The goal of vRAN and Open RAN is disaggregation of radio access network hardware and software, to help operators improve flexibility, reduce costs and meet growing demand.
The Radio Access Network (RAN) is the expensive, proprietary equipment that connects to cellular antennas, processes the signal and sends it to the core network. Communication Service Providers (CSPs) who need to stay agile to meet the growing demands of enterprise and customers find RANs to be a bottleneck and have turn to vRANs and Open RAN to help.
Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) speeds the iteration of new services, reduce operating costs and increase network capacity. NFV and the containerization of network functions is also essential to the 5G roadmap. Virtual Radio Access Networks (vRANs) and Open RAN are related and intertwined efforts to abstract radio network operation into software functions. We use the terms interchangeably, but there are key differences to be aware of. Throw in the similar O-RAN, and it’s a recipe for confusion. Let’s break it down.
A Virtualized Radio Access Network (vRAN) is one result of the effort to virtualize network functions. A vRAN lets the operator run the baseband functions of their RAN as software. With vRANs, carriers can migrate from custom-built Baseband Units (BBUs) to standard software servers running on Commercial off the Shelf (COTS) server hardware. Remote Radio Units (RRUs) network with Virtualized Baseband Units (vBBUs) in the cloud.
Virtualizing the RAN increases flexibility in hardware, software and systems integration, and adopts the same agile principles that drive innovation in cloud services. Operators can make changes like security enhancements through software alone, adopting agile cloud deployment principles to constantly improve and iterate.
A vRAN replaces BBUs with Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) hardware, but the RAN is still dependent on proprietary interfaces and purpose-built hardware for radio transmissions. Open RAN is an effort to open the RAN altogether.
“Current RAN technology is provided as a hardware and software integrated platform. The ambition for Open RAN is to create a multi-supplier RAN solution that allows for the separation — or disaggregation — between hardware and software with open interfaces and virtualisation, hosting software that controls and updates networks in the cloud. The promised benefits include supply chain diversity, solution flexibility and new capabilities leading to increased competition and further innovation,” said Ericsson.
Open RAN seeks to disaggregate RAN hardware and software on vendor-neutral platforms, and opens the interface protocols between the Radio Unit (RU), the Distributed Unit (DU) and the Centralized Unit (CU) functions in the RAN. Operators can pick from different virtualized or split RAN architectures depending on service requirements, resources, capacity, and other factors.
ORAN or O-RAN
The Open RAN Alliance is a group of more than 200 vendor companies and dozens of operators. The group’s stated goal is to move the industry to “Open, Intelligent, Virtualized and Fully Interoperable RAN.”
The group regularly publishes new RAN specifications, provides testing and implementation schema, software and other efforts to support their work.
The Open RAN Alliance has been in the news because of some member groups’ potential threat to U.S. national security. That caused Nokia to briefly pause its involvement with the O-RAN Alliance, though it resumed its technical work shortly thereafter.
The O-RAN Alliance approved Telecom Italia’s Open Test and Integration Center (OTIC) in Turin, Italy. TIM said the facility tests new solutions and accelerate the deployment of Open RAN for the new pan-European mobile network architecture based on 5G, Cloud and Edge Computing.
O-RAN Alliance founder and Japanese telco NTT DoCoMo is working with a consortium of Japanese firms to develop a “5G Open RAN Ecosystem” to package best-of-breed RAN technology and to introduce, operate and manage them based on demands from operators considering Open RAN introduction.
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