UPDATED 20:13 EST / DECEMBER 18 2020

CLOUD

Meet OpenRAN: open architecture at the convergence of 5G, cloud native and the edge

Not since the commercialization of the internet in 1994 have we seen a maelstrom of disruptive innovation like the one pounding on our shores today. And yet, in contrast to the mid-1990s rise of the internet that led to the singular dot-com boom, today’s disruption comes in diverse forms.

The rise of cloud-native computing promises extraordinary dynamism and scalability of hybrid enterprise infrastructure. The “internet of things” seeks to connect anything and everything to, well, everything else. 5G promises not only blisteringly fast mobile connectivity, but an extraordinary improvement in latency and performance for the IoT and the rest of the edge computing landscape.

This whirlwind of disruption, however, represents an extraordinary effort in convergence. The previously divergent worlds of enterprise information technolgoy and telecommunications operations are now colliding with explosive force.

At the eye of this storm: the open, standards-based architecture OpenRAN.

What is OpenRAN and why is it so important?

RAN stands for radio access network – the software and hardware that enable mobile telephony operators to provide wireless connectivity services to the public.

Throughout the various generations of RAN – 2G, 3G and today’s 4G LTE – RAN technologies have been largely proprietary. “In a traditional RAN, hardware components and software code are tightly coupled, and interfaces do not support interoperability between different vendors,” explains the website of Mavenir, one of the leaders in the OpenRAN market. “That means nearly all the equipment comes from only one, closed supplier.”

To address this problem, the broader telecom industry has been looking for a way to avoid problematic vendor lock-in as it moves to 5G. “For decades, operators have been ‘locked in’ to legacy RAN vendors, like Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia, because these suppliers not only provide the hardware but also the software that controls it,” says Danielle Royston, public cloud evangelist at TelcoDR. “This is why the industry has gotten so excited by the promise of OpenRAN, an initiative to create multi-vendor, software-based RANs, run on general-purpose hardware.”

Three vendors in particular are looking to disrupt this lock-in status quo. “Mavenir, Altiostar and Parallel Wireless are very focused on bringing OpenRAN technology to market with no overhead,” says  John Baker, senior vice president of business development at Mavenir. “This can be done with far less people at far lower costs to disrupt the marketplace.”

OpenRAN offers two essential value propositions: an open architecture that allows customers to mix and match components from different vendors, and a virtualization layer that separates OpenRAN software from now general-purpose hardware that supports it.

If this virtual RAN or “vRAN” sounds like something you’d get from cloud-native infrastructure, you’re on the right track.

“Disaggregating RAN software and hardware in Cloud RAN [Ericsson’s term for OpenRAN] has the potential of independent innovation on software and hardware,” Eric Parsons, Ericsson’s vice president and head of the Cloud RAN product development unit, and Gabriel Foglander, Ericsson’s strategic product manager, said recently. “However, simply forklifting existing 5G RAN software to a COTS platform is not enough. To really realize the value of Cloud RAN one needs to embrace cloud-native architecture. Cloud-native architecture facilitates RAN functions to be realized as microservices in containers over bare metal servers, supported by technologies such as Kubernetes.”

Since the OpenRAN story depends upon cloud-native computing, it empowers enterprises as well as telecom operators to leverage the architecture for their own uses. “With OpenRAN, either enterprises or telcos can buy components from different vendors and deploy them separately on a cloud-native platform,” according to Dr. Vikram Saksena, vice president of cable markets for NetScout Systems Inc. (* Disclosure below.)

Private 5G and the enterprise

What, then, would a typical enterprise want to do with OpenRAN on its cloud-native infrastructure? The most immediate answer: private 5G.

Since OpenRAN fosters an ecosystem of vendors producing both the hardware and software components for a 5G deployment, buying the gear to support a private 5G network isn’t that different from building a corporate Wi-fi network. “With OpenRAN, you can buy the access points yourself,” explains Zahid Ghadialy, senior director of technology and innovation strategy for Parallel Wireless Inc.

The result is an entirely new economic model for private 5G networks. “Open RAN is creating a new ecosystem founded by wireless service providers that also includes traditional and emerging network equipment suppliers,” according to a blog on the Samsung web site. “The ecosystem participants are committed to evolving radio access networks in ways that could change the economics of building and running mobile networks.”

Private 5G combines the best of public 5G and Wi-Fi, empowering organizations of all sizes to build out innovative edge computing offerings with better performance and latency than either Wi-Fi or 4G LTE can offer. These technologies open up new possibilities for, say, near real-time control of factory equipment and autonomous vehicles, or vastly superior in-stadium apps for sporting events than Wi-Fi can support.

Perhaps the most important aspect of OpenRAN-empowered, cloud-native private 5G is the separation of concerns between application workloads and the underlying infrastructure they run on.

In other words, the RAN itself becomes programmable. “RAN programmability is essentially the capacity to tailor the behavior and performance of the RAN through applications with access to multi-domain information,” Ericsson’s Parsons and Foglander said. “This will also open up the RAN environment to a broader ecosystem and allows developers to build applications completely independently from innovations in the RAN domain. This unlocks new innovation value.”

The true scope of possibility, however, is limited only by the imagination. “5G will require the launch of new services and new application use cases, some of which we know, some we don’t,” opines Anil Bhandari, vice president of product management at Altiostar Networks Inc.

The clouds take notice

Given the fact that cloud-native architectures underlie enterprise OpenRAN deployments, it’s no surprise that the major cloud service providers or CSPs are rolling out OpenRAN-based services. “OpenRAN makes it easier for cloud players to run the back-end OpenRAN cloud-native platform on their clouds,” NetScout’s Saksena explains.

In fact, even though 5G will take a few more years to roll out completely, the time is now for the CSPs to get in the game. “When there is a new innovation in software, such as OpenRAN, it’s not too long before the sharks start sniffing blood,” continues TelcoDR’s Royston. “Almost any type of software service can be hosted in the public cloud, provided it’s secure and fast enough. OpenRAN is undoubtedly going to have a huge impact on the telecoms industry, but it is still some time before the technology has a widespread impact. This period of transition is one of the big reasons why there is potential for the hyperscale cloud providers to turn the industry on its head.”

The telecom operators stand to benefit from standard cloud value propositions of scalability and reduced capital expenditures, specifically for management functionality. “By both delivering the OpenRAN management software, and hosting the RAN network software together, public cloud providers could become a very valuable partner to the telcos,” Royston adds. “They can become a single service provider that can be held completely accountable for the software element of the RAN.”

Parsons and Foglander from Ericsson agree. “Cloud RAN management is not just about managing hybrid network functions in RAN, but also about bringing cloud-native principles, programable networks and model-driven management and orchestration systems,” they say. “This brings key values needed in 5G networks such as automation, flexibility, faster time to market, managing complex networks, and better customer experience.”

The telecommunications mind shift

Because OpenRAN essentially commoditizes the RAN infrastructure, the mobile operator’s value-add must be at the application layer. For telecoms that have historically thought of themselves as connectivity providers, this application-centricity heralds a new way of thinking about their business.

In fact, this shift will help break down organizational silos as the operators proceed with their respective digital transformations. “Operators today have silos, for example, the telecom operations team is separate from IT,” Altiostar’s Bhandari continues. “Now, operators are moving to a cloud-based architecture that offers a unified platform on common hardware. As a result, the silos are blurring. Operations is now based on applications.”

The big win for the operators, however, are the top-line benefits of 5G. “5G is an opportunity for operators to look at new business models and new revenue streams,” the Altiostar website explains. “The network is taking on different characteristics depending on the user application: very high bandwidth for mobile broadband or fixed-wireless-access, large number of devices for massive IoT or ultralow latency for real-time applications, like virtual reality or gaming.”

These oft-touted benefits of 5G, however, rely on more than the 5G rollout itself. Now that cloud service providers are tackling OpenRAN infrastructure and enterprises are leveraging OpenRAN to build out their own private 5G networks, the full transformative power of the cloud-native/edge/5G maelstrom becomes clearer – with OpenRAN at the eye of the storm.

Jason Bloomberg is founder and president of Intellyx, which publishes the Cloud-Native Computing Poster and advises business leaders and technology vendors on their digital transformation strategies. He wrote this article for SiliconANGLE. (* Disclosure: NetScout is an Intellyx customer. None of the other organizations mentioned in this article is an Intellyx customer.)

Image: mohamed_hassan/Pixabay

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