March 18, 2022
Integration, Partnership, Collaboration
Integration, Partnership, Collaboration
– The Real Keys to Success in Open RAN
With Open RAN network architectures becoming more commonplace, mainly because of their promise for increased flexibility and speedier innovation, it’s useful to explore the challenges that have been uncovered in these early days. For example, it’s clear that Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are in need, more than ever, of help from system integrators to help design and validate the interoperability of networks comprised of components from various vendors.
The effort to keep a network running smoothly and delivering optimal performance in this new environment is no small feat, and there’s a wide range of contributors to the ecosystem. In this overview, we look at some of the most impactful elements in the Open RAN world and what we can do to keep the momentum moving forward.
Choose the right integrator
MNOs understand that the integration of disaggregated RAN components into the system is complex. This complexity has opened the doors for vendor diversity and created the need for an integrator to act as a common interface between MNOs and multiple vendors and take accountability for integrating the entire solution. These system integrators (SI) bring a variety of skill sets and a wealth of wireless deployment experience that can complement MNOs existing team.
The SI plays a vital role in carrying out the integration of open interfaces across multi-vendor components. Choosing an SI, though, can be tricky. Unlike SIs in the IT world, an Open RAN SI needs to be well-versed in the inner-workings of a wide range of telecom-specific technologies, such as 3GPP, O-RAN standards and basic telco network components (fronthaul, mid-haul and backhaul) and their orchestration platforms. For some operators who have begun their Open RAN journey, the choice of an SI with telecom bonafides like NEC has been a key factor in successful deployments. Tier 1 operators in Japan and around the world including Telefonica and Vodafone in Europe have all taken advantage of the domain expertise that NEC brought to the table.
Test and Collaborate
To expedite the rollout of Open RAN, rigorous testing is needed to validate the interoperability of various components from multiple vendors, ensuring end-to-end network stability and performance. This requires large investments in building the testing infrastructure and ecosystem of technologies supporting Open RAN which may be beyond the scope and capabilities of any single vendor. So, the O-RAN Alliance, with the support of a few MNOs, has established a number of Open Testing and Integration Centres (OTICs). These environments enable interaction among vendors and accelerate the development and deployment of O-RAN compliant networks. Industry consortiums, like the O-RAN Alliance and Telecom Infra Project (TIP), play a critical role in supporting widespread change and innovation by facilitating engagement between vendors in a neutral ecosystem environment.
In 2020, a PlugFest was held at four OTICs around the world and 55 companies took part in an effort to solve the interoperability challenges that stood in Open RAN’s way. By the end of 2021, more than 140 companies were taking part in the PlugFest and the number of OTICs had grown to 7. The growth in participation levels of events like these clearly demonstrate widespread understanding of the importance of collaboration.
Modernizing the Approach to Development
Adoption of O-RAN standards and software-based architecture is a paradigm shift in the process of building and managing 5G networks. The integration of software components from multiple vendors and keeping their subsequent software updates compatible, and in sync, is a very complicated task that cannot be managed easily using manual processes.
DevOps and CI/CD tools are being recognized by operators and vendors as an essential best practice for attaining the operational flexibility to effectively manage the network and automate testing and integration. According to DevOps.com automation of testing and deployment of new workloads is the key to success for 5G at scale. Deloitte agrees, saying that the use of DevOps and automated AI and machine learning are necessary in driving development when so many interchangeable parts are at work.
Simplify and Codify Vendor Relationships
A successful O-RAN network integration needs collaboration among all partners. As issues arise with any component in the ecosystem, the respective vendor needs to take accountability and resolve the issue while the other O-RAN partners need to extend their support, as possible. In a real-world scenario, this is much easier said than done.
To facilitate smooth relationships during these multi-vendor integrations, it’s important to establish clear agreements and contracts before the start of the exercise. NEC has made a number of moves along these lines to accelerate collaboration, for instance on interoperability testing*.
Develop Future-Looking TCO Models
According to some operators, the total network savings from Open RAN-based networks can be upwards of 40% in Opex and 30% in Capex. In fact, Rakuten has claimed it has realized significant savings in network build-outs and expects these benefits to continue. Yet, others have stated publicly that a multi-vendor deployment, with required integration, can raise costs, make O&M difficult and introduce greater risk of failures. Smaller operators are still apprehensive to choose a multi-vendor approach assuming it will bring additional complexities and subsequent costs. A study by Heavy Reading shows that cost savings are not even a leading reason why operators will shift to Open RAN. For many, the promise of the future is the driver.
It is important to understand that (a) Capex or Opex savings, if any, will be spread over a period of 5 – 10 years and (b) require up-front investments in cloud infrastructure and integration costs. Each situation comes with its own unique challenges. Green field operators may find it easier to realize the TCO benefits than Brown field operators because of the added complexity to integrate with their existing ecosystem.
In short, operators expecting immediate positive returns may be disappointed in the short term. To setup realistic expectation for TCO savings, real-life TCO models need to be developed to present the real value of Open RAN adoption, much of which will come down the road in the form of faster innovation and the development of new business models.
NEC has been a pioneer in the development of Open RAN networks and has proven its leadership in the domain and end-to-end system integration proficiency through multiple projects. The company has recently introduced its NEC Open Networks solution set, which exemplifies its commitment to openness, collaboration and partnership helping operators accelerate innovation and launch new services in a flexible, effective and cost efficient way.
* It includes a part of outcomes from a project commissioned by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO).