We have seen a recent acceleration in 5G adoption with leading service providers gearing up to roll out in 2021 the latest 3GPP R16 Stand Alone (SA) 5G Core (5GC). For 5G, as with any technology, there have been many years of design and re-design which have gone into making 5G vision a reality, and this process of evolution is still carrying on today. 5G technology may now be available to consumers, but the background work and re-work continues.
One of the challenges that 5G has grappled to overcome is how best to leverage infrastructure as a service - to provide flexibility, security, reliability and ultimately profitability. What started out as an experiment in the use of Virtual Machines (VMs) on hardware using Network Function Virtualisation (NFV), quickly became VMs on farms of shared compute and storage (Cloud). An orchestration layer was required to lower operational overheads but resource utilisation remained a sticking point with VMs and the transition to a Container architecture (CNFs) became inevitable. So, let’s look at it in little bit more detail and understand how CNFs impacts vendor solutions including lawful interception (LI).
Containers in their simplest form provide a way of wrapping an application along with all of its dependencies to run as a single package, which can be executed as a single distinct entity. Containers can be compared with VMs, with the difference that while a VM needs a complete operating system installed in it to support the application, a container only needs to package up the application software as it leverages the operating system kernel.
Some of the key advantages of containers over VMs are that they require less hardware resources, have faster start-up times, and are very portable. 5G networks need to maintain high bandwidth and low latency while having the ability to scale up and down to handle spikes in mobile data traffic better. Containers support this requirement as they can be instantiated much faster than VMs to deliver as needed with the most efficient re¬source usage.

Building blocks for 5G SA 

The reason Containers Network Functions (CNFs) are so essential to building cloud-native environments, and are at the forefront of 5G SA deployments, is their ability to separate specific services and functionality into discrete, standalone, repeatable packages of functionality, often termed as ‘microservices’. With CNFs abstracting functionality away from both hardware and host infrastructure while supporting an agile DevOps cycle with true continuous integration, CNFs add a much sort-after agility into the service providers’ armoury, which in itself helps to reduce vendor lock-ins and make architectures more agile. 
Cloud-native network transformations aided by containers and microservices set the foundation which will help CSPs to expand into the vertical markets through cloud-native edge deployments, with the hope of monetising 5G infrastructure2.
Leading service providers like BT3, AT&T4 and Rakuten Mobile5 have already shown interest in using containers to build cloud-native 5G Cores. Whether a service provider began their 5G evolution a few years back through the deployment of VMs, or whether they are looking to take the first leap to a 5G SA core in 2021, the container-based architecture model is gaining traction, and is likely to be the direction of travel for most operators.

Containerisation and lawful interception

In order to fully utilise the benefits of a cloud-native 5GC, the whole of a CSP’s IT and network solution stack, for example OSS/BSS systems, needs to evolve into a modern cloud-native architecture and automate network operations as much as possible.
The vendor community is working hand-in-hand with service providers to transform their monolithic software systems into modernised, containerised cloud-native solutions. We, within the BAE Systems product management team, are actively investing in containerising our lawful interception (LI) solution. 3GPP Release 16 touches upon Containerised Network Functions (CNF) to enable dynamic scaling of 5GC on an on-demand basis, and LI systems would need to be able to support this dynamic scaling. We are ahead of the curve and proactively making our LI solution future-ready. We are working with industry partners to utilise the available tools, like Kubernetes (from Google), and have seen early benefits of containers first-hand.
If you want to read in detail about 5G technology and the impact and opportunity 5G presents to law enforcement explore our white papers here.
About the author
Matthew Meacham is a Product Manager – DataBridge Lawful Intercept, at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence

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* Ecosystem comprising of communication service providers (CSPs), network providers, solution/product vendors and system integrators (SIs)
2) https://www.nokia.com/blog/5g-journey-with-cloud-native-and-automation-foundation-for-killer-apps/
3) https://www.thefastmode.com/technology-solutions/16886-bt-to-deploy-ericssons-cloud-native-container-based-5g-core-for-nsa-and-sa-services
4) https://containerjournal.com/topics/container-ecosystems/att-dell-to-collaborate-on-container-platforms/
5) https://www.commsupdate.com/articles/2020/06/03/rakuten-mobile-and-nec-to-co-develop-container-based-standalone-5g-core-network/

Matthew Meacham

Product Manager – DataBridge Lawful Intercept, BAE Systems Digital Intelligence