A key dynamic taking place in the wireless market is the move away from fixed-purpose infrastructure equipment that has powered wireless networks for many years, and into the use of general purpose hardware that can be programmed for specific functionality.

This move to open, standardized hardware, boosted with some accelerators for necessary wireless functions, has led to a virtualized environment for 5G similar to the movement to open, software defined networks that have been in place in enterprises and in the cloud for several years. Much like modern data centers and cloud-enabled modern workloads, virtualization has arrived in the carrier infrastructure as a viable and preferred platform despite some early doubters.

Critical to this off-the-shelf, software defined future, has been the move to Open Radio Access Network (ORAN) technology. ORAN exhibits many of the same benefits for carriers that enterprises have embraced. It allows operators to set up various functionality and services by programming the functions into adaptable hardware, rather than having to replace fixed-function, purpose-built hardware each time that needs change or we move to a new “G”. Questions arose whether a fully virtualized, modern application environment could compete with dedicated hardware on a power/performance basis, but many of the newer implementations have put that debate to rest.

For all its benefits, it’s not an easy transition for those Brownfield environments that have been in place for many years. We estimate 50%-65% of existing network operations have been virtualized but not as often at the radio network functionality. Start-up greenfield networks (including Rakuten and Dish) are a much easier deployment and virtually all have adopted a virtualized approach.

Virtualization Benefits

VRAN enables the use of common off-the-shelf hardware platforms, an ability to disaggregate software and hardware functionality, and employs full cloud-native implementations. As a result, it achieves faster time to invention/deployment of new services, which in the end leads to lower costs and/or new revenues. Indeed, to achieve true vRAN/ORAN, cloud native architectures are a requirement, and even the major hyperscalers such as AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform host and offer virtualized systems for both public and private 5G networks. Many companies are vying for market share in this new arena, but virtually every major vRAN deployment to date runs on Intel-powered hardware and most often its FlexRAN software.

While vRAN has been accepted widely, the move to an ORAN environment has seen industry hesitation. Front-end radio networks are very complex and require optimizations that some engineers think can’t be achieved with an open systems approach. Rakuten has been a leader in applying ORAN technology into their newly built networks deployed in Japan with great success. And their Rakuten Symphony product provides the backbone of the new generation of carrier infrastructure. It enables remote management, drop-ship automated set up of new cell sites, and lowest cost of operations. As a result, Rakuten Symphony has become a business that sells its platform to other carriers, not only powering the core of Rakuten’s network.

For its part, Intel has been a primary supplier of chips that power the majority of the systems deployed in vRAN settings. Further, Intel’s FlexRAN software is widely adopted as the core platform for related systems for a majority of companies. Indeed, Rakuten, has hailed FlexRAN as key to making its products a success and achieving its time to market goals.

There remains a challenge in deploying a fully functional network platform based on commercial general purpose processors. For certain functions, a standard CPU chip like Intel’s Xeon does not offer enough capability. In those cases, accelerators typically built using FPGAs are included in the final devices running the network. While this solution works well, it’s also cumbersome in that it requires two different computing engines – a standard processor and an accelerator card. Rakuten and Intel are now partnering to solve this dilemma with an integrated approach that removes the need for an accelerator card.

Combining General Processing with Acceleration

Intel has announced a new product that combines the processing power of its Xeon Scaler chips with the acceleration capabilities of its FPGA components and combined both into one SoC. Targeted at the 5G and ORAN needs of carriers, this combination has some significant benefits that include:

Reduced power requirements – the amount of electricity needed to run network operations is one of the largest costs involved. It is estimated moving to a more power efficient hardware and software deployment can save 35%-40% of required power, with major implications for sustainability.

Reduction in BOM – enabling smaller, lighter and more cost-effective systems to be built. Lowering complexity of the underlying equipment is a core need to enable both automated, one click deployments as well as reducing the space requirements that enable deployment in many more potential locations, including edge computing.

Better performance – a single SOC can improve the overall platform performance by as much as 2X compared to discrete components, according to Intel, enabling control units to power more radios for a more efficient operating environment.

Called the Intel Xeon Scalable Processor with vRAN boost, it provides up to 2x capacity gains at the same power, about 20% power savings, and is offered as a compact single SoC rather than multiple discrete chips. Its dedicated accelerator includes 5G specific instructions like matrix acceleration. But with many networking functions now relying on AI processes as well, those can be handled by the Xeon processor AI acceleration.

Bottom Line: Intel working closely with Rakuten has created a combination product that should greatly accelerate adoption of vRAN/ORAN technology. While both companies are free to explore partnerships with other companies, it’s likely that this close working relationship will continue and put both Rakuten Symphony and Intel Xeon at the forefront of the move to a fully virtualized carrier environment. We expect Rakuten to create and sell some leading-edge hardware using the Intel tech, and we expect that what Intel learns from this relationship will keep it at the forefront of supplying processors to the 5G and general carrier marketplace, and ahead of its competitors vying for a piece of this growing and attractive market. Such competitors include Qualcomm, Nvidia, AMD and Marvel.

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