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ECOSYSTEM MATTERS: THE FUTURE OF O-RAN AND 5G


Greg Henderson

ADI’s Dr. Greg Henderson—Senior Vice President, Automotive, Communications, and Aerospace—answers five key questions on how open RAN (O-RAN) and network disaggregation will impact the 5G communications world.

This story was adapted from the “Network Disaggregation: Disruption & Opportunities in Communications” event sponsored by the Boston Business Journal.

1. WHAT’S YOUR VIEW ON THE FUTURE OF O-RAN AND WHY DO YOU THINK THE NETWORK IS BECOMING DISAGGREGATED AT THIS PARTICULAR POINT IN TIME?

HENDERSON: 5G networks open the possibility to have a significant amount of the network virtualized. Instead of having proprietary hardware and software running through custom interfaces, significant parts of the network can be virtualized and run through open interfaces on computer hardware, which will provide for a much more open network architecture. The vision of O-RAN is that by leveraging virtualization coupled with open/standard interfaces, you can have a much more flexible, multi-vendor network. Through the open interfaces, the ecosystem has the potential to develop a network with a broader array of features. For the carrier, this provides opportunities for new network capabilities, new business models, supply chain resiliency, and a lot more rapid evolution of the network.

2. WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES WITH O-RAN TODAY?

HENDERSON: O-RAN presents a unique set of challenges, but these challenges are also opportunities for the vendor community. Multi-vendor interoperability is fundamentally one of the big challenges. In order to make this vision work, you're going to have lots of parts of the network that come from different suppliers and you’ll need to make sure that the network can perform at the robust standards expected of 5G networks, across all of the network use cases. There are really three threads to managing that challenge. The first is about open standards and defining the interfaces carefully and clearly and making those open standards so everyone can operate within them. At ADI we are contributing to key working groups in the O-RAN Alliance to help define these standards and create reference designs from them. The second thread is about interoperability, which is really incumbent upon us in the vendor ecosystem to make sure we can demonstrate multi-vendor interoperability. At ADI we are working with system integrators, DU vendors, and network test equipment providers, to ensure interoperability between our lower layer PHY and DUs. And the third is partnerships. In order for an ecosystem to create advanced solutions like 5G ORAN, you need a lot of partnerships to bring high performance, carrier grade products to market. As a major solutions provider in the radio unit, we directly engage with other suppliers in and adjacent to the signal chain. We have announced partnerships with Intel and Marvell in developing 5G ORAN solutions and also with test equipment providers like Keysight to ensure full coverage of not only the technology but also its interoperability. Working cooperatively, we’re creating connections needed for the ecosystem to thrive. By leading in these three areas—open standards, interoperability and ecosystem partnership—we think the challenges O-RAN faces can be managed and this can be a success.

3. WHAT WILL BE SOME EARLY INDICATORS IN THE ECOSYSTEM THAT WOULD SIGNAL A SUCCESSFUL O-RAN ADOPTION?

HENDERSON: I think there are two areas where we can see signs of successful adoption. First, is the carrier space. It’s exciting to see that O-RAN networks are being deployed and announced, and we see more progress on this front throughout the world as carriers move towards execution. One example is the implementation of Rakuten’s 5G Open RAN network. As a Greenfield site, they are showing great success ramping the network up to scale with a virtualized core. This type of successful deployment is an encouraging sign as other carriers like Dish Network, Telefónica, Vodafone, and Orange, among others, all have declared their commitment to making Open RAN an integral part of their networks. The second sign of success will come from the solution and vendor community. We will see signs of success when we see more power and performance optimized RU and DU products using the 7.2× split. This is the equipment that does beamforming and baseband processing, where people are developing purpose-built products that are targeted to these O-RAN interfaces. Analog Devices is investing in this space to try to enable success in ORAN. For ADI we have announced our Lower Level PHY dedicated baseband chip that will be available in 2022. In addition, we have announced a partnership with Marvell to develop a complete massive MIMO solution and reference design using the 7.2× split. We feel these products, along with our partners, will meaningfully enable low power, cost effective RU solutions. In this way the market will start to see products and chipsets that are custom built to meet these specific O-RAN requirements but also have the high-performance level requirements you need to meet 5G.

4. WHAT DOES VIRTUALIZATION MEAN FOR THE RADIO UNIT?

HENDERSON: Much of the network can be virtualized, but not everything. If you think about the OSI protocol stack, the bottom level is called the physical layer for a reason, because that’s where the digital content connects to the physical world and the radio unit is fundamentally in the physical layer. There are elements of the radio unit that you can’t virtualize because that’s where you’re connecting to the physical world and the RF spectrum. In addition, in the lower physical layers—there are functions that can be virtualized but this will not provide an efficient implementation—and we will need to build the proper hardware to have an efficient radio implementation. While there are elements of the radio that must be hardware and can’t be virtualized, there are architectures around the radio unit that can be virtualized. Having standard and open data models for how one interfaces to that radio unit and the management plane can be implemented in an open software and processing architecture inside the radio unit. So while a lot of the radio will be hard, you can have a virtualized interface. Those data models and management planes can be virtualized and open, and this allows the radio unit to be a key part of the open solution.

5. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST OPPORTUNITIES THAT ARE ENABLED BY DISAGGREGATION ONCE IT REACHES SCALE IN COMMERCIAL NETWORKS?

HENDERSON: The key opportunities are really rooted in what I mentioned earlier about how networks wouldn’t be built from end-to-end by a given supplier. Instead, they’d be built on open standard interfaces, using equipment from any number of potential companies within the communications ecosystem. This creates a lot of opportunities for the end users of networks, who will have many more options to tailor networks to their needs, particularly in private networks, whether they are built by the company using them or hosted by a carrier. For instance, in an application like shipping port management, the network needs to cover a large open area while also overcoming interference from containers or other large, moving objects. An application like mining will have a different set of needs since the networked environment is always changing and will often require signals to navigate a confined space with limited lines of sight. Meanwhile, in automated factory applications, latency and security may be paramount. At ADI we recognize that the interoperability and flexibility enabled by open networks will create more opportunities for companies to develop novel services that are geared specifically towards these divergent application areas and hence are engaged closely with a range of ecosystem partners to understand and offer solutions to meet their unique needs. The opportunities for companies in the communications ecosystem and the users of this technology are very exciting.