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Everything is connected. But that may have been truer during this year’s Mobile World Conference than anywhere else! As might be expected, mobile and connectivity were popular topics, especially on the lines of Open RAN and vRAN. But what do those terms actually mean? How are they connected? (How are they not.) And how do they connect with other technological innovations—those hot off the press, and those still in the future?
We talk to two people who were there at MWC, and who have a lot of expertise between them in the mobile and connectivity space (Video 1). Randy Cox is the Vice President of Product Management Cloud and Industry Verticals at mission-critical intelligent systems software provider Wind River; and Brandon Lewis is Editor-in-Chief of Embedded Computing Design.
What are some of the trends around Open RAN and vRAN?
Brandon Lewis: Networks have become incredibly complex systems over the course of time, and so network equipment manufacturers have been supplying these highly integrated proprietary solutions—a lot of different components that make up a network, with a lot of accelerated, specialized hardware and software stacks. And as we move into 5G—which is about providing more bandwidth and higher capacities and really pervasive connectivity everywhere—that really needs to be able to scale.
This is where this concept of Open RAN (Radio Access Network) comes in. It’s really designed around using commodity hardware, commodity servers and platforms, and open interfaces so that you can put different software on top of it. And then the vRAN, or virtualized RAN, part of it runs a lot of those specialized functions that used to be in hardware as software functions. With it, you’re going to be able to scale your networks much further, and get a lot more flexibility out of the stack and a lot more players into the ecosystem.
Randy Cox: But in one sense, vRAN is not about ORAN. The existing incumbents, for example, could do a virtualized network today without it being an open network. ORAN is an architecture, a disaggregated network where you have open interfaces that multiple vendors can participate in and then serve those different network elements. It just so happens that the O-RAN specification does include a virtualized RAN.
As Brandon said, traditional vendors in the telecom space, like Nokia and Ericsson, have typically provided custom hardware, custom software—proprietary equipment for the carriers that provided a very specialized and costly solution, and which required the carriers to stick with those vendors for longer periods of time. And Open RAN really disaggregates the network and allows new players to enter the market, which drives down cost and drives up innovation and flexibility in terms of picking the best-in-class type of suppliers.
Then the O-RAN Alliance is an organization for the ecosystem where all of the vendors and operators that want to, participate: to define the spec, to do plugfests, and to align in different activities in order to proliferate an ORAN-type architecture and accelerate it into the market as soon as possible.
And this focus on vRAN and ORAN is mainstream now; it isn’t just investigation or feasibility analysis any longer but real planning for execution. This means more detailed customer and partner discussions and plans, and more RFPs being executed at this time. If you were at MWC, you would not have missed the focus on vRAN and ORAN.
How is Wind River addressing telecom’s need for scale and flexibility?
Randy Cox: One is our single-core capability on Sapphire Rapids, the 4th Generation of the Intel® Xeon® platform. Prior to December of last year, our cloud platform solution basically took up two cores on a single server. We optimized that down to a single core, which is obviously a 50% reduction in terms of the resource usage on a given server. It has great capabilities for the application or workload that’s being performed on our platform.
The second topic, which is also a very hot one in the industry right now, is around energy efficiency. We’ve been working very closely with Intel, as well as a couple of other partners, to reduce the amount of power consumption being used at a cell site. We are now stepping into the next phases of bringing this into commercial capability in the second half of this year. So, we’re actually able to manipulate and change the C-states and P-states of the CPU itself in order to optimize and reduce the amount of power consumption being used at the cell site.
I think there are six different levels of C-states in a processor. One end basically being at full power, and the other end being the lowest power consumption possible, based on the use case of the cell site. We can change the C-states and P-states for the application as needed, reducing the power, say, between the hours of 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., when a cell site might get very little usage in a lot of places. We can work with the RAN software to monitor and determine the amount of usage or number of users on the cell site, and be able to reduce the number of C-states or P-states to reduce the power during that period of time, thereby really lowering the total cost of ownership for operators.
“While we’re still getting traction in #5G and getting those commercial deployments, we really want to be able to help the industry and the ecosystem accelerate #ORAN so that we are set up for #6G.” – Randy Cox, @WindRiver via @insightdottech
Tell us about some of the new capabilities in the 4th Gen Intel® Xeon® scalable processors.
Brandon Lewis: Every new release of an Intel processor comes with performance improvements, right? I think the 4th Gens have up to 60 cores—something insane like that. There are also a bunch of accelerators that have been integrated with this new generation of processors. One of them is Intel® QuickAssist Technology, a cryptographic-workload offload so that your CPU cores don’t get bogged down.
Another one is a dynamic load-balancing feature. In software-defined networking you have a load balancer, which is a piece of equipment that basically spreads traffic workload across the different equipment so you can packet process efficiently and not get a bunch of lag and buffer and latency, which obviously impacts the performance of the network as a whole.
The dynamic load-balancing feature on the 4th Generation Xeon processors basically treats the chip the same way that load balancing would, but at the network level: You’re spreading the workload of packet processing across the different cores and across the memory of the chip so that you’re not going to be subjected to any bottleneck spike. Imagine the chip as sort of like a microcosm of the network as a whole in the way that workload is balanced.
A third feature is Intel® vRAN Boost, which really speaks to what Randy was saying before, in that it optimizes the processor for vRAN workloads so that you basically get twice the performance for the same power consumption—or half the power consumption to get the same performance as before, if you prefer. And the game is all about reducing cost, because power consumption is a massive cost for these telco networking data centers. So the more you can optimize around how much power you’re using—whether it’s through P-states and C-states, or on the chipset itself through features like vRAN Boost—you’re going to win.
How can you leverage expertise from partners to be successful in this space?
Randy Cox: I think by definition ORAN is really fostering the environment of partnerships: The definition of ORAN is to provide more capabilities by more vendors. Wind River has a number of great partners that we’re working with now; for instance, we work with Intel and Samsung very closely on a weekly and daily basis. This is critical, because Wind River Cloud Platform finds itself in the center of the stack.
On the one hand, we have to integrate in the southbound direction with the hardware—Intel, as well as any of the server manufacturers, such as Dell, HPE, or whatever that COTS hardware server may be. In September of last year we shipped our first commercially available Infra Block product through Dell; it’s basically the COTS hardware server along with Wind River software integrated as a single product.
We established this relationship with Dell where we have a complete stack between the hardware, the accelerator itself, and our software; it’s fully integrated, fully tested, and works out of the box. The only thing that needs to be integrated then is the actual RAN workload that would happen with the customer in the field. We’re really trying to make this as easy as possible in this ORAN environment.
But we also have to integrate in the northbound direction, with that RAN workload—or any other workload. On the RAN-workload side we have a strong relationship with Samsung; we have a partnership with JMA; we’ve integrated with Mavenir. Right now we are establishing relationships with Ericsson and Nokia as well.
What key takeaways or thoughts about the future would you each like to leave us with?
Brandon Lewis: It’s really important that everybody check out the cool new features that are available on the 4th Gen Intel Xeon scalable processors. There are also a lot of enabling tools available to developers in the ecosystem, like the Data Plane Development Kit. And we write about this topic often at both Embedded Community Design and insight.tech.
Randy Cox: I’m really pleased that Wind River has made as much progress as we have in this space. But while we’re still getting traction in 5G and getting those commercial deployments, we really want to be able to help the industry and the ecosystem accelerate ORAN so that we are set up for 6G when we get there. There’s tons of work to do on 5G, no question about it, but 5G in this vRAN/ORAN environment is really setting things up for a 6G environment.
And for anyone who’s been doubting ORAN, or is somewhat skeptical about it—it’s real. And Wind River is an example: We’re performing well and deployed in commercial service at scale. I’m looking forward to enabling the rest of the industry to really move forward in this space.
To learn more about Open RAN and vRAN, read MWC 2023: Where IoT Networking Meets the Intelligent Edge and listen to The Trend Towards Open RAN and vRAN: With Wind River. For the latest innovations from Wind River, follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn; and follow Brandon at @TechieLew.
This article was edited by Erin Noble, copy editor.