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5 March 2019

MWC19: The big three focus on deployability, with baby steps to cloud-native 5G

Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia all spread their announcements and demonstrations over two weeks, holding physical or virtual preview events the week before for analysts and then topping up the news on their huge stands in Barcelona (or in Huawei’s case, five stands). ZTE was surprisingly buoyant given the challenges of last year and the threats of further sanctions in this one; while Samsung was throwing everything at its attempt to become a major network vendor in the 5G era, with its US deployments, its millimeter wave expertise and the uncertainties about Chinese suppliers all making this the best opportunity ever for it to take significant market share outside South Korea.

Here we select a few significant highlights for the three biggest vendors (by no means a comprehensive list of all their many announcements), though they will all have been aware that, as the operators move towards cloud-native cores and edge computing, the real threats may come from Cisco and HPE. Analysis of those two companies’ 5G strategies, plus of Samsung and ZTE, will follow in subsequent issues.

This was not a year of big news stories and grand technical breakthroughs – the industry needs the next release of standards to start pushing the technology boat again. Instead, the large OEMs were addressing the key question of how they can help their customers take the 5G plunge. Many MNOs will put up a few base stations in congested but highly visible city areas and claim they have 5G. That will scarcely help the vendors’ balance sheets, despite the good PR – they need the operators to move steadily, and soon, to large scale, and they are well aware that most of the MNOs remain cautious about that, as they wait to see how key enablers like open RAN, virtualized RAN, and cloud-native core work in reality.

Ericsson:

 

Ericsson highlighted repeatedly how its star product, the Ericsson Radio System (ERS) has been 5G-ready since 2016. It has certainly driven a large proportion of the Swedish firm’s network sales and contributed to the steadying of the ship during 2018. For 2019, Ericsson added nine new radios to its line-up (it releases about 100 variants per year). These included three dual-band and one triband macrocells, a street-level microcell (mini-macro as Nokia calls them) and four TDD macrocells. There are various levels of MIMO supported from 4T4R to 64T64R.

One important development, although one where Ericsson is playing catch-up with Huawei, was the announcement of active software sharing between LTE and 5G NR in the same band. This provides more efficient and flexible spectrum usage, aids refarming, and allows the lower bands to be harnessed as coverage layers using LTE, 5G or a combination; while improving the coverage of the higher bands too.

Like its rivals, Ericsson was keen to stress its tally of 5G trials and contracts to date. Arun Bansal, president of Europe and Latin America, said there are 10 commercial agreements with operators in place – four in the USA, four in Europe and two in Asia-Pacific. This compares with Huawei’s claim of 30 commercial contracts – 18 in Europe; nine in the Middle East; and three in Asia-Pacific. Meanwhile, Nokia said it had 20 commercial 5G deals, but did not break them down by region.

But few question Ericsson’s radio expertise, even if some of its promises of simple software upgrades to full 5G remain largely untested. Where it needs to prove itself in in the virtualized and cloud-native architectures which will make 5G substantially different from 4G, in a way that a new, but still OFDM-based, radio will not. That means strong positioning against the more software-centric Nokia; the heavy, China Mobile-inspired cloud investments of Huawei and ZTE; and the door that cloud-native provides for Cisco and HPE to take more of the core business.

On these fronts, Ericsson said it has started to roll out a portfolio which provides operators with full flexibility about where they site physical computing resources to support virtualized RAN; and how they split the RAN baseband functions between central and site-based, and between virtual network functions (VNFs) in the cloud and physical network functions in the radio/antenna unit.

The company also announced its first vRAN to support one of the higher layer splits defined by 3GPP (which offers eight options) – this involves a virtual central baseband unit (BBU)  running on COTS hardware and including the majority of the network functions; combined with a new virtual packet processor that moves data traffic to be processed higher up in the network, reducing the workload of the BBU.

As for the core, Ericsson showed off a new dual-mode cloud-based 5G core which can support Non-Standalone and Standalone 5G radios in parallel. It claims this is fully cloud-native, though as with all the C-N cores that were showcased in Barcelona, that needs to be tested. When pressed, most vendors agree they are on a journey from first generation virtualization based on virtual machines, to a C-N architecture with software decomposed into microservices and containerized. An important development is to expose more APIs (application programming interfaces) to business partners, to support enterprise services and, eventually, network slicing.

Ericsson also announced an upgrade to last year’s Evolved Dynamic Orchestration, which now enables faster and more frequent launches of new software and services by operators. The Ericsson Orchestrator now includes closed-loop automation which adds intelligence by harnessing AI-based service assurance, courtesy of the recent acquisition of CENX, whose technology monitors slices against agreed KPIs, and then gets the orchestrator to make necessary adjustments.

Patrick Weibel, head of 5G at Swisscom, told LightReading: “Ericsson’s dual-mode 5G Cloud Core allows for the flexible evolution of our 4G Core network to a combined 4G and 5G network while maintaining cost efficiency. Adding to this, the evolved Ericsson Dynamic Orchestration solution bring us the automation of network slices required to reduce our provisioning time of services from weeks to hours.”

Huawei:

Huawei had a wide array of announcements before and during the show, adopting its usual nose-to-tail approach, from antennas to RAN, core to cloud – though it is noticeable how little common cause there is between the company’s carrier and enterprise businesses. Like many operators, the firm seems to fail to leverage what could be a key advantage, given how enterprise-focused many of the most promising 5G models look to be.

However, Huawei shone in many technical areas, making it clear that operators’ fear of being prevented, thanks to security and trade wars, from selecting the vendors’ kit is not only about encouraging price competition, but also having access to some genuinely advanced technologies, in areas such as Massive MIMO, network automation and flexible spectrum usage (Huawei’s CloudAIR, launched in 2017, remains, in our view, one of its crown jewels and potentially of huge significance when it is applied to 5G bands in future).

Another Huawei Group activity which could help differentiate the carrier business is the HiSilicon chip subsidiary – and in this case, there are signs it is being leveraged more directly to give the vendor greater control of key technologies for the base station and cloud, as well as to reduce its reliance on external, particularly US, semiconductor providers, as trade wars continue to rage. Earlier in the year, Huawei announced a cloud server processor based on ARM cores, a significant morale boost for the so-far underwhelming push of the ARM architecture into Intel’s server heartland. Now the Chinese firm has announced a new base station chip whose biggest differentiator, the vendor says, is to reduce power. This is important, and an issue on which Huawei has focused more publicly than its rivals. In the early days of its development, power efficiency was touted as one of the reasons to move towards 5G in future. However, as 5G network architectures have densified and become very reliant on high order MIMO, there are genuine concerns that, while individual base stations may be more power efficient, the total power consumption of all the cloud servers, small cells and antennas will be very expensive, in financial and green terms.

A lot of Huawei’s conversation was about deployability – reducing the size, complexity and power demands of cell site equipment in order to smooth the path to implement dense networks. This tuned in well with the overall emphasis of this year’s MWC on practical issues of cost, deployability and quality assurance, as commercial 5G looms for many MNOs.

One example of Huawei’s push for more compact, easily implemented technology was a range of 5G antennas, supporting 32T32R or 64T64R MIMO, which were far lighter and smaller than most on the market, whether from OEMs or independent antenna providers. Huawei also showed off a rural site solution with solar power and a very compact satellite backhaul module.

And the flagship in its key message of simpler, more deployable networks was the new  Super Blade Site, which also aims to ease roll-out in dense urban areas with a modular, mix-and-match approach encompassing  remote radio units (RRUs), active antenna units (AAUs), power, battery and microwave backhaul elements. The outdoor equipment is designed to be installed on existing infrastructure with no need for new cabinets or equipment rooms. Huawei claims it requires zero footprint and so cuts out high rental fees, energy costs and complex operations and maintenance costs.

All these physical units can be coordinated by a newly enhanced Element Management System (called the MAE – MBB Automation Engine), which sits as a cloud instance between the physical wireless network, and the network automation and orchestration layer. It only works with Huawei’s RAN elements, but it will have open interfaces to third party orchestrators above.

Peter Zhou, CMO of Huawei Wireless Solutions, said that “5G will witness unprecedented rapid development. Huawei is dedicated to taking complexity and creating simplicity. We are eager to make 5G deployment efficient and convenient through systematic innovation, helping 5G enter the fast track.”

Huawei demonstrated virtualized RAN with various functional splits between physical and virtual. But in a show where there was so much buzz around open RAN interfaces and fully cloud-native networks, it clung stubbornly to its own chips and hardware. In the latter category, it introduced several new products, including a baseband board with souped-up computational performance, geared to highly automated distributed networks.

Multiple executives were clear that a COTS server would not be able to handle RAN workloads – though in that, even Intel agrees, and has leveraged its new FPGA resources and other accelerators to come up with its own base station platform this year. The industry is moving towards hardware for RAN which is relatively specialized, with the processor offloading various tasks to accelerators. But that can still be based on a common multivendor platform – something Huawei is clearly resisting.

It said its homegrown, optimized (and proprietary) processors delivered a tenfold improvement in power consumption compared to a vRAN solution based on x86, as well as better latency and jitter. Huawei has also followed Nokia into providing its own RF base station chipset with Tiangang. Nokia has ReefShark, while Samsung also introduced a similar solution with its mmWave RFIC and digital/analog front end ASICs, for networks in the 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands.

Nokia:

Nokia has a history of being more software-driven than its close rivals, and more willing to embrace the emerging world of disaggregated networks and open ecosystems. It had the usual array of radios and antennas on its stand, but its emphasis was more heavily on cloud core and RAN, with some of the enablers of those relying on open technologies.

Nokia also had a stronger story for an end-to-end performance hike in the 5G era because of its optical and transport assets, and its ReefShark and router processors. It has repeatedly said that 5G is not really a mobile network, since all the performance it promises can only be enabled by dense, high caliber and fully integrated fiber.

Like its main competitors and Cisco, Nokia was showing off a shiny new packet core and claiming to be fully cloud-native. The company said its platform “fleshes out cloud native, which for us includes software disaggregation, appropriate use of microservices, a common data layer for state-efficient core network functions. And it gives the ability to deploy physical and virtual network functions with no false choices.”

The core network can be fully decentralized and, in distributed form, can be integrated with edge compute on enterprise premises, as well as in the cloud. This approach adds to Nokia’s strong roadmap for enterprises – network-as-a-service, slicing, private cellular and the cloud packet core are all important elements. So far, Nokia portrays them as tools for its operator customers to use to pursue new business models for industrial, enterprise and IoT clients, but it would only be a small step for the Finnish company to sideline the MNOs and pursue those opportunities directly.

“A decentralized core network will be critical for unleashing potential for 5G for things like network slicing and if you not have that then you cannot offer a wide range services with guaranteed QoS,” said Nokia.

On the RAN side, it introduced additional options in terms of the functional split between centralized, virtualized baseband resources and physical, cell site functions. Nokia’s first Cloud-RANs were based on a higher layer split, with most of the functions still implemented physically, in shared or individual cell site baseband units. Now it has an ‘all in the cloud’ option, which virtualizes more layers of functionality in the central cloud, and leaves only the lowest layers on the physical unit – mainly those that require low latency response. Whatever the split the operator chooses, the whole network is deployed on Nokia’s AirScale infrastructure, which includes cloud servers, edge nodes and physical baseband platforms.

Nokia – like Huawei – is trying hard to retain its hardware revenues, even if these will fall amid the shift to relatively commoditized servers. One day these vendors’ RAN and core VNFs may run on third party or white box hardware, but they are clearly trying to ensure that is a distant prospect, particularly by playing on operators’ legitimate concerns about entrusting the hugely demanding workloads of the RAN to non-specialized hardware.

Other notable launches from Nokia included an expanded indoor small cell range, with a millimeter wave pico RRH (remote radio head) that can be deployed on an existing DAS (distributed antenna system) or connected to a Nokia AirScale smart hub in a centralized RAN configuration.

CEO Rajeev Suri said: “We believe that there will be a virtuous circle of investment as networks are upgraded to meet the demands of 5G and Nokia has the right portfolio at the right time to meet that need.”