The Trend Towards Open RAN and vRAN: With Wind River
As telecoms strive to lower costs, improve scalability, and increase innovation, the move toward Open Radio Access Networks (RAN) and virtualized RANs (vRAN) is becoming more common. But this path forward is not without its challenges.
In this episode, we discuss the various interoperability, performance, and reliability considerations that telecoms must take into account as they move toward these new technologies. In addition, we’ll explore how these concepts relate to one another, the latest advancements in the mobile and connectivity space, and how to stay one step ahead of the curve.
Our Guests: Wind River and Embedded Computing Design
Our guests this episode are Randy Cox, Vice President of Product Management Cloud and Industry Verticals at mission-critical intelligent systems software provider Wind River; and Brandon Lewis, Editor-in-Chief of Embedded Computing Design.
Randy has spent most of his career in the telecom business. Prior to joining Wind River, Randy was Head of Product Management at Nokia for more than 10 years and was the Director of Global Business Development and Product and Program Management at Motorola.
Brandon is a contributing writer for insight.tech and brings more than a decade of journalism and media experience to his role at Embedded Computing Design.
Randy and Brandon answer our questions about:
- (2:03) Trends in the mobile and connectivity space
- (3:57) The move to Open RAN and vRAN
- (5:58) Wind River’s role in telecom transformations
- (10:53) Why telecoms should look at the latest Intel® Xeon® processors
- (14:03) Wind River Studio’s latest single-core support
- (17:44) Important partnerships for mobile and connectivity
- (23:20) What else there is to know about O-RAN, Open Ran, and vRAN
To learn more about Open RAN and vRAN, read MWC 2023: Where IoT Networking Meets the Intelligent Edge. For the latest innovations from Wind River, follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn; and follow Brandon at @TechieLew.
Christina Cardoza: Hello and welcome to the IoT Chat, where we explore the latest developments in the Internet of Things. I’m your host, Christina Cardoza, Editorial Director of insight.tech, and today we’re going to be talking about trends in the mobile and connectivity space with two special guests. We have Randy Cox from Wind River and Brandon Lewis from Embedded Computing Design. You’ve may already have seen or heard of Brandon’s name on the insight.tech website. He’s written a lot of articles for us. But Brandon, welcome to the IoT Chat. Why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself, what you do at insight.tech and Embedded Computing?
Brandon Lewis: Sure. Hi everybody. Thanks, Christina. I’m a journalist who’s been covering the tech space for over 10 years. I love it, always learning something new, and I run the editorial over at Embedded Computing Design and also contribute to some of the cool stuff that Intel’s doing over on the insight.tech website governing a lot of the partners and such.
Christina Cardoza: Great, and Randy, welcome to the show. What can you tell us about yourself and what you do at Wind River?
Randy Cox: Yeah, well, thanks for having me today. Randy Cox, I head up—lead our product management team at Wind River, and so that really is part of the intelligent cloud and for the telco business. So, I’ve been at Wind River for the last couple of years. Previous to that I was at Nokia for 10 years, and prior to that, Motorola. So, pretty much most of my career in the telecom business.
Christina Cardoza: Great. So, lots of expertise in the areas and topics that we’re going to be talking about today. And I wanted to start off the conversation—we all just saw each other and connected at Mobile World Congress, and the conversation there around mobile and connectivity was really around some of these new ideas: Open RAN and vRAN. And so Brandon, since you covered the event for us at insight.tech, I wanted to start there. What can you tell us about the trends that you’re seeing in this space, especially what Open RAN and vRAN mean for mobile and connectivity?
Brandon Lewis: To kind of understand this, you’ve got to understand where we are if you want to know where we’re going, and, no offense to your friends back at Nokia, Randy, but one of the things that’s happened over the course of time in networks is that they’re incredibly complex systems, and so network-equipment manufacturers have been supplying these highly integrated proprietary solutions. There’s a lot of different components that make up a network, and a lot of accelerated specialized hardware, proprietary software stacks. And as we move into 5G, which is about providing more bandwidth and higher capacities and really pervasive connectivity everywhere, we really need to be able to scale that.
So this is where this concept of Open RAN comes in, and RAN is Radio Access Network, and that’s really designed around using commodity hardware, commodity servers and platforms, and open interfaces so that you could put different software on top of it. And then the vRAN part of it, virtualized RAN, runs a lot of those specialized functions that used to be in hardware as software function.
So if you know software-defined networking, network functions, virtualization—a lot of those functions that used to have a specialized appliance that would only do firewalls, or only do routing of packets, or whatever it was, are now in software. So you’re going to be able to scale your networks much further, get a lot more flexibility out of the stack, a lot more players in the ecosystem, and really it’s about scale. So with that—I mean, Randy, with your background over at Nokia, I know they have been a huge player in the networking space for a quite some time. What are you seeing both from your own experience, and then what are you guys are doing over at Wind River?
Randy Cox: Yeah, Brandon, thanks. As you say, traditional vendors in the telecom space—Nokia, Ericsson—typically have provided custom hardware, custom software, proprietary equipment for the carriers. And so therefore, one, that really provides more of a kind of costly solution and is very specialized, which really requires the carriers to stick with those vendors for longer periods of time. And so with Open RAN, that’s really disaggregating the network and allowing new players to enter the market, which, really, the promise of ORAN is to drive down cost and to drive up innovation and flexibility in terms of picking the best-in-class type of suppliers.
And so, I mean, if you were at MWC you would not miss the focus on vRAN and ORAN. What I’m seeing at this point is that this is mainstream now, in terms of planning by many operators globally. This isn’t just investigation any longer or, kind of, feasibility analysis, but real understanding and now planning for execution. So that means more detailed customer discussions, more detailed partner discussions and plans, and more RFPs being executed at this time.
Christina Cardoza: I think you guys hit a lot of the buzzwords there. Vendors and telecoms are looking for scale flexibility, bringing down cost, improving innovation. And we mentioned Mobile World Congress, which happened back in February. Randy, I know Wind River was showcasing a lot of different products, a lot of different solutions, had a couple of announcements. So I’m wondering what you can tell us more about what Wind River is doing in this space, and tell us some more about your solutions.
Randy Cox: Yeah, I would be happy to. In fact, I’ll give you two examples of those demos that we provided. First being our single-core capability on Sapphire Rapids, or the 4th Generation of Intel® Xeon® platform. This is really prior to December—our cloud-platform solution basically took up two cores on a single server. And with our latest release in December, we have now optimized that down to a single core, which is obviously a 50% reduction in terms of the resource usage on a given server.
And so this is what we demonstrated at Mobile World Congress, was to show that capability, which is now a commercial release as of December of last year. And this is now available to all of our customers, to actually start running on a single-core capability with a number of different servers out there as they move forward with commercialization. So that was a demo we performed. So, really great capabilities for—really for the application or workload that’s being performed on our platform. And so we’re happy to show that, and that got a lot of press and a lot of different visibility, I’ll say it that way. Many, many customers coming to see it, and quite interested in that. A lot of customers—vendors if you will—deployment of ORAN and vRAN are really waiting for Sapphire Rapids. So we’re very happy about being able to do this. That was the first one.
And then the second one, which is also a very hot topic in the industry right now, is around energy efficiency. And so we’ve been working very closely with Intel, as well as a couple of other partners, to really be able to reduce the amount of power consumption being used at a cell site. And while our initial engagement here was a feasibility study and a demo at a plugfest, we are now stepping into the next phases of actually bringing this into commercial capability, where we’re actually able to manipulate and change the C-state and P-state of the CPU itself in order to optimize and reduce the amount of power consumption being used at the cell site.
So this is going to really require close collaboration with our partners—the RAN software workload itself. And so we’re working with those partners now to bring that to more of a commercial capability in the second half of this year.
Brandon Lewis: Real quick, I think it’s important to ask—can you explain the C-state and the P-state really quickly, because those are important elements that some of the listeners might not be familiar with.
Randy Cox: Sure. Basically you have the ability to—I think there are six different levels of C-states in a processor, and so you’re able to actually—depending on how you want to control that—one is basically being at full power, and the other one level is basically being at the lowest power possible, power consumption possible. So it’s basically determined by whatever profile you want to use, or whatever type of decision-making you want to use, based on the use case of the cell site.
And so we would then change the C-state and P-states for the application, and therefore reducing the power. And, as an example—I’ll just use a very simple example—say between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 a.m., or 6:00 a.m., a cell site gets very little usage in a lot of places. And so what we would be able to do is we would work with the RAN software and be able to monitor and determine with the RAN software the amount of usage or number of users on the cell site. And if we wanted and if it was low, we would be able to reduce the number of C-states or P-states, the mode that they’re being used in, and then be able to reduce the power during that period of time, thereby really lowering the TCO for operators during that period of time.
Christina Cardoza: Great. And I want to go back a little bit to the single-core support you guys announced for the 4th Gen Intel Xeon scalable processors, code name “Sapphire Rapids”—just, what you guys are seeing? How that compared to previous generation?
But, before I do, Randy, you mentioned that a lot of your customers were really looking forward to this release, and it’s something that Intel released at the beginning of the year. And, Brandon, you covered this processor for us on insight.tech earlier in the year. So, what can you tell us about the new capabilities and the new features, or what you’re just seeing vendors and even telecoms being able to get out of this release?
Brandon Lewis: Sure. So, every new release of an Intel processor, it comes with performance improvements, right? So, I think the 4th Gens have 60, up to 60 cores, something insane like that. But to Randy’s point earlier about the total cost of ownership, there are a bunch of accelerators that have been integrated with this new generation of processors. So, one of them is QuickAssist Technology, and anybody who’s been following the ecosystem, the Intel ecosystem, for a while should be familiar with that. It’s a cryptographic-workload offload so that your CPU cores don’t get bogged down.
So that’s important, but there are a couple of others that are also important. So, one of them is this dynamic load-balancing feature, which, if you’re familiar with the way that a network operates today—and this is why some of the commentary I was making about software-defined networking previously is important—you have a load balancer, which is a piece of equipment that basically spreads the traffic workload across the different equipment that you have 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.
So, the dynamic load-balancing feature on the 4th Generation Xeon processors basically treats the chip the same way that that load balancing would act, at the network level. So 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 like what Randy was referring to. Different times, different cell sites are going to see different amounts of traffic. Just imagine the chip as sort of like a microcosm of the network as a whole in the way that that workload’s balanced.
And then the second or third, actually now at this point, 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 the same half—I always get mixed up on this stuff—half the power consumption for the same performance as before, which in the telco networking data-center game is all about reducing cost, because that power consumption is a massive cost for those operators. 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 chip set itself through features like vRAN Boost—that you’re going to win.
Christina Cardoza: Yeah, absolutely. And I always get confused with all the new features and everything too, Brandon. There’s a lot of goodness packed in there, and a lot to look forward to. So, on that note, Randy, what were your users looking forward to, or what are the use cases or the industries you guys are working with Wind River Studio in this now single-core support for the Sapphire Rapids release?
Randy Cox: Couple things—different benefits here from Wind River’s perspective. Obviously we’re enjoying the fact that no one else in the industry is capable of doing this today. So from our perspective that’s our benefit from being able to achieve this single-core capability. But the real benefit comes to the application or workload being deployed on our cloud platform, by providing another core for that application to utilize. And so that actually turns into a benefit to the carrier.
So as increased traffic—as Brandon was mentioning—on a cell site, as that increases, this additional core that Wind River gives back to the cell site, the RAN application can actually use that core, which really provides increased capacity at the cell site, and that translates into either increased number of users at the cell site or increased throughput and performance for the existing users. So, really that’s the benefit here ultimately to the carrier, that they get increased performance and capacity at the cell site with the fact that Wind River is only utilizing a single core on the CPU.
Brandon Lewis: So, Randy, what’s Wind River’s involvement at this point with Intel Xeon processor technology and deploying them into these Radio Access Network use cases?
Randy Cox: So, up to this point we’ve been running in commercial traffic, a commercial network with Intel’s 3rd Generation Xeon platform, or otherwise known as “Ice Lake.” And that’s been commercial in thousands of sites in North America, as well as in commercial traffic in the UK and Europe, along with actually in Japan as well, with multiple customers. So we’re commercial—and this is public info—so we’re commercial with Verizon, Vodafone, ELISA, KDDI, and SoftBank. So we have commercial engagements with them, and all of those are running on Ice Lake platforms.
So that’s the engagement we have up-to-date to this point, and for the last three years actually. And so, at scale in North America—that’s some great experience that we’ve been able to leverage. And now we’re actually taking that obviously into the Sapphire Rapids platform, or the 4th Generation, and giving us the ability to actually optimize and get us from two cores to a single core. And that’s really what’s given us the ability to be able to do that.
Christina Cardoza: Yeah, absolutely. And I know you mentioned one of the key benefits is that Wind River is sort of more ahead of the curve than others in this market, but one thing I noticed in the event, and just overall in the industry, is that companies are really leveraging partners to get applications like this out there to get things done. It’s really seems to be a theme of “better together” going on.
And at Mobile World Congress—I should mention the IoT Chat and insight.tech as a whole, we’re sponsored by Intel—but at the event I saw Wind River working and demoing with a bunch of other partners like Intel, Vodafone, Samsung. So, what can you tell us about how you guys are working with partners, why you’re working with partners, and really the leverage of expertise that you guys are using from them?
Randy Cox: Sure. I think by definition ORAN is really fostering the environment of partnerships, because we have more players that are entering the market, and the definition of ORAN really is to provide more capabilities by more vendors. So Wind River has a number of really great partners that we’re working with now, and those continue to increase, actually. Of course today we’re working with Intel and Samsung very closely. Those are formal partnerships that we work with on a weekly and daily basis to improve our product, as well as the product that’s actually being deployed commercially at scale in North America as well as in the UK.
So it’s critical as Wind River Cloud Platform finds itself in the center of the stack. So, we have to integrate in the southbound direction with the hardware, as well as in the both—Intel as well as any of the server manufacturers, such as Dell, HPE, or whoever that COTS hardware server may be. But we also have to integrate in the northbound direction with the actual RAN workload, or any other workload that we may be working with. So we find ourselves in the middle of that stack, which requires us to work with those partners on a regular basis very, very closely.
So, I mentioned Intel and Samsung. We also have a very, very strong relationship with Dell, and we announced that back in September of last year, and we have shipped our first commercial available Infra Block product through Dell that came out in November timeframe—you would’ve seen an announcement on that. And that’s literally a single product that is orderable and shippable from Dell’s factory. That’s basically the COTS hardware server along with Wind River software integrated as a single product.
And you may say, well, why are you doing that as opposed to going direct? And I think there’s, number one, we have multiple business models; that gives the carrier a different way to procure those products. But, more importantly, we are really making this easier on the carriers. So, while the network is being disaggregated, that does bring the challenge of integration issues out in the field with that carrier.
So what we’ve done is we established a relationship with Dell where we have a complete stack between the hardware, the accelerator itself, and our software that is fully integrated, fully tested, and works out of the box that we make available to our customers. And so the last thing that needs to be integrated then is the actual RAN workload that would happen with the customer in the field. So we’re really trying to make this as easy as possible in this ORAN environment. And so back to partners—that’s a very strong relationship with Dell in terms of that.
On the RAN workload side, as I mentioned, we have a strong relationship with Samsung today, and we continue to increase those partnerships. We have a partnership with JMA; we’ve integrated with Mavenir; we’ve integrated with a number of other radio providers as well. We also are establishing relationships with Ericsson and Nokia as well. And those are in different stages, each one of those, each one progressing.
So, with Ericsson we have a formal agreement in place, and we have integrated our software in a DU and a CU configuration. And so we’re happy to say that that’s working and doing well there in a very short period of time. We actually brought that up in an Erickson lab in about a three- or four-week period of time, to really integrate their workload on our cloud platform. So when you think about integrating the workload in a three-to-four-week period of time, that’s very short in a very complex environment. So we’re really happy to be able to work with Erickson in that regard.
And then with Nokia, we’re just getting started with Nokia as well, and that’s going forward in a good way. So we’re looking forward to being able to work with all of these three major RAN vendors in an ORAN and vRAN environment. So, that’s just a few of our partners, but the list is quite long actually. But I think those are the key ones that I wanted to highlight today.
Christina Cardoza: Love hearing about all the partners you’re working with, Randy. One thing that I’m curious about is we’ve been talking a lot about Open RAN and the benefits for vendors and telecoms. And then just now when you’re talking about partners you mentioned O-RAN. So I’m curious what the distinction is between these two, or what our listeners need to know when it comes to O-RAN and Open RAN.
Randy Cox: Yeah. There’s lots of different acronyms being used and words being thrown around, and so it’s probably good to distinguish between these. Let me just start with virtualized RAN, because I think that’ll be helpful as well. vRAN really has nothing—I’m going to say it this way—is not about O-RAN in one sense. The existing incumbents, as an example, could do a virtualized network today without it being an open network. So that’s one distinction. You’re just virtualizing that network.
When you move to O-RAN, O-RAN is a, if you will, an architecture; it’s a disaggregated network where you have open interfaces that multiple vendors can participate in and serve those different network elements with that Open RAN specification. And so it just so happens that the O-RAN specification does include a virtualized RAN. So that’s by definition part of the O-RAN spec.
Now, the O-RAN Alliance is really an organization for the ecosystem where all of the vendors and operators that want to participate, they participate in, one: defining the spec, doing plugfests, and aligning in different activities in order to really proliferate an O-RAN-type architecture, and really accelerate an O-RAN-type architecture into the market as soon as possible.
Brandon Lewis: That’s awesome. I know there’s a lot of alphabet soup, but if there’s one thing us engineers are good at, it’s creating acronyms for things that confuse everything.
Randy Cox: That’s right, that’s right.
Brandon Lewis: Did you see anything else out at the show that piqued your interest, or anything crystal ball that you see coming down the pike here, Randy?
Randy Cox: I would say this, Brandon, I was pretty focused on vRAN and ORAN to be honest with you. And maybe because that’s where my interest was that’s what I was hearing a lot of. But I do think it had a very strong focus at MWC. What I would say is I did hear, and start to hear more profoundly I’ll say, some more pointers, if you will, to 6G. And really when you think about that, 5G in this vRAN/ORAN environment is really setting things up for a 6G environment.
And so I’m really pleased that Wind River has made as much progress as we have in this space. So, while we’re 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. But I did hear some glimpses of that in a little more profound way than I had before.
Brandon Lewis: Do I need a new phone?
Christina Cardoza: Yeah.
Randy Cox: No comment.
Christina Cardoza: As always, the technology industry is always just looking for the next big thing. You’ve been hearing a little bit of rumblings about 6G also, but I think there’s still a lot of work to get to before we get there. So I don’t know if you would agree, Randy, but I would tell people to continue to focus on 5G and prepare for 6G, but we’ve got some time to go.
Randy Cox: Absolutely. There’s tons of work to do on 5G, no question about it.
Christina Cardoza: Great. Well this has been a very insightful conversation, Randy and Brandon. Unfortunately we are running out of time, but before we go I just want to throw it back to each of you if you have any key takeaways or final thoughts you want to leave our listeners with today. Brandon, I’ll start with you.
Brandon Lewis: Sure, yeah. I think that it’s really important that everybody goes and checks out some of the cool new features that are available on 4th Gen Intel Xeon scalable processors. And then also there are a lot of enabling tools available to developers in the ecosystem, like the Data Plane Development Kit. If you’re not in tune with that, definitely check it out. And we write about this often on both Embedded Community Design and insight.tech. So you can follow me @TechieLew.
Christina Cardoza: Absolutely. And, Randy, any final thoughts or key takeaways?
Randy Cox: Well, I would say this: anybody who’s been doubting ORAN, or is somewhat skeptical about that, I will say that it’s real. And Wind River as an example—we’re performing well and deployed in commercial service at scale. And so it is real and it’s possible today. And so, looking forward to enabling the rest of the industry to really move forward in this space, and thank you to all of our partners that are helping out in this space as well.
Christina Cardoza: Yeah, absolutely. Looking forward to that as well. And, as Brandon said, continue to follow us on insight.tech as we cover this space, and catch up with Wind River on their website to see what else they’re doing and how some of these partnerships that Randy talked about start to come to fruition. So, with that, I just want to thank you both again for joining us today, and, as always, thanks to our listeners for tuning in. Until next time, this has been the IoT Chat.
The preceding transcript is provided to ensure accessibility and is intended to accurately capture an informal conversation. The transcript may contain improper uses of trademarked terms and as such should not be used for any other purposes. For more information, please see the Intel® trademark information.
This transcript was edited by Erin Noble, copy editor.