HPE dips toe into OpenRAN 5G with a software platform and new iron to run it

Should be with carriers in the second quarter

HPE is getting into the OpenRAN game, with the newly minted Communications Technology Group today launching the OpenRAN Solution Stack, which combines network functionality with a suite of management tools.

The tech, which has support for both 5G and LTE standards, is connected to an orchestration platform, which HPE said allows carriers to manage their estate of towers (as well as the associated network functions and virtual machines running on them) from a single point of contact.

The company has also rolled out a new server to go with it. For the snappily named ProLiant DL110 Gen10 Plus Server, HPE picked Intel's third-gen Xeon Scalable silicon. Unlike a normal rack-mounted server, this has been designed for the relatively shallow boxes affixed to the side of mobile antennas. Four x16 PCIe slots support up to 16 narrow band RRUs (remote radio units) and six mid-band RRUs.

In addition to the software and hardware, HPE has also shown an eagerness to get involved in the OpenRAN planning stage, and plans to offer carriers a pre-tested set of technology blueprints. While the majority of previous OpenRAN deployments and tests have been based on custom (and often experimental) configurations, these blueprints would allow carriers to pick hardware that's been demonstrated to work, without having to go through the testing process themselves.

As Reg readers know, the RAN (Radio Access Network) refers to the edge of a cellular network, represented by the antennas and base stations our smartphones connect to. OpenRAN attempts to standardise how this element of a cellular network operates, particularly when it comes to the interactions between the baseband and radio unit (RU), as well as the core network. In practice, this would allow carriers to more easily mix and match components.

OpenRAN has proven to be an attractive proposition for governments concerned about the over-reliance of their nation's telecommunications sector on a handful of vendors. During the soul-searching prompted by Huawei's excision from the UK's 5G rollout, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden decried the lack of vendor diversity as a "global market failure."

Amy Karam, a Canadian academic who testified at a meeting of the Commons Science and Technology committee last year, said the lack of investment in RAN technologies (which are less profitable than core network functions) and the disappearance of businesses including Nortel and Marconi was a "failure of capitalism."

Standardisation (as well as the shift of certain processes to ordinary x86 hardware and virtualized environments) should lower the barrier to entry for new competitors, and thus smash Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, and Samsung's dominance. Already, the industry has started to see Qualcomm, NEC, and now HPE enter the fray. Whether the sector is sufficiently profitable to sustain this interest in the long term is, however, a moot point.

Another oft-touted benefit of OpenRAN is that it'll help squeezed carriers, who are facing steep capex costs from the 5G rollout, as well as flat (or declining) subscriber revenue. Competition should, in theory, prompt vendors to lower their prices. Untied from a single monolithic RAN stack, they'll be able to mix and match components as required.

HPE said it reckons carriers that adopt an OpenRAN strategy can expect savings of up to 25 per cent. It would, of course say this.

This point is still largely theoretical as OpenRAN is yet to be widely deployed in a commercial environment. That said, with carriers rapidly adopting the tech, it'll only be a matter of time until we find out.

The HPE OpenRAN Solution Stack – as well as the iron it's designed to run on – is expected to be released to carriers in the second quarter. This is the company's latest network infrastructure product following the launch of its 5G core network stack and 5G Edge Orchestrator. ®

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