Microsoft draws a bead on telcos with Azure for Operators

Microsoft is taking direct aim at telcos by announcing Azure for Operators, which includes a carrier-grade cloud platform and edge compute capabilities as well as a developer ecosystem.

While Microsoft has announced telco partnerships before, including last year's announcement with AT&T, Azure for Operators will support operators as they evolve their infrastructures and operations to create service chains for programmable networks. Azure for Operators follows on the heels of last week's introduction of Azure Orbital to connect satellites to the cloud.

Azure for Operators is also an opportunity for Microsoft to leverage its Metaswitch Networks and Affirmed Network acquisitions from earlier this year for containerized network functions (CNFs) and virtual network functions (VNFs) as well as its Azure Edge Zones that bring services closer to telcos.

It also provides telcos with the ability to create unique network slices to support 5G and enterprise IoT use cases and offer low-latency connectivity by bringing edge compute closer to customers in order to react in near real time.

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Azure for Operators will offer a range of services and applications to the enterprise edge, network edge or in the cloud. Service providers can pick and choose the VNFs or CNFs that they want from a partner ecosystem that includes: Accenture, ASOCS, AT&T, Etisalat, HPE, Intel, Mavenir, RedHat, Samsung, Tech Mahindra, Telstra, Tillman Digital Cities, Verizon and VMWare, in addition to Microsoft’s Affirmed and Metaswitch.

“Microsoft is offering up an intriguing cloud-based platform for telcos to offer communications services," said Scott Raynovich, the founder and chief analyst of Futuriom. "This is all well and good, but it shows that the communications stack previously owned by telecom providers is being transferred to cloud platforms. So they will have to use this innovation to deliver new managed services or else remained mired in the commodity business of pipe-providing.” 

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Shawn Hakl, partner for Azure Networking and a former executive at Verizon, said Azure for Operators isn't a land grab for telco's last mile connections and that it would "meet telcos wherever they are."

"So the basic notion is; 'It's your customer. It's your product powered by our technology,' and then they can consume it anyway they want," Hakl said. "They could consume it just at the cloud layer, or they might want to do the cloud layer plus a VNF. They could say 'I want you to manage the VNF or the CNF for us in the cloud,' or they may say 'Hey, we need this as a service, we'd like something simple, we'd like to take the market quick.'

"Different operators have different opinions on how that should work. Our plan is to provide a layered approach that they can choose to consume how they want to. So that's all about meeting the customer where they are, which is one of the principles we have captured here."

Aside of offering Office 365, Microsoft Teams and Azure Edge zones, the Azure network includes 170 points-of-presence (PoPs) and more than 20,000 peering connections to Azure for Operators. More than 200 operators have chosen to integrate with Azure through its ExpressRoute service.

"With the announcement of Azure Edge zones, you've got the ability to extend the cloud to the network edge, and then the enterprise edge," Hakl said. "That gives you a common platform with the same DevOps tools, the same security, the same management and the same orchestration everywhere.

Azure for Operators allows the service providers to control where a network slice, network API or function is presented to the end-user. It also allows them to define where and how the traffic enters and exits their network, as well a set configuration and performance parameters for core network functions.

"With the network exposed APIs, along with the cloud exposed API's, and the orchestration layer, you can control how that service is delivered to the end customer," Hakl said.

For service level agreements (SLAs) Hakl said a "control points" or "points of control" discussion allow operators to pick out the performance parameters, the type of slices and the set of configurations that they want to control.

"Based on their needs, we have the ability to work with them to define that. With the network exposed APIs, along with the cloud exposed APIs, and the orchestration layer, you can control how that service is delivered to the end customer.

"We want to control how the orchestration engine provides that end-to-end SLA. So for the most part, we're working with the operators to create sort of an end-to-end quality of service."

Hakl said the Affirmed and Metaswitch deals brought in hundreds of engineers that had previous experience working with telcos. Hakl said Azure for Operators would incorporate the lessons learned from the vendor ecosystem and telco partnerships to make the overall telco platform better.

"There are people that have great solutions around content optimization that are Microsoft partners that we believe the carriers will benefit from," he said. "We want to open up that ecosystem and, and let the carriers reap the benefits of that integration. We're not trying to do that at the expense of anyone. We're looking forward to partnering with the traditional operators. We get that there are very few greenfield opportunities out there, so we know that we've got to integrate deeply, both with their existing vendors in the core networking space, RAN, etc., as well as the OSS and BSS layer.

"We're working closely with the OSS/BSS providers to make the introduction of this technology as smooth as possible. We want to be a trusted partner and we consider this to be as a journey. We're there to listen and learn from operator community as much as to share our technology with them and to work together."