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open RAN

Designing and deploying cloud native open RAN

Open RAN is a new way for operators to build mobile network infrastructure. It brings interoperability, flexibility, automation and innovation to the RAN. To fully realize these benefits, operators need to pursue a cloud native virtual RAN (vRAN) implementation.

To explore how and why operators are likely to deploy open vRAN, Heavy Reading conducted an operator survey in association with QCT. The data was collected in November and covers North American, European and Asian operator respondents in roughly equal proportions.

The chart below shows the response to the first question in the survey that asked about the business justification for open RAN.

What is the most important business justification for open RAN initiatives in your company?
n=71 
For a larger version of this graphic, please click here. 
(Source: Heavy Reading, November 2021)

n=71
For a larger version of this graphic, please click here.
(Source: Heavy Reading, November 2021)

Operators clearly have a wide variety of reasons to invest in open RAN. The lead response is for "faster greater control of feature development" with 25%, just ahead of "increase vendor diversity" (21%) and "new service and monetization opportunities" (20%). The absence of an overriding reason to pursue open RAN is consistent with previous Heavy Reading operator surveys. These results indicate the business case will be founded on an accumulation of benefits that will deliver value relative to a classic, single-vendor RAN. They also point to the view that open RAN has not yet found — or at least, has not yet proven — a compelling business justification and that this diversity of views reflects an ongoing search for a business case.

It is interesting that cost saving scores so far down the list of business reasons. There are likely two explanations for this:

  1. Open RAN has a similar bill of materials to classic single-vendor RAN.
  2. Operators in leading markets, in Heavy Reading's experience, will not compromise on user experience simply to save a small percentage on RAN equipment costs.

Turning to cloud native vRAN — i.e., RAN software that is deployed in containers and centrally orchestrated — the survey asked when operators plan to deploy a containerized distributed unit (DU) vRAN application in their commercial network. The results, as shown in the chart below, are surprising in how positive they are. A bullish 21% say they are "deploying now," and a further 34% "will deploy within 1 year."

When do you plan to deploy a containerized DU vRAN application in your commercial network?
n=71 
For a larger version of this graphic, please click here. 
(Source: Heavy Reading, November 2021)

n=71
For a larger version of this graphic, please click here.
(Source: Heavy Reading, November 2021)

At first glance, this looks overly optimistic. It is possible respondents did not read the question carefully and simply assumed the question referred to vRAN in general as opposed to specifically containerized deployments (and even so, this would be a bullish response). However, containerized DU products are now available and are commercially deployed and operational. And Heavy Reading expects deployment of this technology to scale quickly. So even if this data seems bullish on the timeline, it is a good indicator of sentiment among operators that, by nature of taking the survey, are likely to already be positive on vRAN.

Operators must deploy RAN software — either in virtual machines, containers or both — on cloud infrastructure. A key decision, therefore, is which software infrastructure platform to use.

The chart below shows three leading operator preferences.

Which cloud infrastructure software solution does your company currently use, or plan to use, for your commercial vRAN deployment?
n=71 
For a larger version of this graphic, please click here.
 (Source: Heavy Reading, November 2021)

n=71
For a larger version of this graphic, please click here.
(Source: Heavy Reading, November 2021)

Red Hat (34%) and VMware (24%) are both popular options for vRAN cloud infrastructure software. These are well-known solutions in the telco cloud and core network, and it is logical operators will want to extend their existing telco cloud to the edge to support vRAN. An interesting third option also emerges from this data. Wind River, which offers cloud infrastructure software focused on smaller footprint edge devices that can be optimized for RAN applications, also scores highly at 31%. This is consistent with several Tier 1 operator vRAN deals that reference Wind River publicly.

For vRAN software suppliers and DU server vendors that want to help accelerate open vRAN deployments, the three main cloud environments to pre-integrate with appear to be Red Hat, VMware and Wind River.

To learn more about this Heavy Reading operator survey, register for the archived Light Reading webinar on Designing and Deploying Cloud Native Open RAN.

— Gabriel Brown, Principal Analyst, Heavy Reading

This blog is sponsored by QCT and Intel.

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