Nokia and Huawei have both recently been investing significantly in their own infrastructure chips. In an era when hardware is commoditizing and operators want open platforms, there are two key areas of differentiation and therefore value – the silicon and the software will make those open networks perform at the same level as yesterday’s dedicated ones, but with far greater agility and cost-effectiveness.
So Huawei has chips for everything from ARM-based cloud servers to base stations to handsets; while Nokia has pushed the limits of router chip performance with its FP4 product and, while it has a close partnership with Intel for cloud hardware for networks, it is extending the range of its own silicon too, with Reefshark.
The latest addition is a family called Quillion, which is targeted at high end fiber networks for backhaul, transport or access, and particularly to work alongside 5G in the converged platform of the future.
“In a 5G world, consumers will expect a gigabit experience regardless if they are at home or on the go,” said Sandra Motley, president of fixed networks at Nokia. “Our Quillion chipset is designed to deliver gigabit broadband to every home, using broadband technologies like fiber to complement 5G in massive scale access networks.”
The chipsets are designed to support any variety of PON (passive optical network) and so allow for smooth migration from, for instance, GPON to NG-PON. Nokia claims the chipset is particularly differentiated by support for the low latencies required by 5G use cases, and support for multi-network slicing. It can also support new generation copper technologies – G.fast and Vplus.
This is just the latest move by Nokia to retain control and value in its hardware. Reefshark, for instance, was announced in early 2018, initially as a component of the AirScale 5G-ready base stations, but with a remit to evolve to run a wider range of applications, including recent launches in edge servers.
By investing in these processors, Nokia is creating a broad integrated platform which can be targeted at webscale and data center giants, as well as telcos. It is also setting its cap against the merchant chip vendors, most notably its close ally Intel, which also has visions of an architecture to power the virtualized carrier and webscale networks of the future.
The hallmarks of 5G RAN – virtualization, Cloud-RAN, Massive MIMO, ultra-density, ultra-low latency and what Deutsche Telekom calls “brutal automation” – have one thing in common. They all require massive compute power. That means processors and accelerators will remain a source of high value and differentiation in the network, and far harder for others to challenge, or operators to replace, than a clever piece of software.
This is why Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft all work on inhouse processor projects, because they are similarly reliant on driving ever-higher levels of compute performance, at lower cost and power consumption, into their platforms. Nokia’s telco customers will face the same challenge, and if Nokia cannot deliver those capabilities, there will be one more reason to move one’s virtualized network to run in the AWS cloud.
Even if that proves to be the end game, Nokia will still have a strong role in the value chain if it can continue to drive the physical elements, like the antennas, and even provide the processors to the webscale giants, as it hopes to do with the FP4, which powers ‘petabit routers’.