There’s been a big trend the last several years to disaggregate hardware from software in data centers and in telco clouds. Now, the Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) Alliance basically aims to do the same thing in the radio access network (RAN).
Sachin Katti, a professor at Stanford University and co-chair of the O-RAN Alliance technical steering committee, said the goal of RAN virtualization is to run software on top of x86 or Arm-based hardware, instead of proprietary hardware. “You should be able to run the software on different hardware,” said Katti.
While antennas are obviously an important part of the RAN, Katti said the baseband unit (BU) within the base station has a “big software component.” And he said, “It is the software here taking in radio waves and digitizing them or vice versa. There’s very complex software doing signal processing for 5G wireless. Historically, this software works on proprietary hardware.”
T-Mobile’s CTO Neville Ray explained it similarly when he described the work of open source groups such as O-RAN. “They’re trying to disaggregate the physical radio from the baseband, which is the brain that drives the radio activity,” said Ray.
O-RAN is also working to create open interfaces and decouple the control plane from the user plane, similar in principle to software-defined networking. “We are trying to let the radio antenna come from one vendor, and the data processing could come from another vendor,” he said. “This is called the front-haul interface.” The group breaks it all down in a technical white paper, entitled “O-RAN: Towards an Open and Smart RAN.”
O-RAN's industry support
The O-RAN Alliance is committed to evolving radio access networks, and it’s gotten a lot of support from carriers. Currently the following providers belong to O-RAN: AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DOCOMO, Orange, Bharti Airtel, China Telecom, KT, Singtel, SK telecom, Telefonica and Telstra, Reliance Jio, TIM, and Verizon, Dish, KDDI, Sprint, SoftBank.
Similarly, a list of well-known wireless vendors have joined the group. The only notable exception is Huawei, which has not yet become a member of O-RAN. Of Huawei, Katti said, “I don’t know why they have not joined yet. This is an operator-driven body with the goal to open up the RAN. Every vendor has to decide whether that makes sense for them.”
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The group is also in the process of joining the Linux Foundation as a hosted open source project. O-RAN announced its work with the Linux Foundation in December 2018, but it’s still in the process of formalizing that relationship.