What Is vRAN: Virtualize Your Radio Access Network

The journey toward an open, programmable radio network begins with a comprehensive ecosystem and solutions. Intel can help you accelerate your path to vRAN with a broad portfolio of hardware and software, tools, and a proven partner ecosystem.

What Is vRAN? Key Takeaways

  • vRAN is software-defined networking applied to the RAN that allows for highly flexible, cloud-like management.

  • Compared to traditional RAN with purpose-built hardware, vRAN uses off-the-shelf components that support vendor diversity.

  • Network operators can choose from vRAN, Open RAN, and cloud RAN architectures to best meet their unique needs.

  • Intel offers a broad portfolio of vRAN solutions, including high-performance processors and Ethernet adapters.

  • Intel also offers Intel® FlexRAN™ reference software that helps accelerate Layer 1 virtualization.

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What Is vRAN?

Virtualized RAN (vRAN) disaggregates software from hardware. It enables all RAN workloads to run on general-purpose servers and to benefit from various suppliers and a silicon road map driven by Moore’s Law. This approach also helps improve operational efficiencies in how the network is configured and orchestrated and enhances network optimization, fault detection, correction, and prevention. As a result, network operators can dynamically optimize their networks to their exact needs across various configurations, frequencies, and splits; scale resources to accommodate fluctuating workloads and data growth; and even deploy new services with cloud-like ease and agility.

Compare vRAN and Traditional RAN-Based Deployment Differences

In a vRAN deployment, the entire RAN stack is software defined and runs on general-purpose processors. Virtualization on x86 enables a single scalable software package to be configured for a broad array of deployments, ranging from massive MIMO to small cells. Additionally, the software will run on future processor generations with a simple recompile, and operators can flexibly deploy new services through Kubernetes containers. 
In a traditional RAN deployment, Layer 1 functions are hardwired into fixed-function silicon, and new services may require a hardware upgrade. Also, software-based functions are often hand coded, using proprietary languages and tools, which limits the pace of innovation because of the need for developers with specialized expertise.

Read the white paper with Vodaphone to explore how a major network operator collaborated with Intel to transform their traditional RAN into a vRAN.

Consider the Benefits of vRAN

Using commercial, off-the-shelf hardware in a vRAN deployment provides network operators freedom of choice to combine solutions from preferred vendors. A fully realized vRAN solution offers several benefits that can help network operators be more efficient, agile, and profitable.

  • Scalability: vRAN workloads executed as microservices can dynamically accommodate changes in data traffic and help optimize the use of network resources.
  • New revenue stream opportunities: vRAN simplifies adding new services, using cloud-native frameworks with continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) of virtualized network functions (VNFs) and performance optimizations.
  • Centralized control: In a vRAN deployment, the real-time lower-layer RAN processing takes place on the distributed unit (DU), with higher-layer functions on the central unit (CU), each with different latency requirements. It is possible to consolidate DU processing in a hub up to 20 km from a radio unit (RU) and further concentrate CU processing up to 80 km from an RU, allowing vRAN to support multiple RUs from centralized locations.
  • Cost savings: Network operators can realize significant cost efficiencies and lower TCO through hardware consolidation and by sourcing hardware and software from open ecosystems that encourage price and feature innovation.
  • Future-proofing: vRAN can help network operators unlock competitive advantages with cloud-native architectures and AI-driven autonomous network orchestration.

Read this white paper on virtualizing Layer 1 workloads to learn more about how software-defined infrastructure in a RAN enables greater flexibility compared to fixed-function hardware.

Plan Your vRAN Implementation

Modernizing the RAN is a journey. Virtualizing the RAN at the DU and CU enables the early introduction of a consistent software architecture to introduce open interfaces more easily and expand vendor diversity. Subsequent steps depend on the type of vRAN being deployed, which network operators should decide in consultation with their network and business groups and technology providers.

Make the Case for the Ideal vRAN for Your Business

A vRAN deployment uses off-the-shelf hardware for DU and CU installations but can still use proprietary interfaces and software from a single vendor. OpenRAN is defined by open interfaces and allows multiple vendors to provide software and hardware for the RAN; however, OpenRAN is not necessarily virtualized. Open vRAN brings the best of both worlds—it’s fully virtualized and compliant with open interfaces. In cloud RAN, many of the RAN functions can be processed at a cloud service provider (CSP) such as AWS or Microsoft Azure.
Single-vendor vRAN is an easy, lower-risk approach proven in real-life deployments. Open vRAN currently has fewer deployments but promises more long-term cost reduction through flexibility and vendor diversity.

Download the eBook, Make the Business Case for Open and Virtualized RAN, for a more detailed overview of vRAN transformation, from initial requests for information and proposals (RFIs and RFPs) through proofs of concept (POCs) and commercial deployments.

Implement vRAN and Enable Ease of Deployment with Intel® Innovations

No matter your choice of vRAN, Intel supports all approaches with the hardware and software optimizations to help you succeed. Over the last 10 years, Intel has led the industry to virtualize the network core and bring that expertise and experience to the RAN. Intel® innovations help ensure high performance and efficiency throughout the network with an end-to-end portfolio of hardware solutions paired with collaborative software vendor optimizations. That’s why industry-leading companies like Verizon and DISH are choosing a flexible Intel® foundation for their vRAN infrastructure.

Compute: Intel® Xeon® Scalable Processors

The latest Intel® Xeon® Scalable processor with Intel® vRAN Boost integrates vRAN acceleration directly onto the CPU. This innovation eliminates the need for external acceleration cards, which saves on hardware costs. 4th Gen Intel® Xeon® Scalable processors deliver up to double the vRAN capacity with an additional approximately 20 percent compute power savings compared to the previous generation platform, effectively more than doubling the performance per watt.1

In addition to enhancing vRAN capacity, the latest Intel® Xeon® Scalable processors enable network operators to consolidate their network footprint for 4G, 5G, and earlier generations over the same general-purpose hardware. Built-in AI acceleration helps operators future-proof for advanced machine learning/deep learning use cases, and exceptional power efficiency contributes toward sustainability goals.

Software: Intel® FlexRAN Reference Architecture

Virtualizing Layer 1 signal processing can be the most challenging part of vRAN transformation. To help accelerate this process, Intel® FlexRAN reference architecture provides a blueprint for virtualization that integrates 3GPP-compliant algorithms and automatically implements key power management capabilities of Intel® Xeon® Scalable processors. As a result, network operators and their vendors can achieve Layer 1 virtualization more quickly and take advantage of features that might otherwise go overlooked to help ensure optimized performance and efficiency.

Connectivity: Intel® Ethernet Network Adaptors

Intel® Ethernet 800 Series network adaptors deliver speeds of up to 100GbE and enable enhanced network timing and synchronization protocols to support processes including multiple input/multiple output (MIMO), time division duplexing (TDD), and carrier aggregation. These processes help ensure seamless communications between data sources and endpoints by preserving data packet order and helping prevent data loss or corruption.

Read more about how Cisco deployed Intel® Ethernet 800 Series network adaptors to simplify precise synchronization across Open RAN deployments.

Development Support: Intel® Network Builders

Intel provides vRAN software toolkits and dev kits through Intel® Network Builders to help speed time to market for vRAN vendors while differentiating their solutions with optimized performance on Intel® hardware. Network operators benefit as well by driving higher value from their vRAN investments and enabling operational efficiencies that directly impact their bottom line.

Take Your Place in the vRAN Future

Realizing the full potential of 5G, AI, and the edge across industries is a collective effort—and it can’t be done alone. Virtualizing the RAN, the next step in the network transformation journey, requires an ecosystem of partners committed to driving the industry forward.