One of the hopes that operators have for 5G is that it will usher in a new architecture and ecosystem, which will greatly reduce their total cost of ownership. A more open, WiFi-like network, made up of commoditized hardware running mix-and-match virtual network functions (VNFs), selected and deployed as simply as downloading smartphone apps from an app store.
That is the vision – and of course, many challenges of technology, standards, trust and vendor hostility stand in the way. But open source software and standards for VNF orchestration are slowly emerging to shift the assumptions about what a cellular network should cost. And in hardware, open source is even reaching the chip level with initiatives like RISC-V starting to infiltrate the mobile mainstream (see inset).
While the leading operators are prepared to spend R&D and consultancy dollars to achieve heavily customized, optimized networks, many others lack the funds or willingness to deploy a hand-crafted solution. Some now see the end-to-end, turnkey solutions of the big OEMs as hard to justify too and are looking for disruptive providers of offerings with a far lower TCO.
There are three main elements to this on the hardware side. One, a network that is increasingly dense and made up of smaller parts lends itself to commoditized, WiFi-style products. Small cells, micro-servers for the edge and white boxes for switching and routing are all ushering in disruptive providers with new cost and profit norms.
Two, industry initiatives like Telecom Infra Project (TIP) are heavily focused on delivering open blueprints for hardware elements from small cells to MIMO antennas, which can be adopted by any vendor and support full interoperability.
And three, the reference design. This is an important aspect of any low cost value chain. An important driver of affordable handsets, it will also be an increasingly important part of the 5G network infrastructure process. It allows companies to create products quickly because the main work of design and pre-integration of components has been done, resulting in far lower development costs and time to market.
This ready-to-bake approach has served the WiFi ecosystem well, bringing the economies of scale of the Taiwanese ODM community, in particular, into play in wireless networks. For the cost of 5G to make sense to margin-squeezed operators, especially in emerging economies, the trend needs to become more mainstream in 5G too.
This was highlighted at last week’s MWC Shanghai event by Altran, which announced a collaboration with Dutch chip company NXP and base station software specialist ArrayComm to create a 5G RAN reference design. This is based on Altran’s 5G gNodeB software framework for central and distributed units within a virtualized RAN; pre-integrated with ArrayComm’s 5G physical layer (PHY) software on an NXP system-on-chip, the ARM-based LayerScape LX2160A.
Altran said OEMs and equipment providers can use the design to develop 5G base stations for sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave spectrum in 5G NR Non-standalone (NSA) or Standalone (SA) modes.
Its software framework contains 3GPP-specified Layer 2 and 3 capabilities, as well as scheduler and radio resource management applications that can be pre-integrated with multiple vendors’ PHYs.
“Through this collaboration Altran, NXP and ArrayComm have set a new industry benchmark for SoC-based 5G RAN solution performance,” claimed Altran’s chief engineering officer, N Mohan Rangan. “The flexible architecture of the solution enables OEMs to meet capacity requirements for single and multi-carrier 5G deployments around the world.”
ArrayComm’s Layer 1 software includes acceleration capabilities for demanding RAN functions and baseband processing libraries and can support 3GPP-compliant options for splitting the network functions between central and distributed units – including one of the great hopes of the open RAN supporters, Split option 7.2x, which is the basis of the ORAN Alliance’s would-be standard for mix-and-match disaggregated RANs.
Xin Huang, president of ArrayComm, said: “Our joint solution reduces risks in integration significantly and enables customers to go to market quickly.”
The first publicly announced adopter of the reference framework is Shenzhen Fu Hua Ke (FHK), a subsidiary of giant electronics manufacturer Foxconn. FHK is part of the Foxconn Industry Internet (FII) division, which was set up to expand the parent’s business model beyond contract manufacturing and assembly of devices like the iPhone, and into higher value equipment and services. It is particularly focused on 5G, edge computing and Industrial IoT systems, and on taking a leading role in applying the mass market manufacturing model to these emerging platforms, developing new products for Foxconn itself and for external customers.
FHK said its partnership with Altran would enable it to develop turnkey 5G access solutions with much reduced development and deployment time, while supporting a range of service and scalability requirements and deployment splits.
“Given the variety of use cases and applications that 5G supports, we are eager to partner with industry leaders like Altran, which have the expertise to develop reliable, robust and interoperable 5G solutions,” said Wei Luo, CEO of FHK. “The collaboration with Altran enables us to develop solutions for operators to seamlessly scale, maximize bandwidth spectrum and enhance subscriber quality of experience.”
A second adopter was also announced in Shanghai – local vertical industry network deployer Ruijie Networks, which is developing specialized mobile solutions for use cases such as virtual reality classrooms and railway applications and is established in the government, education, financial services and transport sectors.
“Ruijie was looking for a 5G partner for building innovative 5G product portfolio to support multiple domains including public 5G, robot scheduling for factory, rail transit and education,” said Rangan. “Because Altran’s 5G RAN Framework is pre-integrated, it dramatically cuts development costs and time to market, and is flexible to support many use cases.”
Meanwhile, solutions like this will be important to achieve the scale economics envisaged for the emerging open RAN platforms including ORAN and TIP’s OpenRAN. At MWC Shanghai. Altran and Lenovo demonstrated a virtualized RAN solution based on ORAN specifications for the fronthaul links between the centralized baseband unit (BBU) and the remote radio unit (RRU). This link urgently requires a fully standardized, open protocol – rather than the semi-proprietary CPRI of today – if disaggregated 5G RANs are to be interoperable and therefore affordable.
The demo used Altran’s 5G gNB virtualized central unit, running on general purpose servers, and its ETSI-compliant VNF management software. These worked with Lenovo’s Cloud OS virtualization and orchestration platform.
Lenovo’s virtualized infrastructure management (VIM) acts as the cloud operating system, orchestrating multiple servers as a single distributed system.
“Altran is an active member of the O-RAN Alliance and is committed to ensuring that its gNB solution is aligned with the Alliance’s principles of building open and smarter virtualized networks that are embedded with machine learning systems to make the network more intelligent and autonomous,” said N Rangan.
This VNF manager can be integrated with VNFs from many vendors or operators as well as third party orchestrators. Its policy engine correlates key performance indicators from different VNFs and VIMs to perform policy actions across data center and edge locations.
Lenovo’s Cloud OS supports multiple networking interfaces, high performance data plane, and rapid fault detection and recovery. The Chinese firm is co-chair of the ORAN Alliance’s Cloudification and Orchestration working group.