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Public cloud for telco – Part 3: Microsoft Azure

Wajeeha Hamid

on 1 November 2022

This is the third blog from a series focusing on how public clouds meet telecommunication operators’ business demands. In the previous two blogs, we talked about how Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud Platform have enabled telcos to run critical workloads on public clouds. In this last part of our series, you’ll hear about Microsoft Azure cloud and why it’s a trusted platform for the telecommunication industry to host their workloads.

Modernisation has been difficult for telcos; especially the migration of enterprise-grade workloads to public clouds. Telcos need scalable, secure, and agile platforms that not only meet business demands but also ensure underlying infrastructure is compliant with telecommunications industry standards. Azure accelerated 5G deployments, and edge use cases and revolutionized businesses and operational efficiencies for telcos.   

Microsoft Azure for operators

Azure for operators is empowering telecom companies to put digital transformation at the heart of their business.  Microsoft and its partners offer solutions for on-prem and hybrid cloud computing environments. These solutions enable operators to design the services as per their requirements and cope with growing customer expectations. Telecom operators need secure platforms, partners, and hybrid environments to innovate and modernise existing networks. Microsoft Azure is filling this need with its secure, reliable, scalable, and multi-cloud compatible platform.

How does Azure address digitisation, scalability, and cost optimisation challenges?  It transforms traditional networks, monetises 5G, and offers Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities that result in network simplicity, scalability, and cost efficiencies. Azure’s platform is highly optimised and ensures zero-trust security for carrier-grade enterprise workloads. Azure is a great choice for telecom operators to host critical workloads.

Azure has two variants for Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) for edge operators and networks. This MEC solution delivers low-latency services to end customers. The two types are listed below:

  • Public MEC comprises Azure compute and integrates operators’ public 5G with its services. Developers and enterprises leverage Azure cloud and build low-latency network applications for edge sites.
  • Private MEC comprises Microsoft and partners from a large ecosystem, enabling operators and system integrators to leverage the Azure cloud to deploy and manage wireless networks.

Enterprises leveraging Azure cloud platform capabilities include AT&T, Lockheed Martin 5G.MIL, HARMAN Digital Transformation Solutions (DTS), Fujitsu, British Telecom, and Verizon.

The figure below represents the microservice reference architecture of 5G components deployed on Microsoft Azure with ROCKS Ubuntu images.

Azure 5G reference architecture for 5G

Microsoft Azure enables them to leverage its capabilities in services including networking, storage, compute and especially fully managed containerised solutions such as Azure Kubernetes Service.

  • Azure Virtual Network(VNet) ensures an isolated and secure environment to run applications in virtual machines (VMs). Telcos leverage VNet for reliable and secure communication between multiple tenants. The service also offers scalability within subnets.  
  • Azure Accelerated Networking is a specialised and accelerated network interface attached to Azure VMs offering optimised network performance with single root I/O virtualization (SR-IOV). Telcos could leverage this feature to increase VM traffic handling capacity up to 25Gbps. It lowers latency, jitter and CPU utilisation for latency-sensitive workloads. 
  • Azure Virtual Machines (VM) offer different categories of VMs, including compute, memory, storage and  GPU-optimised. VMs should be selected based on the nature of the operator’s workload.  Besides, telcos can have VMs that offer cost-effectiveness and high performance dedicated for critical workloads. For example, 5G core components such as Radio Access Network (RAN), telemetry and real time network analytics could be leveraged for high performance computing. 
  • Azure Express Route ensures a fast, reliable and secure connection between on-prem data centres and Azure cloud. Traffic is not routed to the normal internet, but instead uses a secure channel with low latency and high performance. Telecom operators can use express route and inter-connect core network services across different regions and datacenters without fear of security risks. 
  • Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS)  is a managed service providing faster deployments for cloud-native applications. Telcos leverage AKS to deploy 5G Core components in microservices, enabled with guaranteed upgrades in kubernetes versions and minor patches. Inter connectivity between services is secured and critical workloads could easily scale and heal as per needs.  
  • Azure Function is Azure’s serverless compute offering. Running workloads closer to users not only lowers the latency overheads but improves end user experience too. Telcos can benefit from Azure functions to deploy applications at edge sites across regions and zones around the globe.   
  • Azure Virtual Wide area network (WAN) is a networking service that offers a centralised management interface. Utilising virtual WAN, operators could manage routing, security and other network operations. This single operational interface enables telcos to manage multi-cluster, multi-cloud and multi-tenant applications. 
  • Azure Load Balancing (ALB)  is a load balancer that ensures scaling and high availability for applications and services. It supports both streams of traffic including TCP and UDP. Telcos could leverage ALB to provide low latency, higher throughput, scalability and highly available features to critical enterprise workloads. 
  • Azure Arc extends the Azure ability to build, run and manage enterprise applications and services across platforms, ranging across data centres, regions, edge locations and multi cloud platforms. The following figure represents Azure services adopted by telcos for their enterprise grade workloads.
Service linkage between telco workloads and Azure

Ubuntu Pro and Azure 

Canonical has partnered up with Microsoft to deliver an Azure-optimised kernel with regular patches, security updates and reasonable pricing.

Enterprises prefer Ubuntu on Azure, because it is an open-source and user-friendly operating system (OS). Canonical benefited from the opportunity and presented Ubuntu Pro server images with improved security, live kernel updates, security patches, enhanced boot time, long- term support for ten years and the increased performance needed for sensitive telco workloads. Canonical captured the market audience through attractive discounts, customisable terms, compliance with customers’ SLAs and industry standards.

  • Ubuntu Pro for Azure is a specialised server image from Canonical for carrier-grade workloads hosted over the cloud. Canonical ensures the security and compliance services are enabled by default. Without the need for a contract, Ubuntu Pro server images are suitable for small to larger scale enterprises. 
  • Telecom operators can benefit from both Azure and Ubuntu Pro together for cost efficiencies. Azure’s pay-as-you go billing based on cores count is sufficient for Ubuntu Pro based application instances. 
  • Ubuntu Pro covers a wide enterprise audience with support for enhanced platform awareness (EPA) capabilities including DPDK, SR-IOV, NUMA and HugePages. Canonical also offers Ubuntu containerised images compliant with the Open Container Initiative (OCI). Telcos using microservices architecture can use AKS with these Ubuntu images (known as ROCKS). 

Following figure represents the VM instance of Azure built on top of the Ubuntu Pro server image.

Ubuntu Pro based VM instance (s)

Ubuntu Pro is preferred by telecom operators due to features such as: 

  • A consistent experience across platforms: Ubuntu provides the same user experience regardless of the underlying platform, be it cloud, hybrid, multi-cloud and edge. It ensures consistency across all platforms. 
  • Kernel Livepatch: Azure live kernel patching is enabled to upgrade running instances without the need to reboot. 
  • Optimised Performance: Comes with optimised Azure-kernel, outstanding run-time performance and faster boot times. 
  • Maintenance Period – 10 Years: Canonical offers long-term support; up to one decade with regular security patches and smooth upgrades.  
  • Security coverage for Open Source: Secures hundreds of open-source applications including Apache Kafka, MongoDB, RabbitMQ, Redis and NodeJS. 
  • Available versions: Canonical offers different versions of Ubuntu Pro on the Azure marketplace including 16.04 LTS, 18.04 LTS and 20.04 LTS.
  • Optimised pay-as-you-go pricing: Ubuntu Pro pricing is based on cores utilisation count and covers the cloud-based billing model – pay-as-you-go. It also supports consumption-based managed services with no vendor lock in.  
  • Portable: Canonical ensures each region and zone has local mirrors for Ubuntu Pro server images and ROCKS Ubuntu container images to lower the latency for end users. 
  • Common Criteria (CC) EAL2 and FIPS certificate: Ubuntu Pro has a FIPS 140-2 module and Common Criteria EAL2 certified components enabled by default and is compliant with telecom industry standards. Additionally, an optional support for  industry profiles including CIS and DISA STIG  is available to ensure baseline security for systems and to meet industry benchmarking standards.

Wrapping up

The shift from traditional networks towards innovative, modern and monetised networks has been quite challenging for the telecommunications industry. Azure cloud delivers the network scale and efficiency to drive this transition, with its full ecosystem of partners, technology and in-house cloud solutions. 

The underlying infrastructure provides the compute resources with zero-trust security. Canonical, on the other hand, offers secure, compatible and compliant server images. Both Azure and Canonical, partner to deliver secure, reliable and highly available infrastructure with real-time kernel updates, live security patching and optimised Ubuntu Pro server images and ROCKS Ubuntu container images. Ten years of maintenance support for Ubuntu Pro with industry standard compliance give telcos enough confidence to migrate workloads on Azure. Thus, telcos leverage both Azure and Canonical offerings to unlock new revenue streams and build new partnerships in the 5G era. 

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