Intel dominates early Open RAN and vRAN roll-outs thanks to its FlexRAN reference architecture, which has been part of a huge majority of operator trials and vendor developments so far. Open RAN stakeholders are open about their concerns that Intel could become a default monopoly in the processor layer, repeating its success in the ‘open’ PC platform, but so far they have had few other choices in the macro base station.
Qualcomm is working on specialized chips for radio units and distributed units and the latter could challenge Intel (or coexist with x86) depending on the scenario. Marvell has coprocessors to handle intensive tasks offloaded from the CPU in a distributed unit. Start-ups like Picocom are focused mainly on small cells.
So a broader set of chip technologies is emerging around Open RAN, but they are likely to surround Intel and FlexRAN, rather than replace it in macro RAN, at least in the short term, because of its incumbency.
While Intel may be eyeing Qualcomm and Marvell in its rear view mirror, it should also take account of Nvidia – so often its nemesis these days. The company is readying a data processing unit (DPU) called Bluefield 3, which it is positioning as a direct alternative to Intel in Open RAN (among other applications).
Bluefield 3 could be combined with a graphics processing unit (GPU), Nvidia’s speciality, on the same network interface card, to run all the baseband and other processing that currently uses x86, Ronnie Vashista, Nvidia’s SVP of telecom, told Light Reading. “It is a kind of a breakaway solution from what has become almost a standard in a new environment, which is running on x86,” he added.
This could provide a new solution for processors to run Layer 1 and 2 functions on the distributed unit, as well as Layer 2 and 3 functions on the centralized unit (also dominated by Intel). It would not use an x86 host as accelerator chips do, and so could support an Intel-free solution where required.
“There is a tremendous amount of compute intensity required in the baseband and so it lends itself to the opportunity for Nvidia, which is accelerated compute,” says Vashista, who joined Nvidia last year, having previously worked as the general manager of Intel’s network and configurable logic division.
Bluefield 3 will be based on 16 CPU cores based on the architecture of ARM, which Nvidia is hoping to acquire, although it will not come to market until the middle of next year and will have to convert at least some of the Open RAN companies that have based their software on FlexRAN, which ties them to x86, or directly for x86. Nvidia says it will offer a Layer 1 software platform called Aerial which can be combined with third party solutions for Layer 2-plus integration. Marvell has also promised reference software for Layer 1.