ng-voice on the next generation core

Next gen IMS - containerised, cloud-native, light. Can ng-voice convince the bigger players to take note?

ng-voice was founded back in 2011, and it still had just three people on staff by 2019. Now it has 80.  Its CEO, ex McKinsey-ite David Bachmann wants that to be 200 people by the end of 2022.

The products fuelling that planned growth are perhaps slightly unlikely: IMS core software and a yet-to-be-determined move into the 5G core. Erm, IMS though? Bachmann says yes, indeed. But with a couple of provisos that might overcome the usual takes on IMS. His take is that there is still a lot of headroom for VoLTE, therefore IMS, as operators move away from 3G voice, but that those needing an IMS can access it in a whole different way to the big multi-national operators that have, to date, driven (and been driven mad by) IMS projects.

Bachmann says, “3G switch-off is our external market enforcement mechanism.”

“If you look at the whole market, 80% of operators offer voice on 3G. The adoption level of IMS is very significantly about the size of the players. For those with 10 million plus subscribers, 90% of them have VoLTE as part of the offering. For those with 5-10 million subs, about 60% have IMS and offer VoLTE. Then the small ones, sub five million, under 50% have VoLTE, and those [operators] are the market we are targeting.”

The second consideration is that ng-voice is not approaching these smaller operators with an IMS offering that looks like one from a legacy NEP or core software vendor.

“Those smaller operators care about the production cost for voice because nobody pays for it any more. So the product is zero capex up front and allows you to slowly move subscribers from 3G to 4G.”

IMS, however, is (or at least it used to be) a famously complex project for many operators. One major opco once told TMN it was the hardest technical project he’d ever undertaken.

“I think IMS has been dead many times, and VoLTE has been dead many times… and now it is happening. It is a complex integration compared to other integrations, so you need to automate as much of the deployment part as you can, that’s where we’ve invested a significant amount of time. You can deploy ours in less than a minute on AWS – OK you still need do the integration – but automation of integration testing reduces the manual effort and because we have a containerised solution, it’s much easier to manage – it’s not a bulky solution.”

Bachmann details ng-voice’s offering like this.

First, it’s 100% 3GPP compliant, with “no shortcuts” in interface architecture, meaning that it integrates with all existing legacy players.

Second, the IMS core software is very light and designed for deployment in a “fully containerised, Kubernetes” environments, and is “cloud-agnostic” across Azure to AWS to bare metal. “We don’t care what we deploy on”. How light? The IMS is an indicated 15-20Mb in size, with Bachmann putting the next competitor at 500Mb and legacy players at 1.2-1.5Gb. “That comes with a small resource footprint, which translates to cost savings for the production of voice.”

Thirdly, the software is fully scaleable up and down. It’s the same thing in a small enterprise as in an MNO.

Fourthly, ng-voice has run the software as SaaS from the beginning. “In an industry that is capex-loving, that has worked out pretty well,” Bachmann sayd. “As the market moves to a cloud world, we are aligned in terms of the commercial model.”

So far, this model has won the company a small handful of MVNO customers, and one MNO that has several million subscribers. Bachmann says that the company is also seeing requests to deploy as a “back-up” IMS for larger operators, giving them a “more agile” deployment to play with.

Smaller, corer?

As it progresses in IMS, the company is also looking to develop 5G Core functionality. Here, Bachmann addresses an issue that others in the industry may recognise, the difficulty of engaging, as a smaller player, with large operators and also with larger vendors. Bachmann has formed, along with cloud RAN developer Amarisoft and several others, the European Association of Next Generation Telco Innovators.

“All the different components of the core and radio network are available from smaller players. Let’s get groups together to raise awareness with policy makers that if you want to raise diversification it’s an ecosystem game. Secondly, let’s increase co-operation of smaller players, to complete each other’s stacks. At the same time let’s encourage collaboration between T1 suppliers and smaller ones. If you want to innovate in a software world, then innovate and partner as a big supplier with smaller guys as well.”

The question is how much we will see mix and match in operator networks. The vast majority of 5G Cloud core contracts have, to date, headed the way of Ericsson and Nokia, never mind the “mid market” of Mavenir and others. Start-ups and others seem to be nowhere so far in commercial terms, although Bachmann says that may change as operators face the challenge of scaling software.

“Pressure in the industry to work with smaller players comes more from the Hyperscaler world, they need to bring an ecosystem together and have done a great job ensuring smaller players can work together. And now being faced with the same challenge, the established suppliers and operators realised they are not so good in scaling software – and need work with smaller suppliers. That has changed quite a bit, the idea that being able to deliver an end-to-end solution without a functioning ecosystem has come to an end. Everyone has realised you need to work with sources of innovation in core, RAN and the  application layer and for us we see it has changed massively in the last three years.”

“Now it’s about how to find a standardised onboarding process, a way to move from Proof of Concept to full conversion. However I do I believe there will be an in-between phase of prevalidation – we will see a lot of pre intregrated solutions that are validated, as the cost of real mix and match integration is high, and reliability and who you call when things don’t work have not been sorted out.”

Does Bachmann see the private network space as ripe for the sort of agile, light deployment ng-voice has developed in IMS? “We are  going to see different kinds of model. The enterprise one might see a massive simplification of the core. Businesses don’t all want to turn into little network operators, because any core they manage will be run by the IT department – so you are looking to achieve a level of simplification.

“At the same time in the MVNO world it would work with a more centralised approach – so you need to build source code that allows you to adddress those in different ways.