Vodafone puts its HOLMES system on the open RAN security case

Developed by Vodafone in Malaga, the system would detect security threats in multivendor networks, says the operator.

Iain Morris, International Editor

June 5, 2024

4 Min Read
Testing work at Vodafone's facility in Malaga
Gabriel Caffarena, chip development manager at Vodafone, puts HOLMES through its paces.(Source: Vodafone)

As the world's most famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes spent all his time hunting for the connections between events that would solve a crime and end the spate of lawlessness. In apparent homage to Arthur Conan Doyle's creation, Vodafone has just exposed a new tool it calls the Holistic ORAN Logging & Metrics Security Shield (HOLMES, with ampersand all Vodafone's). Its job is partly to sniff out threats in the radio access network (RAN).

But there is more to it. In a traditional RAN, a telco like Vodafone would take such management tools from the same vendor providing all the other parts in that area. Open RAN (the ORAN in HOLMES) unlocks the gates between these parts, theoretically allowing Vodafone to combine lots of different suppliers. Its goal is to have 30% of its European sites based on open RAN technology by 2030, up from a negligible amount today. HOLMES is designed to work across multiple vendors.

It arrives at an interesting time. Germany is under growing pressure from European Union authorities to show Huawei the red card, just as the UK has done. The Chinese vendor accounts for about half the 5G RAN equipment currently installed in Germany, according to a Barclays estimate, and operators – Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica Germany and Vodafone – have resisted efforts to ban it.

Under one proposal aired last year, they would be allowed to keep Huawei's RAN basestations provided they replace its management software and tools with another company's. In a traditional RAN, this falls under the remit of the element management system (EMS), but in future open RAN infrastructure it would be supplanted by a service management and orchestration (SMO) platform, to which HOLMES seems to belong.

Sources question the feasibility of the German proposal. Huawei's products are not based on open RAN specifications, meaning it would have to work closely with another more politically acceptable company to link its RAN to that player's management software. Deutsche Telekom is understood to have developed management software that could support Huawei's RAN in the event authorities move ahead with this proposal. But if the project has involved collaboration with Huawei, some politicians will inevitably remain unhappy.

Interface quagmire

HOLMES conceivably has zero connection with the case of the Chinese RAN. It is, however, specifically focused on security – the sub-category of security information and event management (SIEM) – with Vodafone saying it has no plan to wade deeper into SMO. "The idea is not to replace the SMO, but to complement it by integrating HOLMES into it because an SMO covers many other purposes in addition to security, such as orchestration, management and automation procedures to monitor and control RAN components," said a spokesperson via email.

Vodafone believes HOLMES will help it to cut operational costs, largely by automating the process of analyzing "multivendor logs." What's unclear is how, exactly, it would be integrated with any third-party SMO platforms. Vodafone has said it will share project results with the O-RAN Alliance, the authority over open RAN specifications. But vendors would have to adopt standardized approaches to log formats, it points out. That could take a long time.

Meanwhile, the interfaces between SMO and other RAN parts are still not finalized, as noted by Vodafone and NTT Docomo in a white paper late last year. These include O1 (linking SMO to RAN functions), O2 (between SMO and the cloud platform) and A1, a connector to the near-real-time RAN Intelligent Controller, a sort of app store for the network. Without open interfaces, telcos may be thwarted in their attempts to pair different vendors.

But a well-placed source says there has been good progress on O1 and A1 standardization, with these interfaces now "very close to completion." The O2 interface is "a bit delayed," according to the same source. SMO is estimated to account for a tiny percentage of RAN capital expenditure and almost no operating costs. For most telcos, then, the open RAN priority will continue to be addressing the fronthaul link between radio units, the costliest element, and compute resources. Nevertheless, Vodafone may need those SMO interfaces to be entirely opened for HOLMES to be more useful.

Push for self-reliance

Work on it was apparently led by Vodafone's Innovation Center in Malaga, Spain, but it also involved a non-profit Spanish research body called the i2CAT Foundation, which already appears to have gained experience in the SMO area through work on other platforms (undisclosed in Vodafone's release).

HOLMES looks like further evidence of Vodafone's push for technological self-reliance. Under a strategy announced in late 2021, it has been adding thousands of software engineers to its workforce, partly by retraining staff, and has said this will cut its need for external systems integrators and other third parties. The plan announced then was to grow an international team of about 9,000 people to roughly 16,000. At the time of the last update, in February, Vodafone employed nearly 14,000 engineers, said Scott Petty, its chief technology officer.

Struggling to grow sales and with high costs, Vodafone last year said it would cut 11,000 overall jobs to "simplify" the business. But in its most recent ESG report, published last month, headcount at continuing operations was shown to have risen.

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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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