A Samsung executive has claimed the role of virtualised RAN (vRAN) technology in wireless networks will continue to grow even when telcos move onto 6G and beyond.
The claim comes days after Verizon and Samsung announced the completion of a fully virtualised 5G data session over C-band spectrum, from 4GHz to 8GHz. Samsung is currently the network equipment provider for the US telcos' 5G network deployment, having signed a $6.6 billion supply contract last year.
"Samsung has been partners with Verizon for a long time," Samsung Networks vice president and head of advanced system design lab Jeongho Park told ZDNet.
"Some years ago, when vRAN was just beginning to gain traction, Verizon expressed their desire to shift to vRAN. When we received this request, we were already preparing to launch vRAN. We began making preparations to launch a virtualised distributed unit around 2018, having already developed a virtualised central unit prior to that for a full vRAN solution."
Samsung launched its first "fully" virtualised 5G RAN last year, which includes a virtualised distributed unit for its virtualised central unit that went into service a year prior in 2019.
"vRAN requires technology, optimisation, and commercialisation experience. We believe Samsung is the only vendor that meets these three requirements, putting us ahead against other companies by 1.5 years in this space," the Samsung lab head claimed.
Samsung has been one of the more aggressive companies in rolling out vRAN solutions among the major 5G network equipment vendors. Networking powerhouse Ericsson, which calls its vRAN solution Cloud RAN, currently has plans to roll out the first stages of the service in the fourth quarter this year. Nokia, meanwhile, made its full vRAN solution commercially available last year and is trialling the technology with US telco AT&T. The company is also planning to roll out the solution with C-band support later this year.
Huawei, which is still the world's largest 5G network equipment vendor despite US sanctions, has been the least active in promoting the technology. This is likely due to most carriers outside of China linking it with Open RAN, a term used loosely by different organisations and a concept that the Chinese giant has not been willing to embrace so far.
'Flexibility is a big advantage of vRAN'
The way vRAN operates is that it delivers network functions as software instead of hardware. Instead of using proprietary hardware-based baseband units and central units, which is what traditional RAN does, vRAN has virtualised distributed units and virtualised central units -- software running on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. The core network also runs on software.
Through this software, vRAN offers the same network functions as its fully-hardware counterparts in traditional RAN, but virtually. Samsung has touted that this "full" vRAN solution, which means it offers the distributed unit, the central unit, and the core in software allows it to provide flexibility.
"Before vRAN, mobile network operators received dedicated hardware from a specific vendor. In effect, operators would feel, in a way, dependent on the specific vendor. But in vRAN, operators can now use hardware from company A and software from company B as they wish like Legos. This flexibility for operators is the big advantage of vRAN," the Samsung lab head said.
According to Park, this gives operators two benefits: They can pool their network resources efficiently, which in turn, leads to lower costs.
"In traditional RAN, a dedicated processor is used in the baseband unit to process the signals. But this processing power isn't needed 24 hours a day. Some coverage areas may not need the full processing power. Processors installed on population-dense areas like Gangnam are usually made to handle the expected data traffic. But sometimes, one population-dense area may have intense data traffic while another similar area has almost no traffic. So this shows that you don't need maximum specs for every processor.
"In vRAN, software replaces the function of the processors. This software can determine when and where it wants to use its resources. We also offer an orchestrator solution that manages all the virtualised distributed units, which was previously done individually. This leads to an overall decrease in cost of ownership and operation cost," he said.
A more 'transparent' network with O-RAN
The purpose of vRAN, which is to give mobile operators more flexibility in choosing its vendors and managing networks, is also tied with O-RAN, Park claimed.
O-RAN is a concept pushed forward by the telco industry and aimed at creating a multi-supplier RAN solution using hardware and software from different vendors that all use a common open interface.
An O-RAN Alliance was formed by operators and equipment vendors in 2018 to develop this concept. The alliance sets the common specifications and standards for the concept. Chinese telcos and network equipment vendor ZTE are members, but Huawei is noticeably not part of the alliance.
"Samsung's vRAN solutions use open interface and O-RAN defined protocols. These are basically white boxes that guarantee transparency between blocks. Previously, in traditional RAN, when one specific vendor would provide its own software and hardware solution, the operator could not see what was going on inside them as the vendor would use its own protocol.
"Operators believe this will increase their network security. They can now see the messages, that is the protocol, passing between the solutions provided by various vendors. So we believe vRAN's use of O-RAN standards makes it quite attractive for operators," the Samsung lab head said.
Telcos around the world have so far shown various degrees of enthusiasm in adopting vRAN. Verizon and Rakuten Mobile in Japan have been some of the more vocal telcos that support the technology. Vodafone UK is also planning to deploy vRAN. Other telcos, meanwhile, have been more conservative in their attitude towards the technology.
"Some operators believe vRAN is the right direction, while others are yet to adopt it. For now, vRAN is a very new and progressive space. I think it's better to think of vRAN as one option among many that operators have for their network deployment, and Samsung has developed and is offering that option first compared to other companies," Park said.
At the same, the Samsung lab head said the company does expect more operators around the world to adopt vRAN.
"There are operators in Asia that are showing interest in vRAN now. We feel that the overall attitude towards vRAN has turned positive over the past year. We believe that vRAN's portion in the market will be much bigger five years down the road than it is now," he said.
vRAN present on x86, future could be GPU
It is also important to note that the global 5G network market is just beginning. In the US, though mmWave spectrum support has been deployed, telcos like Verizon are just now grouping it with C-band spectrum to expand coverage. In South Korea, telcos are yet to even deploy mmWave services. The increase in base stations and coverage will require more computing power from networks going forward.
Samsung's vRAN solutions currently use x86 CPU on the COTS servers, sometimes with accelerators, Park said, while noting that the processing needs would increase for high spectrum from the wider bandwidth going forward.
"Bandwidth becomes wider and more complex as we move from C-band to mmWave. Networks will indeed need more computing power. But at Samsung, we believe CPU products launching up to next year can handle more workload of what they handle right now," the Samsung lab head said.
"Many companies, including Samsung, are also considering applying GPU. But for now, our commercialization roadmap is drawn based on CPU. We are still looking at the pros and cons of GPU."
The evolution of cloud will also inevitably be tied with vRAN, Park added.
"Cloud groups processes into one place and is flexible. Its purpose corresponds with that of vRAN. We think in the future, there will be companies that offer vRAN in cloud form," he added.
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