Facebook’s Magma goes open source, aims to reduce network complexity

Facebook’s work to bring connectivity to the under- and unconnected is fairly well-known, but how’s it doing in actually making it economical for operators to deploy networks in remote areas? After all, getting the economics to pencil out has been the big challenge in rural areas for decades.

One thing Facebook embarked upon was the development of an LTE Evolved Packet Core (EPC), which is kind of at the heart of an LTE system, but to do it in a cloud native distributed fashion, “so that you could actually run the vast majority of packet core functionality at the edge of the network. If the base station is here, we want the EPC to basically run either next to the base station or in it,” explained Dan Rabinovitsj, vice president of Connectivity at Facebook, on the sidelines of Mobile World Congress 2019.

That’s where Facebook last week announced it is open sourcing Magma to help simplify and extend mobile network deployments. Magma includes a distributed mobile packet core supporting local breakout of the data plane, in addition to network automation and management software. Telefonica, which is using Magma to help expand rural connectivity in Latin America, and BRCK, which is using Magma to pilot a new LTE network in Kenya, are the initial partners.

The move to open source Magma means that if a school or city wants to build a network—whether it be LTE or Wi-Fi—“we have a way for those deployments to actually get this economic benefit” by not having to pull all the data plane traffic back to some other place, Rabinovitsj said.

There are several reasons this is attractive, he added; you could even imagine from a security perspective, if one were running a very secure facility and didn’t want traffic to go somewhere else, this would be a way to keep it all on premises and contain the management of the private LTE network with the packet core inside the facility.

The move has ramifications for operators and enterprises both inside and outside of the U.S. Magma can be used wherever LTE exists and it has some network management and automation functionality built in. And because it’s open source, the community at large can contribute.

“This is kind of one of those pieces of technology that’s been sort of…  it’s not like widely available for a lot of companies… EPC, it’s complex,” he said. Big infrastructure vendors like Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung traditionally supply the packet cores to mobile operators—and Facebook is not trying to compete with them, he noted.

“The features of our product are not going head-to-head with them,” Rabinovitsj said. “What we’re trying to do is augment those packet cores by having an opportunity to build a distributed version of that” for these local breakouts. “We think that’s a big lever to get more people online. We also think it’s an opportunity to get better speeds indoors because eventually, for example, in schools and hospitals and government buildings and public networks, if you think of a train station, you would deploy LTE there and ideally you have local breakout of traffic … in that case our technology is very well suited.”

It also has implications for those interested in using the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band in the U.S. “This is a fantastic solution for CBRS and frankly for shared spectrum in general,” he said. “Anything indoors, you’re going to want to do local breakout, just like Wi-Fi and Ethernet traffic is done today.”

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The reality is that most people consume data indoors, in an office, home or school, and if you don’t densify networks indoors, “you’re not really taking advantage of putting networks where human beings are most of the time,” he said. Having a cloud native packet core technology in general, whether it’s 4G or 5G, is essential. “We think this has a significant impact and the fact that we’re open sourcing it means it’s really up to the community to embrace this and keep investing.”

Rabinovitsj, who previously was president of Ruckus Wireless, has only been in his current position at Facebook for about six months, but he’s got a lot to talk about, as evidenced in this blog post published last week.

But Rabinovitsj emphasized that partnerships are at the cornerstone of Facebook’s efforts. “We can only make an impact with what we’re doing if our partners are successful,” and that includes service providers, OEMs and system integrators. “That’s really kind of the magic of making this work.”