A New Era for Operators: One Network, Any Cloud, All Software
The fact that 5G will enable many more diverse use cases is highlighting the need to change the way networks are planned, deployed, tested and operated.
Currently, most 5G deployments are focused on overlaying 5G spectrum on existing networks. Future network architectures need to be much more flexible. Virtualization software that runs on any cloud, and use of artificial intelligence (AI) plus automation are critical if operators are to take advantage of new use cases, business models and revenue streams.
In a fully virtualized network, which includes open virtualized RAN (open vRAN), new functions can be added through software updates rather than manually configuring newly-installed hardware, and testing and integration can be accomplished quickly. With 5G, networks will evolve from scheduled releases to continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD).
CI/CD requires orchestration of multiple elements. Operators need a common toolset to coordinate functions across the end-to-end network automatically, instead of being restricted by one set of custom monitoring and operational tools for the RAN and another set of CI/CD tools for the core.
Until today, it has not been possible to connect a radio unit from one vendor to the baseband processor of another. Operators have been locked into their incumbent vendors.
Open vRAN disaggregates RAN functionality. Baseband functionality is split between virtualized Distributed Units (vDU) and Central Units (vCU). The 7.2 fronthaul specification developed by the O-RAN Alliance for the interface between Radio Units (RUs) and vDU makes interoperability between vendors a reality for the first time. As a result, new vendors are entering the growing ecosystem some of which recognize most operators have multi-generation networks. Open multi-G, fully containerized virtualized RANs supporting 2G and/or 3G, 4G and 5G are available to operators today. Depending on how standardization progresses, it is conceivable open vRAN will support the evolution to 6G, with all radio generations running off a common core.
Capable of supporting multiple architectures in a single network, open vRAN offers operators a step change in flexibility. As RAN functions can now be managed remotely, open vRAN also simplifies operations, reducing the cost of deploying and operating networks.
All these virtualized functions can be implemented on vendor-neutral commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. Great work is being done to implement advanced vDU features on standard server hardware and vDUs are now available that support high-capacity features of 4G and 5G such as Carrier Aggregation and interference coordination. Results show the performance of open vRAN can equal and, in some cases, exceed that of traditional systems.
More MNOs are increasingly looking for network and service automation solutions deployed in the cloud. The transformation has begun, whether MNOs are migrating all services to the public cloud or using it to complement their existing private clouds to better handle spikes in demand. Regardless of whether the operator’s preferred cloud strategy is public, private or hybrid, open virtualized networks offer operators a step change in flexibility: multiple architectures can co-exist within a single network. gaming, XR, et cetera, with voice over new radio (VoNR).
The RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), which controls radio resource management (RRM) in the RAN, is also driving innovation. Incorporating AI and machine learning (ML), and based on open APIs, the RIC promotes the development of applications (xApps and rApps) which allow an operator to differentiate their service offerings in previously unheard ways.
Multi-access edge computing (MEC) is a natural and powerful complement to virtualized, open networks. MEC creates a new ecosystem and value chain, enabling operators to securely open their RAN edge to authorized third-parties for innovative applications and services. AI and ML have massive potential to augment a wide variety of MEC applications to significantly lower costs for businesses or improve customer experience.
5G integrated with technologies such as AI, IoT, edge computing and software running on any cloud infrastructure will transform entire industries and societies, leading to many private network deployments using open architecture.
There are so many innovations and so many companies joining the growing ecosystem. The opportunities created by all this openness means the combined investment in this ecosystem now far exceeds that of any one vendor of proprietary solutions.
A recent survey of 156 mobile network operators commissioned by Mavenir and conducted by Mobile World Live highlighted momentum towards greater virtualization, the cloud and open RAN, finding:
“In a fully virtualized network, which includes open virtualized RAN, new functions can be added through software updates rather than manually”
- 95 percent of operators understand the importance of virtualization, while 85 percent have already virtualized some or all network functions
- 75 percent of respondents indicated an open network architecture was either critical or essential to their future strategies, with 94 percent planning to deploy open RAN within the next five years
- More than 75 percent of operators are moving towards the cloud, with 78 percent favouring a hybrid or other cloud model
- An agile, multi-generation network was cited as critical to progress by 74 percent of the operators
Operators need to work with partners which offer the relevant end-to-end, cloud-native software skills to thrive in this one network, all software, any cloud 5G era.