It looks like all Huawei or no Huawei in open and cloud RAN

Pushing its new Arm-based chips, Huawei has shifted its tone on open and cloud RAN. But it's hard to see how it can be part of a multivendor setup.

Iain Morris, International Editor

April 10, 2024

6 Min Read
Crowds outside Huawei's store at Shanghai Taikoo Li Qiantan
(Source: Huawei)

Of the three big radio access network (RAN) vendors, Huawei has always sounded the most hostile toward open RAN. This is hardly earth-shattering. Open RAN, to many of its political backers, is the means to both ban China's biggest vendor and not end up with a duopoly of Ericsson and Nokia. By allowing specialists to combine their software with another company's radios, or vice versa, open RAN would supposedly nurture alternatives and make Huawei bans less risky. Huawei was never going to applaud.

It has, though, offered some technological and commercial objections that continue to resonate five years since they were first aired. In 2019, at a London event, Peter Zhou, then chief marketing officer of Huawei's wireless products line, complained that Intel's general-purpose processors (GPPs) were a poor substitute for Huawei's own customized chips, gobbling about ten times as much energy at a 4G site.

To purists, Zhou was mixing up open RAN with virtual or cloud RAN. The former is about coupling different vendors at the same mobile site. Virtual or cloud RAN means putting network functions on widely used computing platforms – like Intel's chips – that can be housed in data centers and ultimately shared with other workloads. But they are all part of the same ballgame. And while GPPs may have narrowed the performance gap, none of the other big kit vendors is ditching its customized chips.

Nevertheless, Huawei's tone has noticeably shifted this year amid speculation that Ericsson's sudden embrace of open RAN – via a $14 billion contract with AT&T – would prompt a similar U-turn by Huawei. It cannot control the geopolitics. But in countries where it still has a permit, Huawei can respond to operators' latest product demands. And the power efficiency of GPPs is no longer high on its list of complaints.

Kunpeng takes flight

Its position in 2024 is that such chips account for only about 5% of power use at a mobile site, according to Philip Song, the current chief marketing officer of Huawei's carrier group. Far more important to energy efficiency are the power amplifiers (PAs) installed in radios, he told reporters during a press conference at this year's Mobile World Congress (MWC).

His estimates sound even lower than figures provided by Marc Rouanne, the chief network officer of Dish and the former head of mobile for Nokia. Last year, at Informa's Big 5G Event in Austin, he reckoned the radio units were responsible for up to 90% of energy use by the RAN, meaning the GPPs inside a virtual baseband unit would have a relatively minor impact.

One of the biggest technological changes for Huawei since 2019 – when Zhou was grumbling – is the Kunpeng chipset. Launched that very year, and developed by Huawei's own HiSilicon division, it is a GPP based on the blueprints of Arm, the UK-headquartered chip designer that represents the main architectural alternative to Intel's x86 platform.

Kunpeng seemed partly a response to US moves that risked cutting Huawei off from Intel and other American suppliers. The Chinese vendor subsequently sold an x86-based server business and was last year still pocketing money from that transaction and the sale of its Honor smartphone unit. In the meantime, it has continued drawing attention in financial updates to Kunpeng and the ecosystem around it. This now includes more than 4,500 partners and has given rise to around 14,500 "industry-specific solutions," it said in the most recent annual report.

Huawei has not talked to journalists about offering virtual RAN software on Kunpeng chips. But it would be a self-harming GPP vendor that complained about the power efficiency of general-purpose silicon per se. Kungpeng chips evidently figure in Huawei's cloud computing business, now the fastest-growing – in percentage terms – of Huawei's four largest business groups. Last year, sales were up 22%, to nearly 55.3 billion Chinese yuan ($7.7 billion).

Cloudy vision

The company also includes Kunpeng in its telco cloud offer, its platform for hosting network functions such as the 5G core. In slides shared by Huawei employees with Light Reading, it gushes about the attractions of Arm over x86. Among other things, it says, the data processing units in telco networks mostly use Arm architecture, as well, and can therefore shoulder part of an Arm-based GPP's load – up to 30% of it, Huawei claims.

Huawei champions its telco cloud over the public clouds offered by AWS, Google and Microsoft. None comes with the service guarantees so critical for a core network, and all present concerns about data sovereignty, it argues. Those sovereignty concerns were recently highlighted by Laurent Leboucher, the group chief technology officer for Orange. Yet the hyperscaler pitch has changed. Each now boasts a technology stack it can bring into a service provider's own facilities, much as Huawei would presumably do.

The problem for the Chinese company is not just the government ban, ruling out its telco cloud as an option in numerous countries. Huawei still figures on the US Entity List, which forbids American companies from trading with it. This is partly why Orange seeks non-US telco cloud alternatives for African, European and Middle Eastern countries that have not banned Huawei. "We need to make sure we can deploy network functions from different vendors, including Chinese vendors, on the stack," said Leboucher.

For the same reason, many western vendors may resist the hosting of their applications on Huawei's cloud. Nor does an open RAN combo of Huawei and a US vendor – or a European one relying on US tech – look probable. What's more, while he downplayed the energy concerns about GPPs, Song did not sound enthusiastic about the idea of separating Huawei's baseband from its radio technology and introducing another vendor for one of them.

"There is a lot of collaboration between the radio part and the baseband part and joining together can provide good network performance," he said at MWC. On PAs, he continued, Huawei remains "one generation ahead of competitors." The clear implication is that a multivendor site would not be as energy efficient as one served entirely by Huawei.

If nothing else, the success of Huawei's cloud computing business suggests it had found some way around chip sanctions before it unveiled its Mate 60 Pro handset last September. The 5G smartphone provoked outrage among US officials because it included a 7-nanometer chip, thought to be off-limits to Huawei. Yet Kunpeng is also based on 7-nanometer technology, according to Huawei's marketing literature.

Huawei's opponents had assumed any foundry would need extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machines to produce 7-nanometer chips. ASML, a Dutch company, is the only manufacturer of those machines, and the Dutch government forbids it from selling to China. SMIC, Huawei's Chinese foundry supplier, may have found an answer by pushing an older technology called deep ultraviolet lithography to its very limits.

Huawei, then, has a general-purpose chip substitute for Intel and a telco cloud pitch to go with it. But it's increasingly hard to see how it could ever be part of a multivendor setup that relies on US technologies, and those are widespread in open and virtual RAN. For any prospective customer, it is probably a case of all Huawei – or none whatsoever.

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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