In the modern tech industry, 5G and cloud are the two biggest trends that are seeing significant uptake across the globe. These trends have disrupted the way networks are built, causing a shift from the traditional practice of building cellular networks. 

For decades, cellular operators have used the same legacy architecture and a similar ecosystem to build their RAN. During this time, there have been five generations of networks, as well as developments in connectivity solutions. Simultaneously, the other part of the cellular network, known as the Core Network, has been completely modernized to incorporate cloud-native and virtualized architecture.

The Development of RAN & O-RAN Architecture

The main reason that RAN architecture was not updated in the past few decades was its ability to support extremely low latency. Fully integrated hardware and software produced by the same company was previously the only way to achieve this, however, this meant that cellular networks were locked into certain vendors, which typically resulted in higher costs. 

Recent computing developments have made it possible to take apart the hardware and software components of the network so that providers can operate with components from different vendors. Interoperation between vendors’ equipment is supported by industry-wide standards for RAN interfaces, known as open RAN (O-RAN).

It is important to note that O-RAN is not inherently open-source technology. The term ‘open’ refers to the freedom that O-RAN provides, dissociating from the nature of the traditional RAN market, where a few key RAN vendors have provided proprietary equipment and software that does not integrate with that of other vendors. 

The open RAN standards that are being developed use the virtual RAN (vRAN) principles and technologies of network malleability, increased security, and lower capital and operating costs. 

How O-RAN is Disrupting Traditional Networks

The main reason for the development and deployment of O-RAN is to create a standard for hardware and software so that components from different vendors can be used together. With standardized interfaces, network operators can choose the RAN elements that work best for them, rather than being locked into using proprietary hardware and software from one vendor.

This means that providers can now use a combination of commercial off-the-shelf hardware and hardware accelerators to achieve the same or increased performance. As a result, vendor lock-in will become a thing of the past, as network operators will be able to look outside of one RAN vendor’s equipment and software stack. Providers will be able to offer diversity in their networks, and, as a result, network operators will have more flexibility to modify the functionality of their RANs to meet their needs. O-RAN is also poised to reduce costs in terms of the capital expense tied to base station deployment.

With the virtualized aspects of O-RAN, network administrators benefit from automation and improved network visibility. Network operators working with a vRAN infrastructure also have the opportunity for a quicker time to market compared to those using a hardware-based infrastructure, as it becomes easier to introduce new features to the network using Virtual Network Functions.

While communications providers are likely to see the benefits of O-RAN, traditional RAN vendors are likely to be negatively affected in terms of profitability. Profit margins are already lean in this sector, and O-RAN has the potential to replace a significant number of base station hardware units with open source, virtualized radio units. With the development of O-RAN, vendors also face the possibility of increased competition, as O-RAN leverages traditional IT enterprise infrastructure, which may open the segment to a range of new participants.

How Far is Open RAN from Being Mainstream?

Open RAN solutions are continuing to advance and are nearing the maturity phase, where they will be considered a mainstream solution. Over the next 10 years, the Open RAN market is expected to grow and eventually overtake traditional RAN solutions in public, enterprise, and industrial cellular segments. If requirements are met for enterprise and industrial sectors, this market has the potential to grow larger than the public cellular market.

Several major telecommunications providers are currently incorporating, or are in the process of incorporating, open RAN solutions in their networks. In order to succeed the entire industry will have to adopt the standardized specifications that are outlined by organizations such as the O-RAN Alliance to ensure the reliability of Open RAN-based networks. O-RAN solutions will also have to perform at the same level or better than traditional RAN solutions while featuring a similar architecture to these solutions in order to be adopted by the masses. 

In Conclusion

With a focus on virtualization and standardization, Open RAN has already received worldwide interest from telecommunications companies and is tipped to revolutionize the industry over the next few years. 

As a preeminent O-RAN test company, VIAVI Solutions has spawned the development of an E2E Open RAN portfolio encompassing robust device, antenna and core test solutions that span the entire Open RAN lifecycle. Contact us to find out more about the O-RAN ALLIANCE, O-RAN Architecture, 5G, and Testing Solutions.

About The Author

Channel Marketing Manager - APAC

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