Will Microsoft provide the operating system that enables 5G?

While most of the focus around 5G has been on the network operators and infrastructure providers, there’s been an 'under the covers' war being waged on who will power the massive computing core of the new networks.

5G mobile wireless network technology
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5G is the next generation of networking, not only for mobile devices like smartphones, but for a host of other products as well (e.g., autonomous cars, drones, smart cities, IoT, telemedicine and so on). Its high speed and low latency offer a breakthrough in performance required by many of these new applications.

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While wide availability is still 1-2 years away, it never the less created a ripe area for core technology supplier competition for network infrastructure. There are literally hundreds of companies vying for a piece of the action.

While most of the focus around 5G has been on the network operators (e.g., AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon in the U.S. and many other major players worldwide) and infrastructure providers for those operators (e.g., Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, ZTE, etc.), there’s been an “under the covers” war being waged on who will power the massive computing core of the new networks. Microsoft has been making determined moves to try and be the operating system behind this core network. Let’s look at what its doing and if it will succeed.

[ Related: Why 5G means new business models and user benefits ]

Network function virtualization

5G doesn’t work without a processing core built using NFV. In the past, dedicated purpose-built hardware systems were used to run the networks. 5G is very different, and uses NFV to create a large number of programmable services as part of an operator’s offerings (e.g., network bandwidth slicing, enhanced security services, edge powered data processing, low bandwidth and inexpensive IoT offerings, hosted third party applications, etc.).

[ Related: Why everything you know about 5G is wrong ]

Much of this would be impossible, or at least cost prohibitive, in old style dedicated equipment. This has created an opportunity for network equipment vendors (e.g., Cisco) to offer essentially general purpose computers powered by standard processors (e.g., Intel, AMD, ARM) to power the network core. They run a specialized but programmable and expandable operating environment, with many processes running in the cloud (e.g. on AWS, Microsoft Azure).

With its history of being a primary enabler of general computing system on its OSes (e.g., Windows) and cloud-based services (e.g., Azure), Microsoft is positioning itself to become a major operating environment powering the core of 5G networks. Let’s look at how.

Virtualizing the core

Microsoft recently announced the acquisition of Affirmed Network, who business is virtualizing mobile networks. It creates much of the virtualization services needed to run a modern network, and much of that runs in the cloud. Microsoft sees this acquisition as a way to built out network-specific Azure capabilities that will be attractive for NFV systems. And because Affirmed Networks has worked with most of the major operators, bringing the company into Microsoft will provide instant credibility and a customer base that Microsoft would otherwise have had to spend time building. This provides Microsoft with an advantage in competing with Amazon AWS primarily, but also with other major cloud providers both in the U.S. and worldwide.

Stacking the network 'edges'

While Affirmed is focused on building out the core of the network with its NFV capability, Microsoft has also been making major moves around the “edges.” In particular it has created Azure Stack Hub to allow a distributed cloud environment, so that the cloud functionality can easily be distributed to localized processing locations. While originally designed to allow hybrid cloud deployments for its enterprise users, operators also have a need to have a distributed cloud environment that can supply the necessary core processing functions at localized data centers around the country.

Microsoft also offers Azure Stack Edge, a fully managed in the cloud, artificial intelligence (AI) powered appliance-based service that can deploy many computing functions running at or near towers and local offices. This allows services to be customized and localized for market-specific needs. It also allows computing to be done at the edge of the network to enhance performance and create services that, if centralized in a cloud data center, would not be economical or offer enough performance to be useful. It enables operators to host local versions of third-party applications on fully programmable computing platforms for which it can generate additional revenue. Applications that include AI/machine learning and similar new technologies may be run at the edge to enhance the services and support available to end users, while maintaining a degree of security and privacy as the data remains localized.

[ Related: Will 5G increase mobile security? ]

Loading up the Sphere

Microsoft offers its Azure Sphere product to enable a wide array of IoT devices that need connectivity to cloud based systems. It consists of a small secured operating system enhancement running on Microsoft defined and licensed chip architectures (now supported by several major IoT processor vendors like Qualcomm, NXP, etc.), and a management system running in the cloud to provision and manage the myriad of IoT devices like smart appliances, smart home products, sensor networks and so on.

Although it requires product makers to embrace the Microsoft ecosystem, and this may have a negative impact on openness and/or cost, it provides Microsoft with a way to claim a security and management advantage over less bounded systems which could ultimately be attractive to consumers, and especially to commercial users.

Putting it all together

With this breadth of capabilities, Microsoft is pushing to be the next “operating system” of choice for the new generation of networks and devices. Its cloud-based approach to virtualization and edge computing gives it a substantial breadth of modern capabilities to offer network operators. Competitors are certainly aiming for this massive market as well, like AWS and to a lesser extent Google, but also others like Alibaba, Rakuten and Tencent, especially focused in APAC. But Microsoft currently has a broader offering and it will be attractive to many large scale operators with whom it is creating partnerships (e.g., AT&T).

[ Related: Will 5G accelerate edge computing as a service? ]

Bottom line on Microsoft and 5G

I don’t expect this approach by Microsoft to prevent others from competing is this emerging and expanding market. But it does provide Microsoft with an ability to show a more complete capability that others don’t match. This should allow Microsoft to capture a significant portion of the emerging market for 5G core networks and the services offered on those networks. I don’t expect Microsoft to capture the massive market share as it did with Windows, but it will definitely give Azure a significant boost.