Your browser is not supported. Please update it.

7 September 2021

Juniper adds deeper Intel partnership to its RIC platform

Vendors like Cisco and Juniper have important positions in the operators’ transport and data center networks but have been firmly excluded from the RAN, with the exception of WiFi, and a few short-lived base station acquisitions by Cisco (Navini, Ubiquisys …). But the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), the most novel element of the Open RAN architecture, gives them – and others, including operators like Rakuten – an entry point to the lucrative RAN market.

The RIC provides an open platform for non-real time management and orchestration tasks, but also abstracts near-real time control functions that were typically embedded in the equipment itself, or in a tightly integrated SON (self-optimizing network) product. With the RIC, the idea is that xApps from multiple vendors should be mixed and matched in an open framework that removes these highly critical activities from the base station vendor’s control and places them in the cloud.

Juniper has been particularly interested in the potential of this technology to give it a foothold in the RAN, one that could complement (or possibly complicate) its Open RAN partnership with NEC. The US firm last week shared more details about its RIC development and said it would integrate this with Intel’s FlexRAN reference platform, which has become almost a de facto standard for early vRAN and Open RAN deployments, at least where the operator has not been willing to develop everything from scratch (as some, like Korea Telecom, have tended to do).

The Juniper RIC is now in lab tests and trials with some Tier 1 operators, the company says. Like other RIC developments, the starting point is a set of O-RAN Alliance specifications and interfaces, with proprietary value-added features on top. Juniper is working with Intel to pre-integrate its RIC with FlexRAN and to develop specific applications for assorted use cases.

Jai Thattil, director of strategic technology marketing at Juniper, told SDxCentral: “We see RIC as a key component that is helping operators to monetize their 5G services.” “Even though we are not a RAN vendor, we need to build the ecosystem to showcase that our RIC will be working with different vendors as well as our customers, or the operator’s strategy.”

Juniper acquired the rights to its RIC technology via an agreement with Turkish RAN software firm Netsia early this year. It is now developing a pre-integrated RIC that it aims to position as part of an end-to-end offering along with transport and core network elements. The timing for full commercialization will be decided partly by the speed with which the O-RAN Alliance finalizes all its interfaces and APIs, a process in which Juniper claims to be taking a “leadership role”. As well as the intensified work with Intel FlexRAN, the vendor is also building joint customer solutions in Intel’s 5G Lab.

“By collaborating with Intel, we are able to deliver cloud-native routing, automation, intelligence and assurance solutions and services that are optimized for our customers’ needs, speeding time-to-market and enabling them to monetize faster,” said Constantine Polychronopoulos, VP of 5G and telco cloud at Juniper.

Juniper has established stronger credentials than some mobile market newcomers by co-developing its RIC with Netsia and an operator, Türk Telekom. Netsia, the US arm of the telco’s R&D arm, Argela, has been at the cutting edge of technologies like network slicing for several years.

The two companies claimed in January that the RIC has resulted from a “one-of-a-kind partnership between a supplier and a customer”, and one of the advantages Juniper gets from this deal is an exclusive global licensing agreement for a RIC originally developed by Netsia.

Juniper now has all the rights to Netsia’s RIC, which of course gains the potential to achieve far broader uptake than as an internal development for Türk Telekom. In return, Juniper takes on the work of developing the RIC further, and ensuring that it works optimally for Türk’s own open RAN implementation. This effort should, in theory, dovetail with evolution of a fully standardized RIC in future, but in the near term – and perhaps far longer – the criticality of RAN control, and the uniqueness of each early O-RAN operator’s implementation, are likely to involve Juniper in considerable effort specifically on Türk’s behalf.

However, it gains a captive customer – as part of the agreement (though possibly not in the full spirit of open multivendor networks) Türk Telekom has committed to purchase Juniper solutions to support its open RAN and 5G roll-out, assuming an initial proof of concept, involving Juniper’s RIC and “broader portfolio”, is successful in late 2021.

Netsia’s RIC has been in development for five years already – before it was associated with the emerging O-RAN specs – and the firm has already carried out proofs of concept and trials with several operators. It was a member of the xRAN Forum, which merged with the China-centric Cloud-RAN Alliance in 2018 to form O-RAN. It has also attracted attention for its trials with another technologically advanced Turkish operator, Turkcell – in early 2018, Turkcell conducted network slicing trials in Istanbul using Argela/Netsia’s ProgRAN platform. The near-real time RIC will be an important enabler of slicing in the O-RAN model.

Netsia/Argela have also worked with Telefónica on RAN slicing trials, running a hospital scenario in the telco’s Madrid labs, in which the RAN was optimized for different use cases, with different network requirements, simultaneously. Some of the development done for ProgRAN is being applied to O-RAN environments. ProgRAN decouples the data and control planes in the RAN, and allows operators to create, modify or terminate virtual base stations dynamically on existing base station hardware, each programmatically anchored to a corresponding core network.

Netsia has also worked with Belgian small cell provider Accelleran on a dynamically re-deployable vRAN platform. This used Accelleran’s open vRAN architecture, which supports RAN network functions in a cloud-native, microservices-based environment.