The virtualization of cellular networks has been ongoing for some time. But virtualizing the Radio Access Network (RAN) has always been an enigma and was the final frontier for the trend. The rising star of 5G infrastructure business—Samsung—jumped on to the virtualized RAN (vRAN) bandwagon with their announcement yesterday. I think this will prove to be another turning point in moving the industry from decades-old “custom hardware + integrated software,” approach toward the modern, efficient, and flexible vRAN architecture.
What is vRAN and why does it matter?
Even since the dawn of the cellular industry, radio networks were always thought to be the most complex part of the equation. It was mainly because of the dynamic nature of the wireless links, compounded by the challenges of mobility. The “custom hardware + integrated software” approach proved to be the winning combination to solve that complexity. The resulting operator lock-in, and the huge entry barrier it created for new entrants, made the established infrastructure players to wholeheartedly embrace that approach. As the cellular technology moved from 2G to 3G, 4G, and now 5G, the complexity of the radio networks grew exponentially, keeping the approach intact.
But things are rapidly changing. Thanks to the accelerated growth of computing, now, it indeed is possible to break this combination and use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and disaggregated software. This new approach is called vRAN.
The advantages of vRAN are obvious. It allows flexibility, drastically reduced entry barriers for new players, which leads to an expanded ecosystem. Operators will be able to choose the best hardware and software from different players and deploy the best-performing systems. All this choice increases competition, and substantially reduces costs, while increasing the pace of innovation.
Samsung’s 5G vRAN offerings
Samsung has announced full, end-to-end vRAN offerings for 5G (and 4G). These include virtual Central Unit (vCU), virtual Digital Unit (vDU), and existing Radio Units (RU). According to the press release, vCU was already commercialized in April 2019, and the full system was demonstrated to customers in April 2020. Samsung’s vCU and vDUs run on Intel x86 based COTS servers.
Let me explain the role of these units without going into too much detail. vCUs are responsible for non-real-time functions, such as radio resource management, ciphering, retransmission, etc. On the other hand, vDUs contain the real-time functions related to the actual delivery of data to the device through the RUs. RUs convert digital signals into wireless waves. A single vCU can typically manage multiple vDUs, and a single vDU can connect to multiple RUs.
“Our vRAN solutions can deliver the same reliability and performance as that of today’s legacy systems,” said Alok Shah, Vice President, Networks Strategy, BD, & Marketing at Samsung Electronics, “while bringing flexibility and cost benefits of virtualization to our customers.”
Another important aspect of the announcement is the support for Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS), which allows 5G to utilize the 4G spectrum. This is extremely crucial, especially for operators who have limited low or mid-band 5G spectrum. Shah mentioned that they have put a lot of emphasis to ensure DSS smooth interworking between the new vRAN 5G and the legacy 4G systems.
A significant step for the industry
Samsung made everybody’s head turn when it won a significant share of the 5G market in the USA, beating long-term favorites such as Ericsson and Nokia. This came on the heels of its 5G wins in South Korea, and strong 4G performance in hyper-competitive and large market like India. Additionally, Samsung’s strong financial position gives it a distinct advantage over its traditional rivals.
So, when such a strong player adopts a new trend, the industry will take notice. Until now, the vRAN vendor ecosystem consisted primarily of smaller disruptive players, such as Mavenir, Altiostar, Parallel Wireless, and others. Major cloud players such as Facebook, Intel, Google, Qualcomm, and others are largely observing the developments from outside. Nokia, another major legacy vendor recently announced its 5G vRAN offerings as well, with the general availability slated for 2021. Samsung’s announcement makes vRAN much more real, and future that much brighter. Also, Samsung being a challenger, has much more to gain with vRAN than its legacy competitors such as Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei.
vRAN also opens the possibility for Open RAN, in which vCUs, vDUs, and RUs from different vendors can work with each other, providing even more flexibility for operators. Although Samsung didn’t specifically mention this in the PR, Shah confirmed that the use of standardized open interfaces makes their vRAN system inherently open. He also pointed to their growing portfolio of Open RAN compliant solutions, developed based on multiple collaborations with US operators. Open RAN and vRAN have gotten even more attention and importance because of the geopolitical issues surrounding the US ban of Huawei, and the national security concerns.
Side note: If you would like to learn more about Open RAN architecture and its relevance to addressing the U.S. government’s concerns with Huawei, listen to this Tantra’s Mantra podcast episode.
The generational shift which requires major re-hauling of network infrastructure is a perfect opportunity for operators to pursue new technologies and a new approach. However, the move to vRAN will be gradual. Greenfield 5G operators such as Dish Network in the USA might start off with vRAN, some of the US operators looking at building out 5G on the new mid-band spectrum might use vRAN for that as well, so are the enterprises building private networks. The migration of larger legacy networks will be gradual and will happen over a period of time.
After a long period of skepticism, it seems the market forces are aligning for vRAN. Because of its enormous benefits in terms of flexibility, and cost-efficiency, there is a lot of interest in it. There is also strong support for this approach from large industry players. In such a situation, Samsung’s announcement has the potential to be a turning point in moving the industry toward vRAN. In my view, Samsung with its end-to-end virtualized portfolio, and a solid financial position is strongly positioned to exploit that move. For a keen industry observer like me, it would be fascinating to watch how the vRAN saga unfolds.
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