Samsung's Shah talks open RAN, accelerators and the cloud
Samsung has been on a tear in the networks business, particularly in North America. The company boasts relatively new – and valuable – supply deals with Verizon, Dish Network and Comcast, each of them significant in the market in some way.
Samsung's deal with Verizon is intended to cover 20,000 sites by 2025 and involves virtualized services alongside hardware that is open radio access network (RAN) compliant. Meanwhile, its agreement with Comcast represents a first between a major 5G equipment provider and a US cable company.
But Samsung's deal with Dish is perhaps the company's most noteworthy contract in North America. It includes 24,000 total radios and will see Samsung managing Fujitsu's radios in addition to Samsung's radios in Dish's network. That kind of mixing and matching among vendors is a major hallmark of the open RAN framework Dish is pursuing for its nationwide 5G network.
"Dish is certainly the most vocal and advanced in that [open RAN] space, and we're working with them to do that," Alok Shah, VP of strategy, business development and marketing in the networks business of Samsung Electronics America, told Light Reading.
But mixing and matching vendor gear is not easy, Shah said.
"O-RAN is not yet plug and play," he explained. "That's just the reality of any very complex, new ecosystem."
Shah said that Samsung's lab in South Korea has been working to ensure the company's open RAN equipment can interoperate with the equipment from other open RAN vendors, whether it's hardware or software. "It requires quite a bit of time in the lab," he said.
Walking, then running
Samsung has perhaps the market's clearest view into the newest developments in the 5G networking space, given its solid position in traditional, classical RAN and its expanding role in the development of open RAN. The diversity of the company's growing customer base reflects not only Samsung's market share gains, but also its willingness to respond to operators' varying networking strategies.
"It's definitely not straightforward, not for the faint of heart," Shah said of open RAN. However, there's nothing wrong with "walking before you run," he added.
Shah explained that some operators, like Verizon, are planning to move first into virtualized RAN (vRAN) and then, later, into open RAN. Others, like Dish, are moving into both areas at the same time.
Regardless, Shah said it makes sense for operators to take a deliberate pace. For some, it will make more sense to embrace open RAN specifications but continue to source their equipment from a single vendor. Later, in another phase of their work, operators can begin to mix and match equipment from different vendors, thanks to the open interfaces they've begun installing.
Shah's comments are noteworthy in the wider context of the open RAN trend. Some industry watchers continue to fret that open RAN adoption among operators remains relatively sluggish. Others, though, argue that open RAN is gaining more traction than they expected.
Shah said that each operator is developing its own open RAN strategy and moving at its own pace. Samsung is working to meet operators where they are, he said.
"To me, Samsung continues to provide the template on how vendors can break into the RAN infrastructure/software market," IDC analyst Daryl Schoolar told SDxCentral recently. "A company must be patient and well-funded. To gain market share takes time."
A cloud shift
Another major trend in the mobile market involves network operators adopting cloud computing infrastructure. Some companies, like Verizon, have shifted a significant portion of their computing into a cloud environment that they own and operate. Others, like Dish, are putting a significant portion of their network operations into the public cloud.
Shah said that, so far, cloud options from public cloud companies such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud and Microsoft's Azure remain interesting but not yet mature. But that could change.
"I think over time we'll see the hyperscalers develop compelling solutions for the far edge, when it comes to vDU [virtualized distributed unit] processing," Shah said. "And so I wouldn't be surprised if, down the road, we see the ability to meet the performance expectations and put vDU into, say, an AWS Outpost server or ... the Azure or GCP [Google Cloud Platform] equivalent."
But again, Shah noted that in the shift to cloud architecture, each operator is taking its own path.
"It's tricky to make a broad statement because every operator really does view this quite differently," he said.
The silicon question
Another topic of discussion involves the chipset that powers 5G equipment, particularly open RAN equipment. Shah reiterated that Samsung has a specialized role to play in the market when it comes to silicon: "Samsung happens to be one of the largest chip manufacturers in the world, right? And we view silicon as a competitive advantage."
But he acknowledged that Intel has enjoyed a commanding presence in supplying chips for open RAN equipment – at least so far.
"Intel did a great job of building an accelerator card that sits in an Intel-based server that provides a very powerful processing platform," Shah said. "Now we're starting to see a broadening of that ecosystem."
Indeed, companies like Qualcomm, Marvell and Nvidia have been designing chips for open RAN network equipment that represent an alternative to Intel silicon. That creates both opportunities and challenges.
"We're happy to see different options developing at this compute layer as well," Shah said.
But he added that choices will need to be made.
"We won't be in a position to support everything, every option," Shah said of Samsung's equipment. "There will be a couple of winners and losers in that space. It's a vast, developing market, and the key for us, we think, is just the importance of having options."
He noted that Samsung is working with Marvell to develop an accelerator card.
- Samsung fills its 2G hole in new challenge to Ericsson and Nokia
- Dish inks $1B+ deal with Samsung for 5G radios
- Intel boasts open RAN monopoly as Nokia turns to others
— Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano