Nokia technology chief: The future is in software

Nokia’s technology and strategy chief Nishant Batra said the Covid-19 pandemic triggered a fast-paced evolution toward digitalization, with evolutions in cloud and wireless access as two key enablers.

“We were all going toward a digital society at a rapid pace, but this is exponentially gaining traction now,” said Batra, chief strategy and technology officer at Nokia, during a virtual media round table Tuesday.

He pointed to a 30% increase in overall network traffic in the U.S., businesses shifting work from home policies, and behavioral changes with digital tools in focus and enabled by 5G.

The take up of 5G technology has been one of the fastest compared to earlier generations, and is expected to sustain, Batra noted. For example, he said almost 150,000 sites are being deployed between North and Latin America, with 13 operator 5G rollouts in the regions, and a shift toward standalone 5G.  In the U.S., it’s expected four out of five people will be covered by 5G by year’s end.

In addition to take up of 5G wireless access, as well as early-stage research on 6G for consumer and enterprise use, the other critical enabler from Nokia’s standpoint is the cloud and relates to the role of the edge for enterprise.

Batra expects to see “a very exciting value chain come up,” citing opportunities for workloads, security, infrastructure and real estate – all to get the enterprise connected.

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“I firmly believe this decade will be about really putting the cloud out there in the far edge and possibly the micro edge to enable the cyber-physical landscape coming together,” he said. “It is also important that not just we as suppliers, but the entire industry is coming to the realization that the future is in software.”  

It's also about ensuring that software can deployed in a fast-paced way, focused on the use cases enterprises care about, he added. Part of this involves Network as a Service (NaaS), and a future shift Batra pegged in the next 5 to 7 years, from thinking about the network as delivering service level agreements (SLAs) to providing business outcomes.

Operators are currently building out coverage and capacity with 5G networks, but ahead Batra sees critical networks, hyper local private networks for enterprise and industrial adoption. Those won’t take off until software agility is developed, alongside adoption of as-a-service business models, he said during prepared remarks at Nokia’s virtual event on digitalization in the Americas.

Batra also pointed to continued changes in network architecture.

“As 5G evolves towards 6G, disaggregated networks will become the norm, not an exception and we need to be prepared for that.”

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Three-fourths of enterprise traffic by 2025 will happen on the edge, he said, citing a Gartner study, with compute moving closer to the use case at the edge, far edge and micro edge. Major cloud webscalers have joined the party and use cases will need to flow end-to-end, which is where Batra said network slicing comes into play.

Network slicing business models

Batra called network slicing “a fundamental requirement” for monetizing the network.

He firmly believes it will start as a capability-driven business model – where slices are segmented and represented to potential buyers based on capabilities applicable for their use cases, be it security or SLAs – but very soon evolve to as-a-service.

“As a service model, it will then become network slice-as-a-service, essentially.”

That business model can then go further, he said, with network slice-as-a-service complemented with exposure to cloud webscalers-as-a-service APIs (with NaaS from operators) to build what Batra said will be outcome-as-a-service, where applications and developers have come to utilize the full marketplace.

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“For a developer to use the capabilities of the network, then they will have to think about network-as-a-service exposure of the telecoms, and then they would complement that with webscale, possibly a far edge in the enterprise,” Batra said. “That’s how I believe these use cases will really take off.”

Before any of that gets going though, there needs to be a focus on orchestration for the network slices themselves. Network slicing may present new business models, but operators and suppliers are still working to establish the technology, though Batra said community is coming around and getting there.

“These slices have to be dynamically cleared and destroyed as needed,” he noted. “So the orchestration [engine] is a key technology for the marketplace to exist.”

When will business models for network slicing come into play?

“I believe this will become real in about six to 18 months,” Batra said.

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Nokia just expanded its work with Dish, providing security software for end-to-end network slicing – with automation and orchestration a key component. It has also inked 5G and cloud partnerships with AWS, Google, and Microsoft.

Private networks are another major focus for Nokia, which promise their own levels of security and reliability for enterprise customers. The Finnish vendor works both through service provider partners as well as direct to enterprise for private networks.

This month Verizon secured its first European private 5G network customer in a deal with Associated British Ports (ABP) that involves Nokia. The operator launched its private 5G managed service for international customers leveraging Nokia’s Digital Automation Cloud application platform, which also offers local edge computing.

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When it comes to Nokia’s focus on private networks versus CSP interest in network slicing, Batra doesn’t view them as in conflict.

“I see both going together for us, not just one,” he said, noting Nokia’s strong enterprise connections and portfolio, as well as operator’s systems integration expertise in some cases.