Disaggregated RAN Gains Momentum

Ericsson Gets on Board and Vodafone UK Goes All-In

After years of opposing opening its locked end-to-end mobile network products, even in the face of the recent trend toward open radio access networks (ORAN), Ericsson recently announced its intentions to develop a disaggregation-friendly solution.

Traditionally, Ericsson (and other monolithic mobile vendors) have provided complete solutions for the radio access network, including all software and hardware components. While this might save on short-term CAPEX for a particular installation, it is generally shortsighted, as the lack of flexibility means it is very difficult to scale or switch vendors. With a disaggregated and open ecosystem, operators can choose best-in-class vendors for individual software and hardware components, without any worry of being locked-in to a given vendor.

Ericsson’s decision to disaggregate its offering with its new Cloud RAN solution comes in the wake of similar announcements from Nokia and Samsung, which may have put pressure on Ericsson to provide operators with an open solution as well. The fact that Ericsson is also moving toward ORAN, albeit reluctantly, is a very strong indication that the future of the RAN market will be open and disaggregated.

In a similar move, Vodafone UK recently declared its intention to move away from the single-supplier model, with a pledge to move at least 20% of its UK network to ORAN vendors by 2027. Forced by the UK government to remove Huawei equipment, Vodafone saw this as an opportunity to become less dependent on other monolithic mobile vendors like Nokia, Ericsson, and ZTE.

FPGAs are the ideal platform to support disaggregation and ORAN, as they provide a hardware-level flexibility which doesn’t sacrifice performance. While COTS servers running software on standard CPUs provide maximum flexibility, the CPUs become a huge bottleneck as they are not made for high traffic throughput. As a result, this quickly burns through CPU cores. On the flip side, ASIC-based solutions offer high performance, but discourage disaggregated solutions, due to their inherently rigid structure. FPGAs offer the perfect balance, with hardware optimized for networking, yet reprogrammable so they can be changed to suit new and evolving requirements.

As the leading provider of FPGA-based solutions for telecommunication and networking for over 15 years, Ethernity Networks is well-placed to provide key pieces of a disaggregated RAN.

For example, Ethernity Networks’ 5G User Plane Function (UPF) Acceleration solution offers carrier-grade UPF performance offloaded to Ethernity’s ACE-NIC100 FPGA SmartNIC. This enables the UPF to be placed at the network edge, reducing networking overhead, improving latency, and lowering costs. The ACE-NIC100 easily integrates with third-party UPF software networking elements from any vendor to enable an easily programmable future-ready data path that can quickly adapt to a service provider’s unique requirements and evolve with the changing requirements of the 5G market.

Ethernity can also help disaggregate RAN by offering a virtual router on its ACE-NIC100 SmartNIC within the 5G distributed unit (DU) to negate the need for a separate hardware-based cell site router. Instead, network operators can use white box DU servers with a vRouter offloaded to the SmartNIC. This disaggregated approach not only saves physical space, power, and cost, but it also allows for much more flexibility when it comes to vendor and product choice, as the FPGA-based ACE-NIC100 easily integrates with any third-party vRouter software over DPDK.

Industry updates like those of Vodafone UK and Ericsson point clearly to the impending entrenchment of disaggregation in the 5G RAN ecosystem, and for good reason. Disaggregated RAN will take advantage of Network Function Virtualization to afford operators much greater agility and futureproofing of their networks. Moreover, with 5G standards and requirements still evolving, disaggregation is a must to prevent the significant long-term expense of having to swap out field-deployed rigid hardware that cannot adapt to new protocols and algorithms.

Ethernity Networks is perfectly positioned to contribute to this growing trend with its experience and deployment-ready FPGA-based solutions.

By Brian Klaff