Universal Platform for Open User Plane Function

China Mobile recently gathered the leading 5G hardware and software vendors to an “Open User Plane Function” conference, where they addressed the need to create a universal platform for user plane functionality (UPF), which is the data plane within a 5G network.

In other words, in the opinion of one of the world’s largest telecommunications operators, UPF appliances need to be both open and decoupled from the entire 5G infrastructure, in particular the SMF (session management function) block, which sends control information to the UPF. Keeping the control and data planes separate increases the flexibility of the network infrastructure and facilitates operation at the network edge.

China Mobile took this initiative because it recognizes that UPF can make or break a successful rollout of 5G. As 5G demands higher bandwidth, lower latency, and other performance improvements over 4G LTE networks, operators like China Mobile look to the network edge and even the “on-premises edge” to meet these requirements.

The user plane, where the data itself passes through, is the block that must be moved to the edge. Control and configuration, on the other hand, can be kept in a central location. In order to make this work, China Mobile is asking vendors to work together so the UPF can be open and separated from the software control plane.

China Mobile further believes that FPGA hardware is the right programmable platform to handle the user data plane. They therefore called for delivery of an FPGA SmartNIC to offload the data plane from the server CPU, further speeding up and improving the performance of the network. When it comes to creating a universal platform to handle the user plane function, this can be accomplished best with an FPGA, because of the following advantages:

  • Far better performance (throughput, latency) than standard CPUs, which are simply not built for network data flow processing
  • Small footprint and low power consumption, ideal for the network edge
  • Runs on standard off-the-shelf servers, where the embedded FPGA itself is a COTS platform, as opposed to the dedicated hardware of an ASIC
  • Can be reprogrammed as needed to meet evolving standards and requirements
  • Highly reliable with fast failover
  • Enhanced security with IPSec tunnel endpoint aggregation handled inline such that data never needs to access the CPU

China Mobile’s initiative is an excellent example of the trend toward hardware disaggregation in the network, separating control and user functions for true network function virtualization, while keeping the infrastructure agile enough to adapt to ever-changing standards and requirements.

China Mobile’s open user plane function policy will allow more Tier 2 vendors to compete to supply 5G solutions, as the operators will be empowered to select the optimal solution for UPF rather than rely on the Tier 1 ASIC suppliers for entire systems. With China the clear leader in 5G planning so far, such an initiative should also encourage other network operators in China and around the world to follow China Mobile’s example. Ethernity looks forward to working with system integrators on creating a universal platform for 5G networking and taking an active role in future discussions toward developing Open UPF.

Ethernity Networks has natively separated the data plane from the control plane in FPGA-based acceleration solutions for over 15 years, deploying more than 600,000 systems and connecting more than 100 million end users.

In fact, Ethernity provided an earlier generation of this solution over EPC as early as 2015 that has remained in deployment since then. With our ACE-NIC100 SmartNIC and Router-on-NIC FPGA firmware, Ethernity offers an optimized, next-generation solution for 5G UPF acceleration that achieves the required high-performance benchmarks of 5G by offloading the entire data plane to the FPGA.

To link to the original article in Chinese about China Mobile’s initiative, click here.

By Louis Luo