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The Continuing Journey to Multi-Vendor Plug-and-Play RAN

KartikSrinivasan
Employee
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Can we achieve multi-vendor plug-and-play RAN? Yes, but as with every lofty industry milestone, the journey to get there takes time, commitment, and resources.

 

The emergence of multi-vendor RAN solutions through the Open RAN (ORAN) Alliance and virtualized RAN (vRAN) deployments holds the promise to revolutionize the industry by enabling maximum flexibility, reduced total cost of ownership (TCO), and broad innovation. With the promise of new, emerging technologies and use cases, there also comes unique challenges. We’ll explore the concept of multi-vendor plug-and-play RAN, the benefits and challenges, and how this revolutionary idea is an achievable reality.

 

The multi-vendor plug-and-play approach is a game-changer

The concept of multi-vendor plug-and-play RANs signals a paradigm shift in the telecommunications industry. Unlike the conventional approach of using a single vendor's equipment and solutions, multi-vendor RANs allow network operators to mix and match components from different vendors. In this context, multi-vendor RAN is deploying one vendor’s commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) server with another vendor’s RAN software, and "plug-and-play," is the ability to integrate new hardware or software elements into the network without requiring complex configurations or extensive integration processes.

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Multi-vendor plug-and-play RANs signal a paradigm shift in the telecommunications industry and provide several benefits that promote vendor diversity, innovation, and competition.

Multi-vendor RAN boosts flexibility and agility while reducing TCO. Operators can choose the best components for specific needs, adapt swiftly to evolving network requirements, rapidly enable new business models, and stimulate competition among solution providers. This approach also encourages interoperability through open standards that can streamline network operations. Moreover, it future-proofs networks by facilitating easy component upgrade options in response to dynamic technological advancements, ensuring networks remain current with the latest hardware and software. Today, the ecosystem is in the first phase of this journey, focusing on multi-vendor deployments through wider adoption of ORAN. Once multi-vendor deployments are more widely adopted, plug-and-play capabilities become the next milestone, taking the multi-vendor approach to a new level of innovation and efficiency.

To share an example of the positive impact ORAN can have to communication service providers (CoSPs), Verizon is also seeing gains from implementing vRAN across more than 10,000 cell sites. Notably, their network operators saw a 4x increase in the number of sites receiving software upgrades in a single night. Rakuten Mobile observed faster activation and deployments along with network resiliency and improved operating efficiency.

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 ORAN has enabled faster deployments, network resiliency, and greater efficiency for Rakuten Mobile. Image from Rakuten Symphony.

 

The challenges of multi-vendor plug-and-play RAN pave the way for future innovation

The promises of ORAN and vRAN come with solvable challenges that are driving future innovation. Seamless interoperability demands ecosystem coordination, communication, and collaboration. Ensuring interoperability requires maintaining an open and standards-based ecosystem. Different vendors may have different priorities and competitive interests, making a unified vision with industry-wide standards crucial to sustaining an open and evolving ecosystem.

Because ORAN and vRAN are reasonably new to the market, there will be gaps in knowledge and expertise. This may lead to potential roadblocks or requirements that may not have been previously discovered or identified. Recognizing and addressing these challenges proactively with motivation for continuous learning can make multi-vendor plug-and-play RAN easier to adopt on a wider scale.

 

Scaling out to continuously learn and develop new ORAN and vRAN solutions

As one of the only vendors scaling out vRAN deployments, Intel is doing its part to help make ORAN easier to design, validate, and deploy. For ORAN to scale further, it needs to be as good, if not better, than traditional RAN with a robust supply chain of solutions. In Verizon and Vodafone ORAN deployments using Intel’s latest vRAN solutions, ORAN performance is approaching and, according to Samsung, exceeding the performance of legacy RAN.

We can accomplish widespread ORAN and vRAN adoption similarly to when we moved to virtualize the mobile core segment. Intel was one of the key drivers of network functions virtualization (NFV), which led to the virtualization of the mobile core. Since that milestone, virtualized 5G core has benefitted more than 80% of major CoSPs worldwide and paved the way to new innovations that reduced capital and operational expenses. Achieving virtualized 5G core requires standards, ecosystem openness, and industry collaboration to address similar challenges to what we are seeing today for ORAN. If we take the approach to virtualizing 5G core and apply it to ORAN, we can make widespread adoption a reality in less time. We did it with 5G core, and we can do it again for the RAN.

 

Democratizing ORAN with Intel vRAN solutions

In each succeeding generation of technology, Intel enables TCO improvements while increasing network capacity and reducing power consumption by offering CPU, accelerator, network, and software solutions. Having close to a decade of experience in ORAN and vRAN, Intel is a key supplier of the ecosystem.

Forward error correction (FEC) capabilities required in vRAN deployments were originally introduced as an FPGA-based accelerator and then later as an ASIC-based solution on an external card. These solutions evolved into an accelerator where the FEC feature was integrated directly into the CPU, which is now seen as Intel® vRAN Boost in 4th Gen Intel® Xeon Scalable processors.

The 4th Gen Intel® Xeon® Scalable processers with Intel® vRAN Boost provide significant improvements with 2x increased throughput using the same amount of power and further reducing compute power consumption by up to 20%. Integrating vRAN acceleration into the CPU eliminates the need for an external accelerator card, thereby reducing network complexity and improving energy efficiency and TCO.

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4th Gen Intel® Xeon® Scalable processors with Intel® vRAN Boost provide a significant improvement in TCO, throughput, and overall power consumption.

Intel is transforming RAN connectivity with Ethernet adapters that enable vRAN solutions for unique customer needs. Intel® Ethernet 800 Series Network Adapters have enhanced-timing capabilities like 1588 precision time protocol (PTP) and Synchronous Ethernet (SyncE) support that simplify network timing synchronization solutions and provide precision timing with other parts of vRAN infrastructure. Verizon, Rakuten Symphony, and Virgin Media O2 are just a few of the many service providers using Intel® Ethernet 800 Series Network Adapters for their ORAN deployments today.

Similar to the integration of vRAN acceleration in the CPU, the timing requirements typically fulfilled by separate timing appliances are integrated into the 800 Series Network Adapters, making these adapters unique to the ecosystem. Combining these Ethernet network adapters with 4th Gen Intel® Xeon® Scalable Processors with Intel® vRAN Boost achieves even greater throughput, energy efficiency, and TCO.

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 Intel® Ethernet 800 Series Network Adapters have enhanced-timing capabilities that simplify timing synchronization and provide greater timing accuracy with other parts of vRAN infrastructure.

Intel FlexRAN™ Reference Architecture is compatible with 3GPP and ORAN industry standards and supports various RAN use cases, making it a valuable component of vRAN solutions. This reference architecture introduced disaggregation of RAN software and hardware and allows computing platforms to manage baseband and transport processing. This reference architecture is based on the Intel® Xeon® processing platform with reference software that provides a complete layer 1 implementation, providing operators with a flexible and customizable framework to tailor RAN functions to their specific configurations.

Like other Intel solutions, FlexRAN™ reference architecture helps to enable network openness by supporting and promoting interoperation between equipment from different vendors. With this more cost-effective and adaptable RAN architecture, operators gain greater flexibility, scalability, and performance in their wireless networks.

 

Ecosystem collaboration to test and validate interoperability is critical to ORAN

Given the diverse landscape of vendors in the ORAN market today, making integration and interoperability easier is a critical need. Intel has collaborated with others in the ecosystem, like Vodafone, to demonstrate not only the importance of interoperability, but what is achievable and how collaboration is critical to making ORAN a reality for the ecosystem. Intel’s Connectivity Group worked with Cisco and Wind River to illustrate how we can make validation and deployment easier.

Intel takes opportunities to drive testing and validation of interoperability within the ecosystem, which allow Intel and other vendors to better anticipate new products, features, and requirements and integrate them into future solutions. Continuous integration within the ecosystem mitigates the complexity of adopting multi-vendor solutions, increases their portability, and improves the out-of-box experience for operators.

 

The reality of multi-vendor plug-and-play RANs is an achievable journey

Can we achieve multi-vendor plug-and-play RAN? Yes, but as with every lofty industry milestone, the journey to get there takes time, commitment, and resources. Stakeholders including operators, vendors, regulatory authorities, and standards organizations must work together to ensure interoperability and open standardization. This journey involves investing in readiness for ORAN deployment, developing performance-equivalent solutions, and advocating for policies that promote vendor diversity and accelerate adoption.

Partners within the ecosystem, like Intel, are dedicated to converging at the solution level to meet customer needs and foster innovation and working with the ecosystem to enable pre-integrated multi-vendor solutions. Real-world trials and proof-of-concept deployments are fundamental to demonstrating the viability and advantages of multi-vendor RAN, incentivizing broader adoption. Network operators, as definitional industry leaders, have the power to revolutionize the industry by embracing ORAN and setting an example for others to follow.

The journey of integrating new technologies and products takes time, coordination, and resiliency to address challenges, but these are the costs when innovation is the destination. At Intel, our goal is to bring a steady and predictable cadence of compute, accelerators, and software capabilities to the telecommunications ecosystem to transform it into a foundation of innovation for the marketplace. These capabilities will bring cloud native benefits to the telecommunications market and offer the benefit of “choice” to operators.

Watch the RCR Wireless News webinar, Open RAN reality check: Is a multi-vendor plug-and-play RAN really attainable? where I dive even deeper into the journey of making multi-vendor plug-and-play RAN a reality. You can also watch a Q&A session where I provide additional insight on the topics discussed during the Open RAN Global Forum 2023 panel,

Learn more about Intel’s vRAN solutions by visiting the Intel vRAN Solutions page.


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About the Author
Kartik Srinivasan is a General Manager of the Intel® Ethernet Products Division responsible for the Ethernet controller and adapter products and solutions serving broad markets including service provider, data center, and enterprise segments. He has over 20 years of experience in the world of networking, compute, storage, and acceleration products in a career spanning a variety of product design and management roles. Kartik earned an M.S. in Computer Engineering from North Carolina State University with focus on computer networking and has been associated with the field since then.