Virtualization Technology News and Information
What to expect from "Open RAN" and "Simple RAN", and how they compare

By Jean-Paul Smets, Founder of Rapid.Space, a Hyper Open cloud provider based on open-source, open hardware, and open service

In 1995, France-based Alcatel-Alsthom was the number one telecom company in the world surpassing global players like Lucent, Nortel and Ericsson. Today it no longer exists. Its facilities have been dismantled and its remaining operations have been taken over by Nokia.

What happened during 25 years to turn a company at the forefront of telecommunications to one being forced to merge with a competitor? The answer is simple: It refused to adopt new technologies. Alcatel was the industry leader in telephone switchboards (PABX) but neglected to adopt technologies which have today become industry standard.

What happened to Alcatel and the PABX industry may also happen to the telephone equipment industry. A technology invented eight years ago by Amarisoft, called Virtual Radio Access Network (vRAN) can provide better performance for 4G/5G networks at much lower cost than traditional hardware from Nokia, Ericsson, or Huawei.

These vendors provide classical base transceiver stations (BTS) which require their dedicated hardware for handling radio signal baseband computing and transport processing while vRAN allows using commodity PCs to do this. Connecting such a standard PC to a Remote Radio Head (RRH) - the point mobile phones will connect to - means 4G/5G network access can be provided in a much simpler way and independent of supplier hardware. It could turn into another iteration of "software is eating the world" which Alcatel and PABX fell victim to - this time with two initiatives called Open RAN and Simple RAN setting out to transform the telecom infrastructure market as we know it.  

What is Open RAN?

Open RAN is an initiative that wants to open the interfaces and protocols within the BTS. It introduces an accessible network element between the radio unit (RRH - where the high frequency radio signal is digitized) and the distributed and centralized units (DU/CU - where the baseband signal is produced). This allows building systems from different hardware vendors. The standardisation of these protocols is driven by a consortium of operators and vendors called the Open RAN Policy Coalition.Their mission is to make sure that RAN interfaces are interoperable.

However, it remains to be seen whether this will be possible, because Open RAN usually relies on Intel's FlexRan architecture, which partially offloads signal processing into the RRH and partly accelerates baseband processing with Intel's proprietary hardware. This means it is neither possible to use generic RRHs which do only frequency modulation nor commodity PCs handling all DU/CU processing. It is therefore difficult to imagine Open RAN being integrated into existing commercial infrastructures, or even reusing existing RRHs, in its current state.

In addition, Open RAN is deployed using a combination of Ethernet, Common Public Radio Interfaces (eCPRI), and Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) which adds expensive switches and complex network protocols, ultimately increasing the cost per antenna. The problem of these additional costs is where Simple RAN hopes to be the solution.

Why Is Simple RAN the better solution?

Driven primarily by Amarisoft, the inventor of vRAN, Simple RAN tries to define a standard for vRAN based on a subset of the architecture approved by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP).

Simple RAN does not require any dedicated hardware acceleration. All radio baseband signal processing can be handled by Amarisoft's software on standard Intel, AMD, or ARM processors. Unlike Open RAN, Simple RAN supports the "Split 8" approach, which means it is compatible with almost all RRH suppliers. The other big advantage of Simple RAN is that it can provide ‘all in one' 4G/5G base stations - even under an open-source hardware license. This means that it can take only a matter of minutes to deploy a 4G/5G network with a decentralized core network.

Simple RAN addresses the process of standardizing these new protocols more openly. Its specifications are public, which is not the case for Open RAN. The only requirement to adhere to the Simple RAN initiative is to publish the information on how to interface any two components - something that many telecom vendors still refrain from doing in order to prevent competitors from gaining technical insights.

Comparing the pros and cons of both RAN initiatives, one has the impression that Simple RAN offers the better proposition for the future of the telecommunication industry albeit not being supported by any of the major hardware vendors at this point. Open RAN is using technology that is incompatible with current networks and is dependent on both proprietary software and hardware from Intel, whereas Simple RAN is compatible with existing networks, hardware independent, and only requires the software from Amarisoft. If Amarisoft was to become open source, this would completely tip the scale in the favor of Simple RAN and likely accelerate the telecom hardware market's evolution from being controlled by monoliths to becoming a more competitive, innovative and democractic ecosystem - with the last question remaining being whether dedicated hardware for radio baseband signal processing and its vendors will follow the footsteps of PABX.



Jean-Paul Smets 

Jean-Paul Smets, Founder of RapidSpace and initial author of ERP. Jean-Paul is currently in charge of RapidSpace international development, investment relations and technology partnerships. He graduated from Ecole Normale Supérieure with a PhD in computer science and from Ecole des Mines de Paris with a Master in Public Administration. He gained industrial experience in Apparel Industry, Oil industry, Non Profit Organizations and Lorraine Region Public Administration. He is an active member of Free Software associations and has played a key role in the Eurolinux campaign which succeeded in protecting innovation from software patents.

Published Tuesday, February 23, 2021 7:36 AM by David Marshall
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