Sponsored by Intel

The growing torrent of data traffic and resulting push to build 5G and edge services are driving wider virtualization and cloudification of wireless networks. The new focus: Radio Access Networks (RANs), the key architecture that connects a host of devices to the core network, Internet, and cloud.

Over the next three years, virtual RAN deployments will help create big new revenue opportunities for carriers and industry suppliers. For enterprises and consumers, this latest convergence of computing and communications will speed delivery of transformative new services for everything from AI and IoT to autonomous vehicles, private mobile networks, and more. It’s a key link in bringing cloud power to the mobile edge.

$11 billion market by 2025

“A decade ago, communications service providers came to us with a simple but bold challenge: Drive the same sort of transformation that we drove in the data center and cloud into the world of networking,” says Dan Rodriguez, corporate vice president and general manager of Intel’s Network Platforms Group. With an estimated 50% of mobile network cores virtualized, he says, attention has turned to RANs.

Virtualized RAN (VRAN) is the fastest-growing area of cloud investment for operators, according to a new report by Analysys Mason. Spending is forecast to reach $11 billion by 2025, the firm says, a compound annual growth rate of 132%.

Cloud VRAN market projection - Analysys Mason

Above: Cloud service providers worldwide are expected to invest heavily in virtualized radio access networks (vRAN’s) over the next five years.

Big-name carriers like Verizon, Rakuten and Dish are already fielding or building virtual RANs. So are a growing number of private enterprise networks. Many others are in trials. Nearly all early commercial deployments are running on Intel technology; the ecosystem is also using Intel’s FlexRAN software reference architecture to speed deployment of cloud native, fully virtualized 4G and 5G RAN.

Here’s a brief look at what’s going on, why, and what it means to you.

Data drives multi-cloud-native nets

Like many things today, the massive transformation in network infrastructure is driven by data — current and future. Consider: An estimated 50 billion connected things are coming online in the next few years. The visual cloud will alter how we perceive reality, but requires massive new bandwidth.  Autonomous vehicles require-ultra low reliability and latency. The long list goes on. Growing data traffic means new network and radio capabilities are needed for scale and scope.

To keep up, communications and cloud providers as well as enterprises are aggressively advancing new usage and deployment models. Many are modernizing existing LTE infrastructure while preparing for expansion of 5G and edge services.

Operators are investing heavily to transform their networks into multi-cloud platforms that will maximize the benefits of rolling out 5G. Their overall spending on network cloud between 2019 and 2025 is expected to reach $114 billion (including network functions, cloud software, hardware, and professional services), according to Analysys Mason.

Evolution to fully virtualized, cloud-native offers many benefits: greater flexibility and scale, new innovation and revenue streams, and the chance to bring data center economics to the mobile network. A well-designed software stack for the core and edge – supported by hardware that lets traffic be classified, sliced, and monitored – is seen as the best way to transform networks and make them ready for 5G. Crucially, it also allows for placing more compute, network and storage closer to the source of unrelenting volume of data – devices, applications, and end-users.

“Network function virtualization (NFV) has only partly enabled the software-ization and disaggregation of the network,” writes Gorkem Yiggit, principal analyst at Analysys Mason. “The telecoms industry is now entering a new phase of network cloudification. This will require radical changes to the way in which networks are designed, deployed and operated. The digital infrastructure used for 5G will be increasingly built as horizontal, open network platforms comprising multiple cloud domains such as mobile core cloud, vRAN cloud and network and enterprise edge clouds.”

Open, multi-vendor RAN innovation

The new approach lets operators move away from the costly need to upgrade RANs by adding hardwired radio towers, base stations and antennas, with dedicated software. These hardware-based appliances limited both flexibility and the kinds of services that could be offered.

While switching to an open, software-based infrastructure running on industry-standard computing hardware makes a lot of sense, one-size of RAN virtualization does not fit all.

For starters,  5G is a heterogeneous network of many wireless technologies, so LTE, Wi-Fi, mmWave, and NB-IOT and 5G must work together seamlessly.  Usage is decentralizing, often in private networks and campuses. One of the biggest challenges is the need to support legacy devices and be back compatible. And any new solution needs to enable RAN deployment models, from access to edge.

Above: Future RANs will be based on a wide range of solutions; one size no longer fits all.

Image Credit: Intel

A wide variety of RAN solutions are available today, reflecting the diversity of form factors and models in use in the industry. But there’s near universal recognition that an open, multi-vendor approach is crucial for successful “cloudification” across cloud, core and edge networks. A new industry survey found that virtually all operators were considering OpenRAN (ORAN) for their edge and Radio Access Network; many seek lower operational costs.

Intel’s Flex RAN reference architecture has become the de facto standard for building 4G/5G RAN on industry-standard platforms. Its hardware and software enable operators to jump start vRAN development and rapidly deploy base stations at various edge and access locations.FlexRAN enables implementations for ORAN/OpenRAN/vRAN by providing optimized libraries for LTE and for 5G NR Layer 1 workload acceleration. Intel reports more than 100 licensees and is working to widen adoption across the industry and ecosystem.

DISH and Intel, for example, are building out the nation’s first virtualized O-RAN 5G deployment. Intel’s infrastructure technology is creating the foundation for the groundbreaking new greenfield network. Similarly, in September Japanese e-commerce and communications giant Rakuten lit up the world’s first all-virtual, cloud-native 5G network, also employing FlexRAN.  It’s not just new carriers. Verizon, Samsung, Wind River and Intel collaborated on the industry’s first fully virtualized 5G sessions, including virtualized RAN. Telefonica, Vodafone and other top operators plan to virtualize RANs as a crucial part of modernization and expansion.

What does it mean for enterprises?

Behind-the scenes transformations in RANs and mobile network infrastructure  won’t just help carriers improve operational costs and bring new services to market more quickly. Businesses and consumers also stand to benefit handsomely.

“Network slicing” will allow carriers and enterprises to match 5G services to diverse delivery needs across a variety of verticals and use cases including but not limited to healthcare, IOT, smart retail and Industry 4.0.

One of the biggest benefits for enterprises will be the ability to buy or build private 5G networks and connectivity. Deployed in say a retail store, factory, or stadium, dedicated 5G mid-band mobile networks offer big benefits, says Caroline Chan, general manager of 5G Infrastructure Division within Intel’s Network Platform Group. Among them: greater control, flexibility, scalability, and data sovereignty. They’re especially useful in settings too large or demanding for WiFi.

“Just think about new technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, AR/VR, advanced robotics, and the sheer amount of data being created that businesses could leverage with dedicated 5G connectivity,” says Chan.  “The 5G private mobile network and edge computing can help enterprises derive insights from massive amounts of data, go-to-market faster with new applications, deliver more real-time customized services, and enhance customer experiences with increased network performance.” They can be managed internally or by a third-party service provider.

Above: Private networks will provide data to help tenants better understand and serve customers at the American Dream entertainment complex.

Image Credit: American Dream

The American Dream, a massive retail and entertainment complex in New Jersey, is a good example of how dedicated private connectivity can help transform a business.

One of the nation’s first deployments running on the newly available Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 Ghz spectrum band, the complex has introduced a private, outdoor 4G LTE network and virtualized RAN for behind-the-scenes operations. Enabled by JMA Wireless XRAN and a 100% virtualized software baseband running on standard Intel Xeon processor-based servers, the  dedicated connectivity helps the retail tenants gather data and intelligence so they can run more efficient operations and increase sales.

Enterprises looking to add their own private networks will continue to benefit from innovation in the nascent space. Corning and Intel, for example, have announced a strategic collaboration to speed deployment of 5G in-building network solutions that can scale from small to large venues and enterprises. The companies will deliver a virtual platform for Corning’s 5G network solutions powered by 2nd generation Intel Xeon Scalable processors; Intel Flex RAN 5G and 4G Reference Software; Intel FPGA Programmable Acceleration Card N3000; and 10/25/40Gb Intel Ethernet 700 Series Network Adapters to support diverse CommSP and enterprise 5G deployments.

Continuing the RAN revolution

Industry initiatives such as the O-RAN Alliance and TIP OpenRAN made great strides in opening up RAN in 2020, says Yiggit of Analysys Mason. Continued, wide cooperation is crucial for continued cloudification and disaggregation of RAN and creation of a robust ecosystem.

Last Fall, Intel, China Mobile and Reliance Jio along with participation from China Telecom, China Unicom, Radisys, Airspan, Baicells, CertusNet, Mavenir, Lenovo, Ruijie Network, Inspur, Samsung Electronics, Sylincom, WindRiver, ArrayComm, and Chengdu NTS launched the Open Test and Integration Center (OTIC) to collaborate on multi-vendor interoperability and validation activities for O-RAN compliancy.

Meanwhile, marketplace innovation continues. VMware and Intel recently introduced a new collaboration on an integrated software platform for virtualized radio access networks (RAN) aimed at accelerating the rollout of existing LTE and future 5G networks. The platform aims to  simplify integration for communications service providers building on top of VRAN platforms, explains Rodriguez.  The goal is to build a repeatable platform that will foster a healthier ecosystem for open, virtualized RAN. And to encourage more mobile network operators to deploy these technologies at scale in large urban networks.

Concludes Rodriguez: “Transformed networks transform industries. The radio access network is an area of tremendous innovation and creativity, today and in the coming years. The RAN revolution is just beginning.”

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