This post was originally published on RCR Wireless.
We’re all familiar with the big cell towers we see around town that house the antennae and communications equipment connecting our ever-present wireless devices. But we are much less familiar with the technology that provides the compute power for these cell towers: the baseband unit that is typically hosted “at the bottom of the tower.” The baseband unit is home to both custom hardware blades that are complex, expensive and difficult to maintain and the proprietary software that runs alongside them. Because so much of the system is proprietary, custom or complex, cost issues quickly arise for both operators and system vendors, which eventually translate to the mobile phone bill. Operators rely on a variety of vendors to deliver this networking equipment, adding to the complexities of wireless networks and leading to a disjointed experience. A solution is needed to integrate multiple wireless standards and multiple software sources on a single hardware platform to offer a unified approach to deliver seamless wireless connectivity for our mobile devices.
Enter virtualization, which opens the door of opportunities for both operators and users by seamlessly integrating various vendors’ stacks, features and standards at a lower cost by removing issues related to proprietary implementations. Let’s take a look at these benefits and how they are achieved.
Putting as much functionality as possible into general purpose compute hardware and non-proprietary software allows for cost effective development, deployment and maintenance. Because each base station is unique with varying platform requirements, virtualization targets only those applications that are suitable for a virtualized environment. By virtualizing part of the base station, it is not only easier for operators to have the same functionality without propriety hardware and software driving up costs, but also easier for system developers to develop the base station in general, leading to faster innovation cycles and thus a better end user experience.
High levels of integration
In many cases, operators are challenged by having to manage a complex network built on equipment from different vendors and access standards, which can create a disjointed user experience.
Software-defined networking and virtualization through network function virtualization standard and mechanisms allows multiple access standards (including Wi-Fi, LTE, millimeter-wave support for 5G) to run under the umbrella of a single platform, enabling both a lower time-to-market and a better user experience through tight integration of these multiple standards. This also allows base station manufacturers to integrate software sources from a range of different vendors, offering both a flexible option for operators and a seamless user experience.
Enabling new business models
Additionally, virtualization grows the top line for network operators/service providers by enabling them to leverage new business models through the use of new applications at the edge of the network. For example, latency sensitive applications such as augmented reality or enterprise services require wireless data access within a specific geographical area – where traffic doesn’t need to be backhauled through the core network. Virtualization allows network operators to seamlessly deploy such additional applications. As vendor networking solutions can be quickly and easily integrated, network operators get a chance to differentiate through innovation.
Virtualization helps to ensure the network can smoothly evolve to meet the needs of the future by allowing operators to integrate upcoming protocols into the network without having to replace the network all together. For example, as the roll-out of 5G networks begins to take form over the next five years, 5G standards and benefits will be seamlessly integrated into the infrastructure with limited equipment changes. The virtualized base station is backwards compatible, allowing continued support for previous generations, such as LTE, while also deploying new technologies. This flexibility will be critical in enabling network operators to develop new business models beyond the current voice and data services.
By enabling simpler and easier integration of multiple standards and multiple software sources on a single hardware platform, virtualized base stations are able to meet both current and future demands of operators and users alike.
Does this mean we can replace base stations with servers?
Following the thinking outlined above, one might assume that base stations can/will be replaced by standard off-the-shelf servers that you can buy them from established IT/data center vendors. However, this may prove to be a bit too simplified. The challenge is to provide a platform that provides the benefits from virtualization without paying any penalty compared to those proprietary platforms mentioned earlier. Think about latency requirements where responsiveness needs to be orders of magnitude better than in IT environments (tens of microseconds), and use of specific hardware acceleration (physical layer processing, IPSec secure tunneling, encryption, etc.). The challenge for vendors is combining the efficiency of proprietary hardware with features of general purpose compute and virtualization.