ONF's Aether project gets its wings with $30 million 5G DARPA research project

The Open Networking Foundation's Aether platform, which includes 5G, edge and cloud, has taken flight with a $30 million contract funded by the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA.)

The contract, which was awarded this past spring, provides DARPA's Pronto project with ONF's Aether software as part of a research and secure 5G network infrastructure project. The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) has a beta version of Aether up and running, and has peeled off a slice for the Pronto project for research work by Cornell University, Princeton University and Stanford University.

As part of the contract, ONF will also manage the Pronto project. Monetizing open source was a notable achievement for ONF and its members.

Aether is a single unified cloud managed network that interconnects the project’s service provider partners, incljuding AT&T, Ciena, Intel, Google, NTT, ONF and Telefonica. The initial deployment supports CBRS and/or 4G/LTE radio access at all sites, and is cloud managed from a shared core running in the Google public cloud.

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Aether, which was announced in March, pulls together various ONF open source components to deliver connectivity-as-a-service over wireless spectrum such as Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and licensed 4G or 5G.

Aether is built on the CORD (Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter) and ONOS platforms and runs in an orchestrated Kubernetes environment. Aether disaggregates CORD and places the necessary elements at the edge or in the public cloud where they are then connected via the cloud providers' APIs.

Aether also uses ONF's mobile core (OMEC) to distribute the user and control planes across edge and central clouds. OMEC provides the capability for the control plane to oversea the control of multiple users planes at the remote edge locations to provision edge cloud-as-a-service deployments.

"As part of Aether, we're running a single common cloud managed network, operated by ONF," said Timon Sloane, ONF's vice president of marketing. "The Pronto research project is running on a slice of this common network. So you are seeing a mix of commercial partners and the universities."

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Sloane said the goal of Aether was to deliver the benefits of 5G with the simplicity and economics that are found in Wi-Fi deployments. Enterprises can tap into Aether as a common platform for services such as IoT while using commercial off the shelf (COTs) hardware that is certified and available from ONF's marketplace.

Aether is a combination of connectivity, edge cloud, AI/ML, P4, and SDN to help enterprises provision their services and applications at the edge.

"What we're after is being able to build secure networks on insecure white box hardware," Sloane said. "So it doesn't matter so much where you buy the hardware components.

"What really matters is the code that you run. That's your code. You have visibility into you own the code, and you can be assured that the network is running the code that you've written"

Currently, service providers are partnering up with cloud providers on a one-to-one basis. Those partnerships create a single stack for enterprises applications, but if enterprises want other applications, service providers need to partner with yet another cloud provider. AT&T and Telefonica are two examples of service providers partnering with multiple cloud providers.  

"The vast majority of enterprises consume from multiple public clouds at the same time. They don't just put everything in Amazon," Sloane said. "We are envisioning a future where enterprises are going to want to be able to run to the edge from multiple cloud providers in parallel simultaneously. Some will be good at one thing. Some will be good at something else. You don't want to have to just put all your eggs in one basket.

"And the same is true when you're having to pick the hardware that you're going to deploy. Do you want to get locked into a particular set of hardware?"

All of the advancements from the Pronto project will be cycled back into open source Aether to move the platform forward. The work with DARPA's Pronto project includes closed-loop control and network verification by the university.

Sloane said the Aether platform includes every component of the network, from the server to the NIC, to the network and middle boxes, all of which are programmable with P4 and SDN.

"Then built on that is fine grain measurement and visibility," Sloane said. "So we can measure every packet, every flow, every forwarding rule so we can see precisely what's going on in the network. Lastly, you can tie that in with closed-loop control to start doing automated corrective actions.

"We think there needs to be some form of consolidation or alignment. Ultimately this market needs to start to consolidate not to a small number, but to a manageable number of offerings so that it's easier for enterprises to understand best practices and how to build the solutions."