09-10-2020 | By Sam Brown
Intel is quickly becoming a key player in the 5G market and has recently released upgraded 5G systems including improvements and additional capabilities. What are virtual radio access networks, why are software-defined systems becoming more popular, and what is Intel offering in the 5G market?
Currently, 4G is the dominant cellular network and is an integral part of modern infrastructure. Establishing the current 4G infrastructure required the installation of updated processing systems, antenna, and software all of which bears an initial heavy cost. But, as technology continues to improve, a new cellular technology, called 5G (fifth generation), is about to step into the light and replace 4G. However, 5G includes a whole new range of features and therefore requires older 4G masts to be upgraded with MIMO antenna, processing capabilities, and improved connections. As a result, 5G will take time to become established as network operators slowly upgrade masts in areas that will be expected to see the greatest adoption of 5G (e.g. cities and towns). But this adoption is also expensive as older hardware may no longer be able to provide any useful functionality, and in some cases, even the antenna itself can no longer be used.
Anything that is software-defined means that the fundamental operation of the system is described in software instead of hardware. For example, a software-defined processor is a processor whose architecture is described in code and executed on a platform to “simulate” the hardware. Software-defined systems are becoming increasingly popular as they allow for a system to be quickly upgraded via software updates while not requiring changes to the underlying hardware that runs the system.
A virtual radio access network, or vRAN, is a radio network whose underlying protocols and function are defined in software as opposed to hardware. Traditional cellular networks rely on hardware and software at cell towers which are often produced by different companies utilising their own proprietary designs. The hardware at a cell tower is responsible for handling multiple connections, implementing protocols, and hosting specific networks. Changes to the protocol or communication methods may require a hardware, firmware, or software upgrade which can be an expensive task. If a cell tower experiences increase in demand, it may require operators to upgrade the connections to the tower as well as its fundamental hardware, which is also costly.
In a vRAN, many functions of a cell tower are shifted to edge processing centres which move these functions into the software realm. Instead of defining the network in hardware at each cell tower, the network is moved into the virtual realm, and this allows for entire networks to be adapted and changed as needed in software in real-time. For example, if a cell experiences higher demand, the vRAN can allow for more resources to be dedicated to that cell, and other masts can help that network meet the demand. Changes to the network (such as security updates and protocol changes), can quickly be applied to the network with little to no changes in the underlying hardware that runs the network. Therefore, vRAN allows for entire networks to quickly adapt and change at virtually no cost to the network operators. The next generation of cellular communication, 6G, may see no changes in hardware, but instead a large scale software update.
Understanding the importance of 5G and software-defined systems, Intel has recently announced additions and enhancements to their range of 5G products.
FlexRAN is Intel’s software-defined RAN platform that separates RAN control and data planes through an API. The latest changes to FlexRAN includes optimisation to MIMO to increase bandwidth as well as supporting reliable low-latency communication. Intel has also introduced a dedicated accelerator, the ACC100, which provides a low-cost solution to accelerate vRAN solutions.
Next-generation processors by Intel, the Intel Xeon range, will help improve the overall performance of network systems, and their scalability allows for systems that need to build over time. The Intel Xeon D processors are designed for network applications which have form factor-constrained environments at the edge. Another change to Intel’s 5G offerings is the support o Intel Ethernet 800 Series Network Adaptors to Intel Select Solutions for NFVI Red Hat, NFVI Ubuntu and NFVI Forwarding Platform.