Ever see those daredevil tightrope walkers crossing high above treacherous terrain with only a balancing pole to keep them steady? This is the picture that comes to mind when I think about operators moving as cautiously as possible toward a world in which Open RAN (O-RAN) and virtual RAN (vRAN) will inevitably combine.
For O-RAN and vRAN to live in harmony, they must ultimately converge at the intersection of supply chain diversity, deployment flexibility, cost-efficiency, and a faster pace of innovation. Any operator putting weight behind either or both of these architectures is grappling with at least a couple of the aforementioned driving forces as they plan strategies.
The delicate balancing act will occur as operators attempt to achieve the large-scale goals being set in the planning stages. The danger lurks in trying to pull off such an ambitious combined transformation with unproven architectures, new vendors, and little previous experience to lean on. This is where the testing community will deliver significant value. As lab work, trials, and rollouts begin, we will be that long balancing pole helping to assure a steady, surefooted march forward.
The danger lurks in trying to pull off such an ambitious combined transformation with unproven architectures, new vendors, and little previous experience to lean on.
Finding the right blend
It’s still early days for combining Open and virtual RAN and it’s safe to say the industry is “mixed” on the stepwise evolutionary journey.
At the moment, Open RAN is focused on opening proprietary protocols and interfaces between the various disaggregated RAN subcomponents to drive multi-vendor radio, hardware and software deployments. Virtual RAN is focused on decoupling RAN software features from custom-built hardware platforms to enable proprietary software to run on generic hardware compute platforms. Each can be deployed without the other but they can also be used in conjunction. It’s the flexibility of using them in conjunction that unlocks enhanced potential and value.
Regardless of the RAN flavor, the challenges and risks – also known as that treacherous terrain far below the tightrope – are many:
Technical complexity is outsized – RAN, especially the disaggregated lower layer radio functions, are difficult to virtualize while still meeting processing, latency and time-sensitive requirements. The added requirement of open interfaces demands vendor conformance, interoperability and bounded performance.
Security challenges must be solved – More vendors and more software means a broader attack surface with increased risk for end-to-end supply chains.
You can’t rush maturation – Maturity comes from experience and iterative growth. While operators are supportive of O-RAN and vRAN, both are in their infancy and have not yet proven to be fully ready for large-scale commercial implementations, especially in existing multi-vendor environments.
Cost counts considerably – While there are any number of reasons to pursue O-RAN and vRAN, cost reduction is among the most desirable. But this outcome is far from guaranteed as operators trade one headache for another and take on the management overheads of infant tech.
Moving safely and swiftly toward an O-RAN and vRAN-powered 5G future
With RAN accounting for 80% of wireless infrastructure spending and 5G network densification poised to surge, there will be no appetite for uncertainty.
Bearing this in mind, testing will play a more important role than ever when it comes to O-RAN and vRAN deployment. It will not just assure components work together and meet specs, but that operators also remain safely on the tightrope while progressing confidently on pace toward the goals defined at the start of the journey.
Operators can increase prospects for success by implementing Open RAN and virtual RAN testing to continuously validate performance and robustness, versus a traditional proprietary RAN architecture approach. Testing also helps ensure multi-vendor interoperability, collaboration, and open ecosystems. Importantly, it can make the difference between realizing cost efficiencies and innovation benefits or falling short. And with comprehensive automation, testing will drive speed.
Testing’s ability to continuously provide a snapshot of what’s working, what’s not, and where challenges must be addressed, means operators can take one confident step after another with increasing pace. In our early next-gen RAN work with operators, this has been a core goal and a driving factor for increased investment. While we don’t yet know how the ORAN and vRAN markets will materialize, pushing both to perfection will mean learning as quickly as possible how to deploy with the right approach for assured success.