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The Transformation of Network Infrastructure with Intel’s Cristina Rodriguez – Futurum Tech Podcast Interview Series
by Daniel Newman | December 1, 2020

On this episode of the Futurum Tech Podcast – Interview Series I am joined by Cristina Rodriguez, Vice President for the Data Center Group and General Manager of the Wireless Access Network Division for Intel. Cristina is part of the global organization that is driving change through 5G network build-out, edge computing, improving AI, and improving radio access networks. It’s an exciting space to be in right now as the demand for faster networks and easier access to data increases across enterprise organizations.

Our conversation covered several aspects of network transformation including a broad overview of digital connectivity and networking. We also explored how Intel has focused on the transformation of the network and the importance of that role this year. 2020, while crazy in a lot of aspects, really created new opportunities for the growth of 5G and network transformation.

The Transformation of Network Infrastructure

My conversation with Cristina also revolved around the following:

  • How virtualization and transformation of the network will enable opportunities in the future.
  • The role Intel has played in transforming the network architecture from core to edge to access. Specifically the few things the company has focused on in the last few years to deliver this transformation to customers.
  • An exploration of the partnerships Intel has made to achieve the core to edge network transformation.
  • Intel’s thinking around RAN transformation and what they anticipate for 2021.
  • A brief overview of Intel’s partnerships with Amdocs, Verizon and VMware.

Where We Go From Here

2020 proved that we need faster connectivity speeds which means we need better networks and stronger infrastructure. Intel realizes this and is partnering with various organizations to build and deliver the solutions that we need. If you’d like to read more about what Intel is doing in this area, check out their website. These changes will impact all of us in the coming years. If you are involved in network transformation in your organization make sure to put this on your ‘must listen’ list.

Listen to my interview with Cristina on your favorite streaming platform here:

Disclaimer: The Futurum Tech Podcast is for information and entertainment purposes only. Over the course of this podcast, we may talk about companies that are publicly traded and we may even reference that fact and their equity share price, but please do not take anything that we say as a recommendation about what you should do with your investment dollars. We are not investment advisors and we do not ask that you treat us as such.

Read more analysis from Futurum Research:

Intel Q3 Results In Line With Guidance As Data Center Business Softens 

Intel Updates 5G Network Infrastructure To Focus On $25 Billion Market

Intel Launches 11th Gen Core Processors And A Brand Update

Image Credit: Intel

Transcript:

Daniel Newman: Welcome to the Futurum Tech Podcast Interview Series. I’m your host today, Daniel Newman, Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. Excited about today’s interview with Cristina Rodriguez of Intel. And she’ll be joining me here on the show in just a moment, but before I have her join, I just want to say I’m really excited to have everybody out there that’s been listening to our podcast, go ahead hit that subscribe button, become part of our community. We have lots of great guests, lots of conversations like the one I’m about to have today. On today’s show with Cristina, we are going to be talking about what’s going on with network transformation.

We’ll also talk broadly about what’s going on across digital connectivity, networking, but some really interesting news and announcements that have come out of Intel over the past several months. And I’m really excited to have Cristina joined me on the show today. Without further ado, Cristina Rodriguez, welcome to the Futurum Tech Podcast Interview Series. Thanks for joining me today.

Cristina Rodriguez: Thank you, Daniel. Thank you for having me. A lot of fun being here, looking forward to it.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, it’s always great to connect. The last few months, the company has had so many interesting announcements, launches. Your group has been so busy. Everything going on with 5G service providers, upgrading and updating to be able to support all the advancements that are going on and your company is really at the forefront of that. We’ll talk about that throughout the show. I don’t want to jump ahead of ourselves too much. Let’s do the formalities here, Cristina. I’ve given everyone your name, told everyone where you work, but give us an introduction and tell everyone a little bit about yourself.

Cristina Rodriguez: Sure, sure. I am a vice precedent in the data platform group here in Intel and general manager of the wireless access network division. That means a lot of 5G, a lot of radio access network, edge, AI, 5G intersection, lot of excitement going on.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, absolutely. And by the way, what a year, 2020 the year of 5G. I predicted that in one of my Forbes columns. I said, “This’ll be the year of 5G.” I think I said that in 2019 too. I get them right sometimes. I don’t always get them right but I think this year was a big year for the platform, both at an enterprise level and consumer level. We’ve seen rollouts now, pretty much every major provider, every major a handset makers is playing in this space now. And of course Intel is spending more and more time really being core at part of that infrastructure rollout that’s taken place. And we’ll definitely dive into that. But overall, how has 2020 treated you? It’s been a bit of a chaotic year. Where are you in? And sort of, how’s your mobility been this year?

Cristina Rodriguez: Well, certainly it’s a year that we weren’t expecting for many reasons. A lot of excitement in the technical side and certainly in the networking space. But of course, a lot of challenges that we have to face. But adapting and pushing through and getting things done and working with our customers and ramping up 5G. It’s a little bit of a different year and I’m in my home office instead of the office, but getting things done and working very closely with our customers.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, absolutely. It’s crazy. I typically would have probably been out to Santa Clara for a dozen different analysts events and meetings and launches and nothing, nothing. I said it was funny. The last travel I really did was I’ve been a couple times just family type travel. And I went to Spain for Mobile World, even though it got canceled, I had some meetings and that was right at the time before we weren’t sure if everything was going to get shut down or not. Even though the event got canceled, a bunch of clients were still going. We decided to go, I actually went to an FC Barcelona game while I were there, stadium packed with people right at the beginning of March. And wow, was that the last time that I did anything like that? And now here we are almost November and now we’re not even sure if we’re going to be trick or treating.

What a really crazy year, but in terms of tech it’s been exciting. I think acceleration has actually been a big part of the year. The foot has been on the gas. Companies seemed focused, upgrading, investing, expanding, especially for companies that have been able to weather this storm. It’s actually seemingly turned the volume. They used to say, turned it up to 11. They turned that volume up to 11 in terms of making investments in tech. I know your focus is on the network. Talk to me a little bit about what is the current state of network transformation?

Cristina Rodriguez: Well, so many good things happening. Just think about it. We will just say some of the things, 5G, edge, artificial intelligence, all coming together, coming to life. All ready because precisely the technology’s material is ready to unleash all the support for the network transformation and all the innovation that is going to come out of that. Just think about it, to put in perspective, network infrastructure represents 25 billion silicon opportunity in 2023. Tremendous opportunity. And virtualization of the network and transformation of the network is a very important part of that, of that pitch. Operators are embracing an architecture that is based on several scale. Very similar, we saw this happening starting on the core. We’re talking decade ago and Intel was very much at the forefront of this movement, this moving the industry through this transformation.

And we saw how in the core operators, they started to realize the value of having a platform that is based on server. That is more scalable, more agile, that took basically what happened there is functions that were previously running on the hardware were moved to software. Using network function, virtualization, software defined network. And we’re very excited to see that this year, precisely this year, we’re going to see the crossover 50%. More than 50% of the core this year will be virtualized. And if you look a little bit ahead by 2024, we’re talking 80% of the core virtualized. That happened in the core starting 10 years ago. And now we’re seeing that the same interest, the same focus going not only the core, but core, edge and especially the radio access network, which is, I would say the last frontier of network transformation and virtualization. A lot of things happening.

Just think about it, we have 5G, which for sure, as you said early, was full speed this year ramping up. Ramping up at a speed that we have never seen before for the wireless, for a new generation of wireless protocol. We have 5G new radios. We have massive MIMO, we have Millimeter Wave, all these new things coming up. And by doing that, having the possibility of all these new use cases that we are starting to think about it. Now, some of those use cases require low latency and with that comes the edge. Now what does that mean? We want, because of the low latency, we can afford to have data going all the way to the data center and back. We have to disposition that data closer to what is generated closer to the user. Now that means bringing compute closer to the user and that we’re talking now to the build out of the edge. And then in top of that, you put AI so it’s all these confluence of events that is just making it work in such a big focus for innovation, but also for investment.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, I said, I did predict in the beginning of this year, I said, “Silicon will eat the world.” I wrote that, it was in MarketWatch. I said that. A lot of people said, “Software will eat the world,” but really everything gets built on top of silicon. I actually have a perspective that this would be a big year for chips, a big year for the advancement and it’s shown to be, it clearly has. And you’re seeing how silicon’s impacting networking. You mentioned from the standpoint of the whole network virtualization, we’re definitely seeing silicon in the base stations for 5G at scale. And we’ll talk about that momentarily. Couple years ago, we actually worked with Intel on a paper on the SDN NFV transition that was going on, the transformation and we did a big research study and it was massive.

And this migration was already, as you said, it’s been underway for a decade, but it’s now really accelerating. Like any trend, you’ve got those first few years, early adoption, slow migration and then you start see that curve. I’m showing that hockey stick, they call it here and it goes up really fast. And that’s definitely here. You started alluding to it, but for all of our listeners out there, I would love to clarify it a little bit. On a broad level, what are some of the most important ways, some of the areas that Intel has really focused now on the transformation of the network?

Cristina Rodriguez: Yeah, so when we look at the transformation of the network, we are again, we’re looking at how do we have an architecture that is based on servers that is scale across multiple places in the network? Again from core to edge, to access. And that brings that shift from proprietary systems to a general purpose architecture that can be more flexible, more agile, that can have more open softwares and open interfaces. And that can bring all the innovation that we talk about it related to 5G and DHN and AI. Specifically for what we’re doing and what we bring to the picture, I would say three things. There are mainly three things here that I would say.

Number one, is that we’re feature rich silicone portfolio. You alluded to the silicon hour, very innovative and advance our roadmap with all the feature rich advancements in the silicon area. In top of that, you put our software, optimized software for the different workloads and the tremendous amount of efforts that we put and so forth ourself, but also working with the rest of the industry from the basic bios, right at the bottom of the stack all the way from drivers, from data processing software, application software, all the way to the stack. And then the tools. Tools that we also provide for optimization of that combination of hardware and software.

Recently we announced not that long ago our network optimized SKU for the third generation of our Intel Xeon scalable processors and deep processors. And that just tells you one more thing of the depth of things that we do to give more options and more flexibility in this case specific to the network. And then if I’m going to talk about the software and I’m sure I’ll talk about it again, because it’s so close to me, you probably have heard the FlexRAN, our FlexRAN reference software. But anyway, that’s number one, all the solutions that we offer.

Number two, I would say how much we have fostered a mature developer ecosystem. We have a very strong, very vibrant ecosystem. We work very close with them to enable them to provide solutions, optimize solutions and optimizations for our mutual customers. And I think that’s really, really important in the industry. These days, anything that we’re doing is an industry for ANESA and it requires collaboration. And we also participating in multiple industry bodies and alliances and forums. We’re very much again trying to bring the industry together and move the industry together. That was number two.

And then number three, which is also very important is as I mentioned before, we have been working on this for the last 10 years. We have a lot of learnings, a lot of expertise and we’re providing that expertise and super happy to provide that expertise to our work customers, our partners, to make sure they are successful in their goals. It’s not just one aspect, it’s everything, the hardware, the software, the expertise, the ecosystem. And we’re super happy with the accomplishment, with what the industry as a whole has achieved. And where we’re seeing the industry right now.

Daniel Newman: Yeah. There’s a lot of things going on. And the company Intel seems to really be on the pulse and identifying this as a significant opportunity. You hear some discussions in recent announcements that in certain areas, especially in the silicon, the company envisions becoming the leader, in the RAN, becoming one of the fastest growth areas for Intel. Which again, this is something Intel has been in a long time, but people don’t necessarily think about it all the time. It’s kind of like I always say about 5G. The company has a very big role in 5G, but after the spinoff of just the one part for the mobile devices, people are like, oh, Intel’s out of 5G and I spend a lot of time being like, no Intel’s very much in 5G and in a very important part of 5G where sometimes the consumer stuff maybe is what everyone knows about, but it doesn’t represent the biggest opportunity.

And so you started kind of talking about building core to edge and everything else. And that’s exactly where Intel’s been active. Active engaging the ecosystem. And the goal is to deliver core to edge network transformation. And one of the things that the company is always touting are partnerships. I’d love to hear a little bit more about some of the partnerships that the company has gotten involved with to really achieve this core to edge network transformation.

Cristina Rodriguez: Right. And I have to say that that’s one of many things that we are very proud of. How the quality and the strong partnership that we have with customers, with communication service providers, teams, the ecosystem in general, the softRAN vendors. ODMs, OEMs, all that collaboration that results at the end of the day in innovation, in solving real world challenges. Real problems that we are solving, putting the technology and the minds together to get to that. I’ll give you two examples because we’re going to continue talking. I’m sure I’ll talk about others later, but I’ll give you right away two example.

Rakuten. Rakuten, the Japanese communication service provider. They are greenfield building a network, but they have been able to build a new cloud native network end to end that they launch first 4G and then more recently they launch 5G services. Is fantastic. Is very, very impressive. It has served as a blueprint for building to virtualized, again a scalable, flexible architecture. We are enabling that technology they’re using now, with Intel Xeon products, as well as and FBA and ethernet devices and SSDs. We’re very, very happy to be part of that. They saw there in the ecosystem that also based in the software, and now our FlexRAN reference software, and we’re layer one referring software. Again, so far it’s been really a tremendous accomplishment and we’re seeing what they’re sharing with us as far as total cost of ownership, about the OpEx and CapEx, about the performance of the network is very impressive. And this is new for the industry. And again, we’re super, super proud and super happy to be part of that.

Another example I would say is with SK Telecom, we have a collaboration. Again, this one is with HPE, Intel and Samsung Electronics to expand, to accelerate adoption of new technologies in 5G network development. We’re looking to do here is to reduce the time required to validate and integrate vendor technologies within the network, which means that they are going to be able to have a more rapid introduction of new hardware and software technologies. For example, like the third generation of Intel Xeon scalable processor that I was just mentioning. Again, it’s a way to provide services faster. We’re talking about now things like virtual reality, augmented reality, services that now can be offered through an NFV platform. Again, it’s every example is a lot of cool stuff and high tech, state of the art technology that is being put out there.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, there’s so many different things. The first is obviously that data layer that gets so much more information. The analytics at the edge is going to be a massive opportunity. Enterprise, retail, commerce, you hear all about this customer data platforms, omni-channel. You need that network and that ability to capture all that data from all that geo and the locations and provide a level of telemetry and observability that is going to hit next level. And a lot of people don’t realize all that goes into it and these partnerships. And then of course, you kind of talk about all the cool stuff. Augmented reality, virtual. I’m on a subway where there used to be almost no connection. And now I’m able to basically do high-end HD gaming or download full 4K, 8K type video streams on Netflix, on a mobile device in the tube.

And it’s a crazy change and it’s exciting. And these partnerships, because it does take a village, it really does. I’m always happy to hear that Intel is really thinking and aligning with the right set of companies, building the right partnerships, because it’s going to be something especially to get to scale. As we’ve seen how long LTE has continued to progress and 5G is in its early days. And in the next three or four years, it’s just going to keep getting better and better. I’ve got a little bit more time with you, two more questions that I had on my mind. One of them I want to talk about is the RAN. We are hearing a ton about the RAN and its impact on 5G. And this is really changing a lot on an ongoing basis. Intel has been accelerating this a lot. Can you just share a little bit about Intel’s thinking around the RAN and what it’s doing right now?

Cristina Rodriguez: Oh, and that’s my favorite topic. Of course. Super exciting time on the RAN. RAN innovation is certainly taking off. By the way, they all run Alliance as a report that is showing that 70% of total network cost is coming from the RAN. That just tells you the opportunity there for innovation and investment. And we are seeing, again, when you look at the RAN, there is the traditional way to deploy RAN based on very highly automatized custom solutions, which will continue for the next years, but there is also a tremendous momentum in also bringing virtualization to the RAN and using again, a server architecture based on Xeon products, Intel Xeon products to bring that virtualization into life. By the way, I don’t know if probably saw the announcement from Ericsson a couple of days ago where they launch their cloud RAN.

And this is an exciting moment. And it’s a testament also of the viability of both model state, traditional model and the virtualized model. At Intel, we have a very rich portfolio of products and IP targeting the radio access network. It started with, again our Intel Xeon scalable processors and D line, our at home line, SoCs, FPGAs, A6 custom solutions, ethernet drivers, memory, you name it. And then not only the silicon, but also the software, the optimized software and tools associated to that. Early this year in March, we launch an SoC, a 10 nanometer SoC named Atom P5900. And the P5900 is an SoC, again target for a base station with a performance per watt leadership. And it’s been fantastic, the adoption. We’re super happy, super excited. What the role that it has played in 5G and with this and the rest of our portfolio, we are expecting to be the leading provider of base station by 2021. That’s super excited, super exciting for us.

Then, of course, in addition to that, I talk about the Intel Xeon offers and the network optimized SKU for it and the D line. And how it give you a very good design point for higher performance per watt. This is the code name Ice Lake that you recognize. We also have a dedicated accelerator. We launch recently or announced recently the AC100, which is ACC100, which is our dedicated accelerator for whatever correction of the layer one. That is a component, an important component in our virtualized solution, of course is FlexRAN which we’ll never have enough time to talk about FlexRAN but it’s our reference software, reference for layer one.

Layer one, as you know is the most compute intense layer in the wireless protocol stack so we have right now more than a 100 licenses. Every commercial deployment that you are seeing these day. And again, I mentioned Rakuten, Verizon did some announcement recently, and others that are either in trial or with plans to launch. Many of them are using our FlexRAN software reference software. Again, lot of offerings, a lot of excitement, a lot of anticipation on what the next few months and years are going to bring.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, it’s a ton. And we only have a few minutes and because I got to give you credit, so much detail and I love that. You can tell you’re passionately living this, Cristina. I sense it in your voice, you’re building a ton of confidence in where the direction is going. And I have to say, my analysis is the moves being made are all on the right track and the right trajectory. And it’s always been, Intel’s kind of MO to really be focused towards leadership in any market in which it serves. And of course, in the network, and in this particular space, there were a lot of legacy players. And so you’re partnering with them. You’re working side by side, but in certain areas where Intel is really focusing, you can tell it’s leaning in and saying, “We want to lead in this,” With the 5900 and what you’re doing there, the silicon and the base station.

When it comes to silicon, Intel wants to be the player whenever possible. I can sense that. I had a couple questions, but I want to consolidate it maybe to one. Partnerships across the board. We started talking about them above, but there was three others that I’d just like you to touch on. I’m going to give you all at once. Maybe if you could just tell me a little bit about each one, but you had a big partnership with Amdocs, a partnership with Verizon and then a partnership with VMware. I would love if you could just kind of give me a little bit on each of those partnerships, tell everybody out there about kind of what’s going on and how these are impacting the network.

Cristina Rodriguez: Oh, love that question because yes, I would have wanted to talk about that again. So much happening, so much to talk about it. Let’s start with Verizon. Verizon in August recently, they completed what at that point was the world’s first fully virtualized end to end 5G data station in a commercial network. And they did that through a close collaboration with Intel, Samsung and Wind River. And they are using again, our Intel Xeon products, FPGAs, ethernet adapters and our FlexRAN software asset reference. This is again, this is we’re talking about a major operator in a brownfield existing network launching or actually rather completing the first virtualizing twin 5G data sessions. Super exciting, super proud, super happy to be part of that.

You mentioned Amdocs. Amdocs is doing very cool stuff. They have a smart RANs analytics solution. What they’re basically what they’re doing is integrating that data smart RAN analytics with our FlexRAN software, and they’re adding machine learning libraries also. At the end, what they will be able to offer with this combination is giving the customer a way to flexibly and automatically configure network parameters and perform closed loop optimization of services and just the network. Super, super cool, super cool stuff.

And then you said VMware, which of course, we’re also super excited about that. Intel and VMware have a long history of collaboration and we’re just expanding that. And in this case, what we’re trying, what we’re doing is creating an integrated or collaborating in an integrated software platform that can be given to the communication service providers as a baseline platform. And by doing that, reduce development cycles and give them a mechanism to scale across multiple designs. They’re taking some of the things that we’re doing is we are collaborating to build programmable open interfaces and integrate our FlexRAN software with their RAN intelligent controller. And by doing that provide a lot of intelligent services. And especially on the 5G vertical use cases. Lot of good things going on.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, there’s so much, but I knew if we actually dug into each one, we could probably do a show per partnership. And I want to make sure you get on with your day, all our listeners have been listening and probably just have their heads full of all the things that the company is working on at Intel, when it comes to network transformation. We actually Amdocs, Yaron Sverdlov, the GM of their smart ops business on this show just recently talking a little bit about this whole cloud transformation.

Cristina Rodriguez: Oh fantastic.

Daniel Newman: How the company is moving that way, for sure. And we’re seeing this convergence. We’re seeing, and actually it’s funny because you look at Amdocs, a very traditional BSS OSS operator in the network and service provider space and then Intel, rich in silicon with a history of connecting network and even VMware, which really is more typically thought of as a cloud enabler, taking workloads from on prem into the cloud. And in you’re starting to see this ecosystem. It just, you heard it all there, the edge, the core, the cloud, the network core, the IT core, it’s all sort of becoming this one big unified family. Cristina Rodriguez, I want to thank you so much for sharing all this with our audience at the Futurum Tech podcast. Love having you, hope to have you back again soon.

Cristina Rodriguez: Thank you, Daniel. Thank you so much. It was great being here.

Daniel Newman: All right. We’ll see you soon.

Well, for everyone out there, I hope you enjoyed that. Cristina Rodriguez, Intel, what a in depth look into the network transformation business, some of the launches, the products, but also just where things are heading. What a great group of partnerships. Definitely hope you got all that. But if you didn’t, please check out the show notes. We’ll click on and give you some links to a number of those different announcements that were mentioned so that you can learn more. For this episode of the Futurum Tech Podcast Interview Series, though, I got to start to say goodbye now. Hit that subscribe button. We’d love to have you as a regular here on the show. Lots more great shows, lots more great guests. But for this show for today, for me, got to say goodbye. We’ll see you later.

Daniel Newman