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Deutsche Telekom preps Kubernetes 5G core with GitOps

GitOps will help the German mobile carrier manage IT automation for its 5G SA app on a large internal Kubernetes platform with minimal staff needed to do hands-on administration.

Kubernetes infrastructure was only the most basic part of Deutsche Telekom's plans for a new cloud-native 5G core service; as the telecom prepares for launch, its IT teams say GitOps is just as important.

GitOps refers to a set of organizational practices and technical tools that store both application code and infrastructure as code files in the same Git version control repositories. Under this approach to IT infrastructure automation, the state of production resources is in constant sync with a desired state expressed in code. GitOps has reached enterprise mainstream use thanks to the ubiquity of containers and Kubernetes, which naturally lend themselves to managing apps and infrastructure via code, but the two are not one and the same.

Michal Sewera, Deutsche TelekomMichal Sewera

5G mobile network technology, which offers high performance and low latency, is expected to facilitate a major increase in how much data wireless networks can transmit. This will enable new types of business applications, especially in fields such as internet of things and edge computing.

"Running a Kubernetes-based application does not mean it's cloud native," said Michal Sewera, squad lead for the Deutsche Telekom (DT) cloud-native 5G core project, called 5G Standalone (SA). "Cloud native, for me, means that you're able ... to survive rolling updates [and] system upgrades without impacting customers, [and] being able to completely detach your mindset from underlying hardware."

GitOps fuels 5G network speed

DT first began to plan core telecom services that would run on its Kubernetes platform, which it calls "Das Schiff," or "The Ship," in 2019. In part, this came about because server virtualization vendors and the Kubernetes open source community had improved support for network functions virtualization (NFV), a set of software frameworks that allow virtual machines to support high-performance network devices, such as routers and load balancers, that previously required specialized hardware. DT also had to wait for telecom software vendors to update their apps to support VMs and containers.

By late 2019, DT had moved conventional IT applications onto Das Schiff, but hosting 5G SA there presented a unique challenge beyond NFV's ability to emulate hardware-based performance. The company's software applications and software-defined infrastructure updates, too, had to move faster.

There would be no [other] way to control quality ... and immediately react to a customer demand.
Michal SeweraSquad lead, Deutsche Telekom 5G SA

"One second in 5G is like forever," Sewera said. "It's a huge difference compared to any other IT application -- not only from the perspective of [sensitivity to] outages, but especially if you think about the runtime integration where thousands of nodes are connected and you need to reply in milliseconds."

As it built Das Schiff, DT's infrastructure team had begun to work with the open source Flux CD GitOps tool to manage its Kubernetes clusters, which now number in the hundreds, with an eye toward an eventual fleet of thousands.

When Sewera's team started planning to move 5G SA to Das Schiff in 2020, it found GitOps to be an indispensable part of making that leap. While very infrequent manual intervention is required from DevOps and IT infrastructure teams, a GitOps workflow means Das Schiff is largely self-updating for the entire lifecycle of each application, automatically syncing production environment resources and configuration with changes expressed in code, and less prone to the human errors that come with manual testing and deployment.

"You're doing a very small increment of change on everything, and there is a concept which I call nonstop acceptance testing, which means that there is no longer a fixed point of time where your app is frozen [for testing]," Sewera said. "There would be no [other] way to control quality ... and immediately react to a customer demand."

DT's road to Kubernetes 5G core

In 2019, DT's infrastructure team began to consider various commercial Kubernetes management platforms, as well as a self-managed environment based on upstream open source. After it decided to go with the latter option, the infrastructure team also began to experiment with GitOps, engaging Flux CD commercial supporter Weaveworks for support and consulting around how to implement the tool at high scale.

"They were early adopters of some technologies we currently use, like Cluster API, in their own Kubernetes platform for enterprise," said Vuk Gojnic, squad leader for DT's Kubernetes engine. "We had other contestants for that kind of role that were heavily using ... [HashiCorp] Terraforming. For our small team at that time, it was not looking like something that would scale."

Using Flux, DT now manages some 200 Kubernetes clusters with just 10 full-time engineers and plans to scale to thousands of clusters without adding more than one or two more members to the infrastructure team.

DT's investment fund, Telekom Investment Pool, later invested in Weaveworks, along with other investors including Ericsson Ventures and Orange Ventures, in a $36 million series C funding round in 2020.

DT's work with Weaveworks helped it weather the transition between Flux version 1 and Flux version 2, first released in 2020, which added sought-after support for multi-tenancy, but represented a ground-up refactoring for the utility.

"We had a lot of interactions with the [Weaveworks] engineering team and gave them a lot of feedback that got built into the upstream product -- a number of things that are specific to how [we] manage application deployment profiles," Gojnic said.

Weaveworks incorporated Flux version 2 into its Weave GitOps Enterprise product, launched in June and updated this week in version 2021.11, which added an application delivery UI, reusable infrastructure component profiles, support for reproducible platforms as code and a multicluster management interface.

DT was an early user of Flux version 2, but signed contracts with Weaveworks for Flux technical support before the release of Weave GitOps Enterprise, Gojnic said, and may consider the commercial platform in the future.

"We are running a custom stack that we have support for," Gojnic said. "It's not an off-the-shelf product, but we are also hoping to make this use case [work]."

Beth Pariseau, senior news writer at TechTarget, is an award-winning veteran of IT journalism. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @PariseauTT.

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