commercial container software have only happened recently," he said. "It is important to also note that before Kubernetes established itself as a de facto standard for container management customers would have risked lock in with vendor-specific management options like Docker Swarm and Mesosphere. Only in the beginning of 2018 did Docker and Mesosphere add support for Kubernetes as a container management option with their container operating systems.

"Deploying containers at scale without a good container management software would be impossible. For telco adoption to increase the integration of Kubernetes in the commercial container software offerings was critical."

Despite all of the enthusiasm around Kubernetes, Galabov said that there was "likely more hype than deployments at the moment" for telcos.

"In my conversations with vendors, I hear that enterprises and telcos chose commercial container software rather than self-managed open source alternatives because they lack in-house expertise to deploy Kubernetes at scale and need extra support," he said. "The adoption of Kubernetes and container management software is further ahead at hyperscale CSPs who have the in-house know how to use self-managed open source Kubernetes."

A recent survey by IHS Markit, which included cloud service providers and telco service providers, asked service providers what portion of their servers were single tenant, virtualized (with a hypervisor) or containerized, and how they expected that to change in 2019. Respondents said that containerized servers are expected to nearly double, from an average of 12% in 2017 to 23% of the servers by 2019.

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"This is a stronger adoption trend than expected for containers, hinting that the movement to use microservice architectures for applications and apply DevOps methodologies is moving rapidly," Galabov said. "Turning to our overall market forecast and looking at telcos, specifically, we expect the growth rate at which telcos purchase servers and adopt container software to accelerate as they start deploying NFV in production, which won't be mainstream until the 2020s. Of all multitenant telco servers, we estimated that 5% had a container-OS installed in 2017, growing up to 16% of 2022."

AT&T leads the way

When it come to telcos and containers, AT&T has been a leader. Mazin Gilbert, vice president of advanced technology and systems at AT&T Labs, said that AT&T has been developing containers for sometime as part of its roadmap to build cloud data applications. AT&T wrapped its arms around containers and microservices in its Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy (ECOMP) platform ahead of putting ECOMP into open source last year with the Linux Foundation.

"We've really embraced containers and microservices," Gilbert said. "We have a very extensive program in AT&T for microservices and containers, and not just for network workloads or various IT workloads."

Cloud-native is another industry buzzword that means different things to different verticals, but it's also part of AT&T's game plan.

"In my book, cloud-native is all about building containers and microservices and being able to manage and orchestrate those through technologies like Kubernetes," he said. "It's all about having continuous integration and continuous delivery environments and about these DevOps types of models to create this agile product environment."

ECOMP was combined with OPEN-O last year to form ONAP. To date, ONAP has had two software releases with the latest, which is called Beijing, coming out in June. Mazin, who is the technical steering chair of ONAP, said one of the key deliverables of Beijing was the ONAP Operations Manager (OOM),

"What that helps us to do is to really instantiate and bring up all the containers and the microservices of ONAP one after the other," he explained. "Now ONAP becomes the head of microservices and they're managed and instantiated through this OOM capability. It means that now you can pick and choose which containers you want to bring up or not.

"We're working on the third ONAP release and I can tell you on every release we've taken a pivotal big step forward towards driving a plug and play architecture built on microservices that are orchestrated and instantiated automatically."

BT's Neil McRae, chief architect, told FierceTelecom that his company was also focusing on "more real cloud-native deployments" for its base solutions by using containers.

"We just feel that they (containers) scale better, they're more manageable and from a continuous feature add they are much easier to deal with," he said. "That's more where our focus is for things like TV in particular, but also converting voice applications as well. Cloud-native and containers tools are the direction for us."

Colt Technology Services' Mirko Voltolini, head of network on demand, isn't big on using containers today, but that may change down the road.  Voltolini said there currently wasn't a sense of maturity in terms of the toolsets needed to control and orchestrate the lifecycle of a container, as apposed to a VNF with a virtual machine wrapped around it.

"We're looking at it theoretically and we'll definitely move into it because performance will require it, but we don't think that that today there's sufficient material to adopt containers," he said. "We want VNFs to be designed with a microservices approach in mind. That way you can separate different components and you don’t have to duplicate elements across different services."

CenturyLink's Anil Simlot, vice president of virtual services, development and support, said his company was big believers in using containers and containerizing its VNFs, but so far he hasn't seen the vendor community come up with a VNF that CenturyLink can use in a container for its cloud environments.

"We would love to get to a place where we can get the VNFs into containers because we think that it will be easier to on-board them as well as be able to manage those VNFs," he said in an interview with FierceTelecom. "We are exploring the use of Kubernetes. We are being a bit careful about it because we want to make sure we don't go down a path where our services are not able to catch up with us.

"We want to do it the right way. We want to make sure that we are able to meet our customer's requirements while we are exploring these other options. We are very focused on making sure that the solution that we've built is the right one for the customers," he added.

There has been some speculation that containers will eventually replace virtual machines. While containers don’t need as much space on hardware as virtual machines, and they use less software, AT&T's Gilbert and IHS Markit's Galabov said virtual machines have a long shelf life.

"It's fair to say that today we heavily use VMs," Gilbert said. "I think if you take a snapshot in the future, we'll be heavily using containers and microservices. Does that mean that there's no room for VMs? I wouldn't say that. I would say it's changing the balance between containers and VMs. They both have value, but we're certainly moving aggressively towards having everything as a microservices architecture, a model-based architecture and a plug in and play architecture."