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What's Red and scale-y and shacked up with NEC? A new Red Hat network function virtualization solution, apparently

Living on the Edge as SA networks roll out

The move to 5G has allowed vendors and carriers to fundamentally rethink how their networks are structured. Once the norm, tightly integrated vendor-specific hardware is gradually being supplanted by virtualized alternatives that run happily on standards-agnostic kit. Jumping on the bandwagon is Japanese provider NEC, which today said it would use RedHat's OpenShift Kubernetes platform for its upcoming 5G hardware.

The company said it plans to use OpenShift across its 5G Core and RAN products, intended for both public and private use, as well its Edge and AI platforms.

On the edge, NEC sells a compact data processing device called the UPF mini. The hardware has already been selected for NTT DoCoMo's 5G SA (StandAlone) network, with the device positioned on existing base stations. The company also sells a software-based AI analysis platform for private and local networks, which NEC claimed can help mitigate performance slowdowns caused by congestion.

This move isn’t entirely surprising. NEC and Red Hat have long enjoyed a cosy partnership, partnering on virtualized network functions (VNF) development as early as 2015, with the software company’s OpenStack containerisation platform as the basis. NEC has already validated its 5G Core product against OpenShift, with certification expected later this year, according to Red Hat.

Additionally, the latest arm linkage follows a trend for carrier equipment vendors to rely on more nimble virtualized solutions, with network functions wholly decoupled from the hardware underneath. There are a couple of benefits to this.

Firstly, these VNFs can chug along happily on standard x86 kit, giving telcos a degree of choice about the underlying hardware where they otherwise previously wouldn’t. Additionally, these can scale when demand requires. Adding extra capacity can be done by running a few commands, and doesn’t require the carrier or vendor to manually procure and deploy new hardware.

This fits with NEC’s stated growth proposals, with the company hoping to extend its presence beyond its Japan stronghold. Last July, NEC president Takashi Niino said the company’s expansion plans hinged on avoiding the vertically integrated approach used by the “big three” vendors: namely Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei. Rather, it aims to grow by playing nice with other vendors, adhering to established interoperability standards, and betting big on virtualization. Niino told Japanese newspapers: "We have no chance of winning against a vertical integration model in which one company backs all systems."

Although NEC has historically been little more than a minnow in the carrier hardware space, occupying the tiny tranche of market share dubbed “other,” the company is aggressively targeting the void left by Huawei following its excision from 5G networks in parts of Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific region.

In the UK, NEC has teamed up with the UK government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport to develop and test an OpenRAN system that is well-suited for rural parts. Dubbed Project NeutrORAN, the first test masts are expected to go live later this year, with Wales picked as the first location.

In a statement, Michio Kiuchi, NEC Senior Veep, said: “Through our long-term and continued collaboration with Red Hat, we are working to build an open industry standard which has enormous potential for expanding awareness and adoption of 5G cloud-native network functions. “

Similarly, Red Hat has proven eager to increase its involvement in the 5G space, presumably motivated by the significant investments spent on the current rollout. In March of 2020, the company debuted its cloud-based VNF testbed, co-developed with Intel. Designed with carriers and infrastructure vendors in mind, the platform allows for the virtualization of network components, and the simulation of likely real-world network conditions.

The company has also inked deals with the likes of Samsung and OpenRAN vendor Mavenir to bring their respective networking infrastructure products to the OpenShift Kubernetes platform. ®

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