When Microsoft announced its plan to acquire Metaswitch, they talked a lot about the promise of 5G, but made no significant announcements about their plans for the voice applications that are used by the majority of Metaswitch’s customer base. That changed today (September 28, 2020).
Azure for Operators
Today Microsoft announced a new initiative named “Azure for Operators” whereby they will build “a carrier-grade cloud” and bring “more Microsoft technology to the operator’s edge”.
Our approach is built on the acquisitions of industry leaders in cloud-native network functions—Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch and on the development of Azure Edge Zones. By bringing together hundreds of engineers with deep experience in the telecommunications space, we are ensuring that our product development process is catering to the most relevant networking needs of the operators. We will leverage the strengths of Microsoft to extend and enhance the current capabilities of industry-leading products such as Affirmed’s 5G core and Metaswitch’s UC portfolio.Jason Zander, Executive Vice President, Microsoft Azure
I had speculated previously that Microsoft might want to expand Azure Edge Zones to Metaswitch’s carrier customers, and offer Metaswitch’s voice services as applications on Azure – and the latter part of this, at least, seems to be their plan.
Impact on Metaswitch’s carrier customers
In a companion blog post, Metaswitch CEO Martin Lund talked more specifically about what this means for carriers who use Metaswitch. He started by arguing boldly for a move to the cloud.
I think the importance of this next step cannot be overstated: Cloudification of communications services is likely the most consequential decision that you will face this century.Martin Lund, CEO, Metaswitch Networks
But then acknowledged that the path towards cloudification may be slow, and will vary for different carriers. He sees the journey as having three steps:
- Virtualization of services within your own networks
- Deploying instances of your applications in the cloud (Azure)
- Consuming cloud-enabled functions as a service
Metaswitch have been selling the first of these options for several years – with many recent deployments consisting of virtual machines running on VMware running a service providers own infrastructure.
The second step isn’t hard conceptually – you just do exactly the same thing but you host the VMs (or containers) on Azure, where Microsoft are making a strong argument that Azure is carrier-class and has the performance and low-latency characteristics required to provide carrier-grade voice applications. If you have time, Microsoft have released a series of detailed videos about Azure for Operators, including this one from Shriraj Gaglani, Metaswitch’s Chief Marketing and Product Officer.
I’m a little less clear on step three. Does Microsoft become a Communication Platform as a Service (CPaaS) competing with Twilio, or do they just host all the voice applications Metaswitch provides and provide you a website where you can provision lines and configure services (i.e. a Microsoft-owned version of MetaView Web that you can pay for monthly based on usage)?
Will carriers be forced down this path?
Martin Lund made an effort to reassure existing carrier customers, saying:
[Microsoft have] also made clear their commitment to support on-premises, hybrid and multi-cloud models and to meet you where you are… you can continue to operate as you do today, deploying Metaswitch products in your current network architectures, fully supported by us, but also feel secure that we are well placed to help you on the transformation to cloud infrastructure and services – a direction of travel that the industry predicts will only continue to accelerate in this new decade.Martin Lund, CEO, Metaswitch
How should I feel about all this?
If you’re a carrier operating Metaswitch in the core of your network today, I think you should, on the whole, feel encouraged. Microsoft has a plan for these applications, and a vision for the future. This is good news.
On the other hand, in their view of the future, they host the infrastructure and the applications, and you simply consume them. Is that what you want?
There are strong arguments for why this is a good thing – that’s how most applications over the internet work, and voice has long been a bit of an outlier in that carriers provided their own products directly to their customers – but ultimately this will reduce the value provided by carriers themselves, since all carriers will be consuming the same Azure-hosted applications.
Ultimately it all comes back to your overall strategy as a carrier. What differentiates you as a service provider?
- If the quality and functionality of your voice offerings sets you apart, then you’ll need to find ways to build on top of the Azure-provided voice services to continue this differentiation.
- But if you’re setting yourself apart by your local network infrastructure, or local service, and voice is just a commodity, then this will make that commodity cheaper and easier to manage – and Microsoft would argue that these cost savings are essential to remaining competitive.
We’ll be talking more about what the telco of the future looks like at Model Telco 2020, our virtual conference scheduled for November 9-13, 2020. Be sure to join us there to discuss further.