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Microsoft updates Azure for Operators, joins AT&T in private 5G

Microsoft's latest Azure for Operators update includes critical 5G services. The company also joined AT&T in a private 5G service that can roam on the carrier's public network.

Microsoft has bolstered its hybrid cloud offering for communication service providers with an Azure for Operators update that focuses on running critical mobile 5G technology on the global cloud network.

Microsoft also announced this week at the MWC mobile communications conference in Barcelona, Spain, a partnership with AT&T to offer a private 5G network that can hand off roaming devices to the carrier's wireless network.

The Azure for Operators update includes the new Azure Operator Distributed Services to run the network core. For the cloud network's edge, Microsoft introduced the Azure Private 5G Core and Azure public multi-access edge compute (MEC).

Microsoft launched Azure for Operators in 2020 to provide communication service providers with a platform for deploying and managing wireless networks through a hybrid cloud architecture. Since then, Microsoft has established credibility with enterprises and network operators, giving it a "significant edge" over rivals AWS and Google Cloud, said Tom Nolle, president of networking and IT consultancy CIMI Corp.

"Operators are very reluctant to jump into any investment in [their own] carrier cloud, so they're happy to look at [cloud] options that don't commit them to upfront costs," Nolle said.

Azure Operator Distributed Services is a hybrid cloud platform that combines the AT&T Network Cloud with Azure's security, monitoring, analytics and AI capabilities. It also includes the new Azure Operator 5G Core, a packet-core-as-a-service application for mobile networks.

Network Cloud, acquired by Microsoft in June 2021, allows telecom operators to unify the network core, the radio access network, the mobile and voice core, and the operational support system in a hybrid cloud. Splitting the technology between Azure and a carrier's private data center is a more flexible option than running everything on premises.

It's not surprising to see cloud-based network cores work their way into the telco operator market, IDC analyst Daryl Schoolar said. The trend is similar to how enterprises use the cloud to access IT services.

"You've seen this approach for the business end user -- something as a service, like security as a service or Microsoft Office as a service," Schoolar said. "Now you start to see it go to the telco operator, which has to be done on a bigger scale; [it has] many different requirements in terms of reliability."

Microsoft's new Azure Private 5G Core provides packet core as a service to enterprises running on-premises private 5G networks and low-latency applications on edge platforms, such as the on-premises Azure Stack Edge.

Azure public MEC is a public iteration of the Azure private MEC released last year. Microsoft is working on the public MEC with a range of systems integrators, including Accenture, Capgemini, Intelsat, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

Microsoft plans to conduct Azure Operator Distributed Services tests later this year. A private preview of Azure Operator 5G Core is available now. Azure Private 5G Core is available now as part of the Azure private MEC solution already on the market.

The AT&T-Microsoft partnership -- the AT&T Private 5G Edge -- will use Azure MEC, which Microsoft released in June 2021, to offer a private network capable of accessing AT&T's public network. The handoff would occur when devices leave the physical area of the private network to ensure that latency-critical applications at the edge remain connected. The service will operate across the AT&T spectrum and Citizens Broadband Radio Service used for private wireless networks.

Microsoft and AT&T have already collaborated on 5G before with Microsoft Azure hosting AT&T's public 5G core network.

Madelaine Millar is a news writer covering network technology at TechTarget. She has previously written about science and technology for MIT's Lincoln Laboratory and the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, as well as covering community news for Boston Globe Media.

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