Silicon constraints feature high on the list of things that bother telco technology executives when it comes to open and virtual radio access network (RAN) technology. Despite years of talk about hardware and software separation, they remain tightly coupled in this part of the network. As Germany's Deutsche Telekom phrased it in a recent white paper, "open RAN solutions remain highly dependent on the chosen hardware."
It may surprise parts of the industry, then, to hear Ericsson – a big kit vendor sometimes portrayed as an open RAN opponent – claim its latest RAN software can be deployed on multiple silicon platforms. Ericsson had previously hooked up with Intel in this virtual RAN space, advertising software that would run on the chipmaker's Xeon-branded general-purpose processors (GPPs) instead of its own custom silicon. After successful trials around the time of Mobile World Congress (MWC) in February, it now has a partnership with AMD, Intel's biggest GPP rival, as well.
That means the same Layer 1 software – the part responsible for baseband processing in a RAN – can be deployed on either Xeon chips or AMD's EPYC processors. This would not be doable if Ericsson had built its software on top of FlexRAN, a Layer 1 reference design from Intel that works only with Intel's chips. Instead, Ericsson says it has developed its software from the ground up to ensure there is full portability.
All that comes partly in response to feedback from operators determined to avoid being tied to one platform, said Freddie Södergren, the head of technology and strategy for Ericsson's networks division. "In general, providing choices and making sure that our cloud RAN is multiplatform is something we think is very important and of course it is fundamental to the open RAN and scale," he said. "It's definitely something we hear customers talk about."
The Great Virtual RAN Schism
But there are some big caveats, and signs of a religious divide opening between Ericsson and Nokia in this area...