It’s hard to escape the hype around 5G but if there’s one area where industry attention is almost as palpable, it’s in the radio access network (RAN) itself. This is a considerable change given that the RAN has operated for years as a highly distributed and proprietary part of the network. However, the need for more flexibility, agility and lower costs is causing operators to think about new and different deployment options for the RAN.
One route that many are taking is to virtualize the RAN and move closer in design to the architecture that has underpinned the growth of the cloud. Rather than the network being made up of a wide array of fixed-function devices, network capabilities are virtualized and run on standardized hardware. The hardware is abstracted away though software in order to decrease cost and increase agility and efficiency.
This means network functions can be run in a container or a virtual machine in much the same way as computing functions run in data centers. Network functions are programmed in software, making it possible to use commercial off-the-shelf hardware and implement tools that were previously tied to specific hardware. The result is optimization and easy redistribution depending on the needs of the network or applications, as well as improved ability to support new services and use cases.
For 5G to deliver its promise, this broader transformation of the RAN and core network is essential. In the near term, lower latency, better uplink performance and greater efficiency will all require a shift to a dedicated 5G RAN. Indeed, the dramatic change in network loads and traffic caused by the shift to home working during the COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect illustration of the need for a more flexible and adaptable network. Operators must be able to dynamically control network capacity and prioritize traffic, particularly as 5G enables a raft of mission-critical applications.
However, this common agreement on the merits of vRAN also oversimplifies how operators are adapting and transforming their networks. Not all operators are the same with each facing different competitive pressures, priorities and customer requirements. Moreover, network architectures and spectrum assets vary wildly. Nonetheless, the exponential increase in data consumption and the need to ensure capacity is a common dynamic facing all players.
This is why we are likely to see a variety of approaches adopted in the transformation of the RAN and why it will almost certainly not be a case of “one size fits all.” Open RAN in particular is generating significant attention in that it seeks to standardize the design and functionality of hardware and software elements. It’s an important enabler of a cloudified network but virtualization is not a new concept.
There are also counter arguments to Open RAN specifically. Identification of responsibility amidst a sea of suppliers, higher operating and maintenance costs and the challenge of testing and verification are all common criticisms. Equally, the Open RAN camp levels similar arguments against legacy approaches of proprietary hardware and software. While the relative immaturity of Open RAN means its “plug and play” vision is some way off, the momentum is promising.
CCS Insight has spoken with a host of operators and key ecosystem players in recent weeks and found a wide variety of different perspectives. This points to a continuum starting with those pursuing a more traditional and decentralized approach to players such as Rakuten that are embracing a fully centralized and virtualized network. In between there are a host of operators at varying points of maturity.
Rakuten is the most advanced and claims to be the first to deploy a fully virtualized network. Moreover, it plans to use Altiostar's software to separate 5G network functions into containerized applications that will run on Intel Xeon Scalable processor-based servers. These will use Kubernetes plug-ins that enable RAN and mobile edge computing containers to be deployed on Intel architecture.
Rakuten has the unique advantage of being a greenfield network without the restrictions of a legacy architecture but is by no means alone on the virtualization path. Verizon claims it is now virtualized from its core network to the edge and a flurry of operators have made recent announcements. In an interview with CCS Insight, Santiago Tenorio, head of network strategy and architecture for Vodafone Group, said that Vodafone expects to make the first commercial deployments of Open RAN within the next two years and possibly sooner.
Telefonica announced in March 2020 that it would further an existing 4G Open RAN trial by extending it to 5G in Germany, Spain, U.K. and Brazil in 2020. In conjunction with Altiostar, Gigatera Communications, Intel, Supermicro and Xilinx, the trial will encompass the planning, design, testing, integration and deployment of disaggregated RAN systems using baseband radio functions running on Intel Xeon servers running Intel's FlexRAN reference platform. Similarly, Deutsche Telekom recently announced it is partnering with VMware and Intel to create an intelligent virtual RAN platform using Intel's FlexRAN architecture and running vRAN workloads on VMWare’s telco cloud platform.
Despite the different approaches being taken to vRAN and various phases of commercialization, the common theme is the increase in processing requirements and the importance of partners who can deliver at scale while embracing and contributing to open standards and software development. vRAN is closely following the playbook that established the cloud and its notable that Intel is playing a central role in many deployments across hardware and software.
Operators' future revenues are dependent on success with 5G, giving them a vested interest in accelerating the transformation of the network. If 5G is to achieve the promise and deliver rich capabilities at the network edge, a high-capacity and low-latency air interface is not enough. It must be accompanied by a network architecture that has the flexibility and agility to match.
Geoff Blaber is vice president of research for the Americas at CCS Insight. Based in California, Blaber heads CCS Insight’s Americas business and supports the range of clients located in this territory. Blaber's research focus spans a broad spectrum of mobility and technology, including the lead role in semiconductors. He is a well-known member of the analyst community and provides regular commentary to leading news organizations such as Reuters, the Financial Times and The Economist. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffblaber.
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