The open RAN trend is creating some new and interesting bedfellows.
Take Xilinx, a chipset supplier that has traditionally supplied its silicon to wireless network equipment vendors like Nokia, Huawei and Ericsson. Last year, Xilinx began talking to a new set of potential customers in the wireless industry: network operators.
"It's gotten really interesting with this new O-RAN thing," said Mike Wissolik, director of product marketing for Xilinx's Wired and Wireless Group (which accounts for roughly 32% of the company's revenues).
Wissolik explained that during 2019 several unnamed wireless network operators approached Xilinx with a request: versions of its chipsets compatible with open RAN network architecture.
Xilinx announced the result of those discussions today. The company's new "T1 Telco Accelerator card for O-RAN distributed units (O-DUs) and virtual baseband units (vBBUs)" is designed to be exactly the same technology the company supplies into traditional wireless network baseband equipment but packaged into a PCIe card that can be snapped into a standard x86 server from the likes of Dell or HPE running an open RAN network.
"So now you have a standard commodity server that can run this [5G] at the edge," Wissolik said.
The result, Wissolik explained, is that Xilinx's specialized 5G silicon can handle the heavy-duty data processing necessary to operate an open RAN 5G network, thus freeing up the commodity server so that it can run other revenue-generating services for an operator.
The new product from Xilinx is one small part of a much bigger story that involves network operators leaning toward open RAN as a way to reduce their network expenses and encourage more suppliers to enter the space. Open RAN technology promises to Lego-ize the design of wireless networks, thus allowing operators to mix and match equipment components from a variety of suppliers.
In the case of Xilinx, operators can now insert the company's specialized 5G processing capabilities directly into their networks. But that also raises some serious issues for operators that wish to do so.
"There's an orchestration part that makes it challenging," Wissolik acknowledged, noting that vendors like Ericsson and Nokia would previously handle that kind of work in order to deliver a tightly integrated package of hardware and software to their network operators. Wissolik said Xilinx is providing a reference design for its new product in order to make the open RAN integration easier.
To be clear, it's still early days in the open RAN trend, considering there are only a handful of live, commercial open RAN sites around the world. But massive providers like AT&T and Verizon have been touting the technology as a viable, workable approach to wireless networking – and their intentions are apparently sufficient to entice Xilinx into the space.