Open RAN innovation is finally coming to real-world networks, and the industry will never be the same.
Competition breeds innovation. It’s one of the big reasons communication service providers (CSPs) have advocated breaking open the closed, proprietary systems that telecommunications networks have long relied on. In some areas though, it just hasn’t been viable for multiple parties to participate. Take the radio access network (RAN).
In theory, CSPs would love to have diverse hardware and software providers compete to deliver all the different components of the RAN, and let the best vendors win—just like in other parts of the network. In practice though, the stringent timing and synchronization demands of radio signaling made openness impractical. It was just easier to have all RAN hardware and software tightly coupled in a monolithic package from a single vendor. So that’s what CSPs used—until now.
Last week, Vodafone announced they successfully tested a 5G open RAN based on O-RAN architecture and interfaces — and immediately doubled the capacity of their cell site. This was a huge win for Vodafone, for VMware, who provided the platform for open RAN, and for our partner, Cohere Technologies, who provided the solution that was key to improving cell capacity. More importantly though, it was a milestone for the industry.
Open systems and open competition in radio networks aren’t just possible, they are here. In the coming years, CSPs and their third-party software partners will bring a lot of innovation to radio access networks and to services offered to mobile subscribers and enterprises. And VMware will be right in the thick of it.
Why Openness Matters
To understand why it’s such a big deal to finally open up the RAN, we should define what we mean by “openness.” There are two broad ways in which RAN is opening up:
- The RAN hardware is opening up in a way that allows CSPs to procure the radio unit, the COTS servers for the baseband unit and the software for the baseband unit all from potentially different vendors. This is also what enables the RAN baseband to be moved from the cell site to the cloud, thereby allowing CSPs to simplify their cell-site infrastructure and benefit from the ease and agility of cloud operations.
- The software for the RAN baseband unit is opening up in a way that CSPs can procure the “intelligence”, that was earlier either embedded in or tightly integrated with the RAN baseband unit, from a variety of vendors different from their primary RAN baseband software vendors. This is what opens up the intelligence in the RAN to the larger industry ecosystem and enables the RAN to be programmed by third-party applications, thereby allowing CSPs to benefit from a much more competitive and innovative vendor ecosystem.
It’s the latter form of openness that Vodafone successfully demonstrated. For the first time, a complex piece of RAN intelligence – the intelligence needed for making Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO) work in real-world networks – was provided by a vendor different from the one that provided the rest of the RAN baseband software. Now, new vendors can provide all sorts of innovative functions for the RAN.
- Optimization applications: New software competitors can bring novel approaches to optimizing traditional RAN functions like load balancing, MU-MIMO pairing, beamforming control, etc. Fueled by increased competition and the availability of advanced computing (e.g., GPUs) in the cloud, innovations like these can significantly improve subscriber experiences and network KPIs compared to traditional RAN and help CSPs make much better use of their network and spectrum resources. (Cohere’s software belongs to this category. See the next section for more details.)
- Monetization applications: With the new open interfaces, CSPs can now even introduce completely new kinds of revenue-generating services that weren’t possible before. For example, CSPs could use third-party software to sell high-performance tiers for enterprise SD-WAN traffic backhauled over 4G/5G links. Or, they could offer highly accurate geo-localization services in areas where GPS doesn’t work well, such as factories, underground warehouses, and dense urban areas. That’s just the beginning. As more third parties bring new software innovations to the RAN, the possibilities are limitless.
- Automation applications: Software innovators can also bring new capabilities to automate management and configuration of the RAN. Using advanced algorithms and AI, they can automate tasks like PCI/ANR configuration, anomaly detection in subscriber KPIs, root cause analyses for subscriber issues and more, that help reduce OpEx and lower time-to-resolution of network and subscriber issues. In a way, this is like the cSON functions in traditional RANs but evolved to a whole new level courtesy the superior granularity of the open interfaces and the ease and agility of inserting third-party applications into the RAN.
Cohere Brings the Benefits of MU-MIMO to Life
As Vodafone’s demonstration proved, the upside of opening up the RAN intelligence can be huge. In fact, it’s hard to think of a better case to put open RAN architectures and the rationale behind them to the test than with the capabilities Cohere brings to the table.
Cohere specializes in developing novel algorithms to handle one of the toughest challenges in RAN environments: MU-MIMO pairing and precoding. As defined by 3GPP, MU-MIMO allows RANs to transmit to multiple devices simultaneously in the same time and frequency slots. This can significantly improve the capacity of the available radio spectrum— typically, a CSP’s most expensive investment. But making MU-MIMO work in real-world networks requires advanced, highly intelligent handling of those transmissions – networks must be smart about which devices they must pair for simultaneous transmissions (the problem of MU-MIMO pairing) and then how they must shape the multiple signals before transmission so each device can disentangle its own signal without perceiving interference from the signals meant for other devices (the problem of MU-MIMO precoding). Such is the challenge that even though MU-MIMO has been standardized for years, it’s almost never used in real-world networks, suggesting that the traditional RAN vendors have not been able to solve these problems satisfactorily.
Well, traditional RAN vendors may not be able to crack the MU-MIMO code, but smart, hungry startups like Cohere are betting they can. And based on Vodafone’s results, early indications suggest they’re right. This was just one early test. How many billions would CSPs save by increasing the capacity of their existing spectrum by 30-100% or more? And what kinds of new applications and user experiences would become possible as a result? We’re all about to find out.
VMware RIC: a platform for open RAN Innovation
To bring the benefits of open RAN to real-world networks, CSPs need more than just innovative third-party software – they also need a platform for that software to run on. The platform must make it possible to insert and operate many third-party applications in the RAN, abstract the underlying RAN for them, and provide open APIs to build various intelligent functions. In its reference architecture, O-RAN defined a new component for it – the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC). In fact, it defined two flavors of the RIC: a non-real-time (non-RT) RIC for the slower time scale (> 1 second) applications (rApps), and a near-real-time (near-RT) RIC for the faster time scale (10 milliseconds – 1 second) applications (xApps).
And that’s where VMware comes in. VMware is developing the Non-RT RIC and the Near-RT RIC platforms based on O-RAN specifications to help CSPs easily insert and operate novel xApps and rApps in their RAN. VMware also provides a set of developer resources to help third-party software companies like Cohere quickly develop xApps and rApps. In essence, VMware RICs offer a platform for open RAN innovation.
VMware is on a mission to enable truly open and multi-vendor RAN
VMware’s mission is to provide the world’s most-advanced and most-trusted Near-RT and Non-RT RIC platforms to CSPs and to collaborate with ecosystem partners to accelerate innovation in the RAN industry. VMware is leveraging its experience in driving similar transformations in other industries and building its RIC platforms based on a few key principles.
- Vendor neutral: Throughout its history, from software-defined datacenters to software-defined storage to software-defined networking, VMware has shown that customers benefit most, and innovation happens best when its platforms are vendor neutral. Software-defined RAN is no different. VMware believes that CSPs must have true choice and flexibility when it comes to selecting their RAN vendors. Therefore, VMware’s RIC platforms have been designed to be RAN vendor neutral and to interoperate with RAN baseband from any vendor. This also means the widest possible reach for xApps and rApps which in turn means more partners and more innovation.
- Developer first: Over the last several years, VMware as a company has invested significantly into building modern application platforms where developer experience is placed front and center. VMware’s RIC platforms are also designed using the same developer-first principles. VMware already offers several resources, and plans to offer several more resources in the months to come – SDK, starter code, demo apps, utility libraries, build and CI/CD tooling, sandbox testing, etc. – to simplify and accelerate the time to develop new xApps and rApps for its RIC platforms. Better developer experience means more developers and more innovation.
- Vibrant ecosystem: Like with any other platform, VMware believes that the success of its RIC platforms will eventually depend on the success of their apps ecosystem. Similar in many ways to Apple App Store or Google Play, VMware envisions to create a marketplace of intelligent RAN applications where it’s easy for any company to bring innovative solutions for CSPs. And unlike others in the CSP space, VMware already has a lot of experience in this aspect – through its Ready for Telco Cloud program, CSPs can already choose from more than 200 third-party virtualized and cloud-native network functions, all of which are validated and ready to deploy on its Telco Cloud Platform. VMware is creating a similar thriving ecosystem of third-party xApps and rApps for its RIC platforms.
For as long as commercial RANs have existed, the barrier to entry for new and smaller players has been insurmountable, and the pace of innovation has been among the slowest across industries. Open RAN is fundamentally changing that, and the recent Vodafone announcement is proof that open RAN has well and truly arrived. There has never been a more exciting time to work in the service provider space.
Please visit our website to learn more about VMware Telco Cloud Platform RAN and stay tuned for details about the VMware RIC.