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6 Feb 2023

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The Case for Virtualizing 5G/6G Wireless RANs

The following is an excerpt from an opinion piece by Sachin Katti, CTO of Intel's Network and Edge Group. It discusses the Radio Access Networks (RANs) that underlie global mobility and makes a case for virtualizing them.

Could our network infrastructure be software-defined? What if wireless networks – the ones that connect your mobile device to the apps and services you use daily – could be upgraded in the same way with a simple software update?

In 2020, virtualized core network deployments – the “brains” of wireless networks – accounted for about half of all deployments, delivering on the software-defined network vision. And these virtualized core deployments are forecasted, according to a report by Dell’Oro, to reach over 90% of core network deployments by the end of this year1, with almost all known virtualized network servers running on Intel CPUs.

The radio access network (RAN) is the other half of the network, and in fact is the part of the network our phones communicate with directly when we make a call or browse the web or use an app. Similar to core networks a decade ago, the conventional wisdom is that it will be very challenging to make the RAN software-defined; today most of the world’s wireless networks implement the RAN as fixed-function appliances that cannot be changed once deployed. Intel’s ambition is to drive the same transformation in the RAN that we drove in the core network a decade ago. From customer co-investments to cutting-edge technology, Intel is committed to helping operators and OEMs bring to market virtualized RAN as a new and lower-cost alternative to high-speed communications networking.

Virtualizing the RAN is daunting. It is a very demanding piece of the network infrastructure and the cornerstone to ensure your most important call is never dropped. It needs to deliver the high-speed and low-latency connectivity we all desire, but without ever failing, since we literally depend on it during emergencies. It is also the most expensive piece of the wireless network: More than half of the budget to build a wireless network is spent on the RAN. Designing and delivering the hardware – and software – with the right combination of performance, reliability and cost-effectiveness needed to meet the RAN’s demanding requirements is no easy task – technically or financially.

The Answer: Full Flexibility, Less Complexity

The costs to replace outdated hardware when new requirements, new use cases or new standards hit the market can be unfeasible. CoSPs, like any business, want to get the most from their investments. They do that by reducing total cost of ownership, saving power and creating platforms for continuous innovation.

Network modernization to software-defined infrastructure does just that: It makes upgrades simple, helps component reduction requirements, and reduces system and board complexity and bill-of-materials costs, while enhancing supply chain diversity. And software allows for programmability, offering the ability to innovate and iteratively improve the network through software upgrades, which significantly improves hardware deployments’ return on investment.

Traditionally, RAN infrastructure has run on custom fixed-function hardware. In other words, they are not software-defined; upgrading them usually meant expensive and cumbersome hardware upgrades. The reason is that there is a belief that the lowest layer of the RAN architecture – Layer 1, or the part that translates the radio signals from our smartphones into bits and delivers the high-speed 5G connectivity we all enjoy – is so demanding in its performance requirements that it cannot be virtualized and defined in software.

We believe that virtualizing the RAN – all the way through to Layer 1 in the RAN software stack, where the digital data is transmitted – is necessary to deliver on the benefits of virtualization. To handle the demanding needs of the RAN, including Layer 1, Intel has built an architecture based on a flexible, programmable general-purpose chip, integrated with acceleration for the most demanding tasks, that enables CoSPs to deploy a fully virtualized RAN without compromises and reap the full benefits of having a software-defined network end to end, both the core and the RAN.

General-Purpose Chips are the Backbone to Virtualization

Full virtualization of the RAN, all the way through to Layer 1, offers immense technical and business benefits, including agility, flexibility and scalability. It supports new innovations, like AI algorithms across functions in the RAN, evolving networks to deliver ever-more capabilities at an optimized cost.

Operators can easily implement dynamic power management and network function redistribution. Failures in network operation and system upgrades can be handled by moving the network workload to a different server – without sending technicians to the field. With our general-purpose chips, operators can easily turn cores off to save power in times of low load – or no load.

On the other hand, having a Layer 1 accelerator card means that reconfiguring existing networks to support new RAN technologies and services is expensive. It requires new hardware and associated costs, and, ultimately, will be affected by a scarcity of talent able to build products with these devices.

With much of the Layer 1 processing completely offloaded to a custom chip, custom software-based functions of Layer 1 of the RAN stack are executed (and often hand-coded) in proprietary software languages. These Layer 1 accelerator cards also rely on proprietary tools for compiling, debugging and building applications.

Simply put, having custom silicon in your RAN means it’s not virtualized.

This is not the case for general-purpose chips. Within software-based architectures, to integrate – or get the most out of general-purpose hardware – the software is written in standard open programming languages that leverage generic compiling, debugging and build tools. The benefit? Software written for one chip generation is reusable in follow-on generations and easily ported from one generation to another, allowing operators to consolidate the RAN software on a common virtualization platform.

In other words: Write once, deploy everywhere. Industry leaderswho offer data connectivity to the world agree that general-purpose chips meet their challenges and demands.

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