FEATURE ARTICLE

Mavenir: The key to embracing automation


Mavenir’s chief marketing officer Stefano Cantarelli discusses why mobile network operators should be adopting an open approach to 5G and what they should consider as they move towards a virtualised, automated network.

As chief marketing officer at network virtualisation specialist Mavenir, Stefano Cantarelli spends much of his time extolling the benefits of cloudification, virtualisation, network automation and extending that openness to the RAN as the world moves towards 5G.

Indeed, Cantarelli provides a strong riposte to any operators that claim Open RAN technology is not yet mature enough to be deployed. “The sooner you embrace the technology, the sooner that technology becomes mature. You gain maturity through the deployment,” he said. “You need to start when a technology is ready. Open RAN is ready and being deployed.”

Certainly, there are challenges to resolve before the ultimate objective of a virtualised, open and fully automated network is achieved. For example, a typical brownfield operator will also need to bring existing 2G, 3G and 4G networks into the Open RAN fold. Cantarelli explains what operators should really be thinking about as they embrace this new, virtualised and open world.

In Mavenir’s view, the time for operators to introduce Open RAN is now — or risk their network being at a disadvantage in the future.

Moving to a single virtualised and automated network

First and foremost, says Cantarelli, Open RAN is just one part of the wider move towards virtualised networks. “Virtualisation is the key technology that is enabling a completely new approach to telecoms because it allows you to disaggregate hardware and software,” he said.

This move towards disaggregation allows telcos to put the expertise in the right place and bring new and more agile vendors into the supply chain, thus demolishing the monolithic models of the past.

“The agility of people that write software is different from the agility of those that have a hardware and software solution. Hardware is a very rigid discipline: if you build something and it doesn’t work, you need to throw it away and restart from scratch. Software is a much more agile approach and requires a completely different mindset,” Cantarelli said.

He noted that in some instances it could take at least six months to implement changes or fixes to a network, because hardware and software had to be aligned. “In a software world it is completely different; it can take just a few days to make necessary changes and create new versions and instances that can then be replicated as required,” he said.

Ultimately, automation is the goal of virtualisation, emphasised Cantarelli. “Automation brings ease of operation and reduces operating costs by eliminating human intervention to the greatest degree possible.”

Adopting a more “open” approach to networks

When an operator does decide to make the transition to a virtualised and automated network, another crucial requirement is to be open, said Cantarelli, pointing out that openness has not yet been extended to the RAN interface.

“Radio access accounts for about 60% of the cost of an operator’s mobile network,” he said. This is a difficult market volume for the more traditional vendors to give up. “Now Open RAN is changing that ‘lockin’ situation and is allowing new innovative vendors like Mavenir to bring advanced, open technology,” Cantarelli remarked.

When talking about Open RAN, Mavenir calls it the Open virtualised RAN, or Open vRAN, because openness and virtualisation go hand in hand. Cantarelli offers an explanation as to why this is the case.

“5G Standalone technology is set to enable network slicing, which refers to the creation of virtualised network slices that are able to support different applications with varying characteristics. But network slicing can only truly take place if the entire network is virtualised,” said Cantarelli. “You can share or allocate physical resources, but you can’t slice them.”

Cantarelli also said mobile network operators have traditionally deployed equipment from different vendors in separate areas of a country because legacy RAN solutions don’t tend to mix very well. For example, they might use equipment from one vendor in the southern region, and another vendor in the north.

“With open RAN, the operator doesn’t have to worry about that anymore, because the open RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) can be the same for all vendors. That is a significant advantage because it eliminates a huge problem and improves the ability to automate the infrastructure,” he said.

Cloudification and the edge

A further consideration in the move to 5G is that mobile network operators will have to think about different ways of deploying infrastructure in order to support services that require low latency and high capacity.

“5G is a low-latency network, but that low latency is not just achieved through the specification but also through geographical distribution,” he said. “The core is still centralised, but some functions could be pushed to the edge of the network to support industrial applications, private 5G networks or gaming services, for example.”

This is why cloudification is a further important aspect to ensure a flexible network infrastructure, says Cantarelli. “The public cloud plays a significant role as cloud providers have already built data centres on a more distributed basis. Some telecoms operators are now creating network functions on public cloud services to offload mobile data traffic during events and peak times,” said Cantarelli.

In Cantarelli’s view, the bravest operators will use a mix of private and public cloud and start to distribute the network functions closer to the end users, like Enterprises, and they will start to see benefits in TCO and creating new opportunities for applications or vertical segments. Essentially, the edge is becoming extremely important, he said.

What operators should avoid doing is to simply add a 5G frequency at an existing site. “Here, we’re not building a 5G network. We are just building an extension of the existing network with some use of 5G frequencies to increase capacity,” he said.

Be bold

If Cantarelli has one single message for operators, it is this: “You need to be bold to be open,” he said. Another is to pick a virtualisation strategy and stick to it.

“What I have learned in deploying an open and virtual RAN is that a lot of people have not made up their mind about their virtualisation strategy,” he said. “They jump from one platform to the other without understanding really what they’re going to get out of it. The number one task is to get the hardware and software working. The ultimate goal with virtualisation is to work together and implement automation throughout the network.”

Cantarelli’s response to the Open RAN naysayers is to point out that Open RAN is quickly catching up with the features of legacy networks. “But in the future, the legacy technology will not be able to catch up with Open RAN because the architecture will not allow it,” he said.

It’s interesting to note which strategies are being embraced by greenfield operators such as Rakuten Mobile in Japan, Dish in the United States and 1&1 in Germany, all of which are currently involved with Mavenir. In the last two years, Cantarelli points out, new operators have opted to take a virtualised, open network approach rather than choosing legacy technology. “This tells me that the virtualised, open approach is better than the legacy one,” he says.

For its part, Mavenir is helping Rakuten Mobile combine the capabilities of internet-based communications services with the reliability of telecoms voice and messaging services, by using the Rich Communications Services as the basis. The result is the Rakuten Link smartphone app that supports instant messaging and group video calls as well as chatbots and online shopping. For Dish, Mavenir is providing cloud-native Open vRAN software to support its 5G network rollout.

Of course, most mobile network operators are brownfield operators that will need to take legacy networks into consideration. Indeed, 2G and 3G will still be relevant in many markets for years to come, with some regions such as Europe now using 2G to support Internet of Things services and other regions still reliant on 3G as mobile data networks.

This is something that Mavenir has taken on board, says Cantarelli, and is providing solutions that take into account both the 2G and the 3G stack and featuring what Mavenir calls multi-G capability.

Mavenir recently integrated 2G and 3G technologies into its existing broadband suite for 4G and 5G. The cloud-native solution covers the complete stack of all mobile technologies in both radio access and packet core and aims to provide a containerised solution enabling mobile network automation and webscale agility.

In summary, Mavenir believes that a virtualised, open and automated network will be key to unleashing the vast array of new applications, services and speeds promised by 5G. It is focusing on the vision of a single, software-based automated network that runs on any cloud.