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5 Key Lessons from Integrating and Deploying Open RAN

March 31, 2021

As Open RAN continues to gain traction, operators see a growing role for systems integrators to bring the experience, and capital-intensive resources to take on a range of complex challenges. 5G network faces complexities to converge multi-layers and multi-domains. Open RAN adds factors like interoperability and quality assurance across multi-component solutions, as well as unique use case design, RF engineering, and service assurance challenges. Based on NEC’s global deployment experience with Open RAN, this article highlights five factors operators should consider when engaging a systems integrator to deliver its Open RAN deployments.

Open RAN (ORAN) is giving communications service providers (CSPs) an opportunity to disaggregate the radio access network (RAN) where best of breed systems can be deployed in the mobile RAN. This in turn enables the full range of diverse, use case specific 5G RAN applications. Consider the difference, for example, between a 5G deployment for an educational campus versus those for industrial sites with autonomous vehicles. While an educational campus requires high bandwidth, an industrial site needs low-latency. The requirements for these use cases are very different and may require a best of breed solution integrated with different vendors. No longer are CSPs or enterprises required to make “one size fits all” decisions. ORAN is key to making these solutions real, and Systems Integrators (SIs) will play a central role in making the solutions work.

Powerful 5G solutions are brought to life by experienced integrators

The opportunity to create optimized end-to-end solutions is a powerful part of the 5G vision that ORAN can enable. As deployments have rolled out, systems integration has been needed to validate and operationalize these end-to-end solutions because they converge challenges across multi-layers and multi-domains including radio, transport, core, cloud, data management, applications, devices, and security. NEC’s experts have drawn five key lessons from ORAN integrations and deployments around the world that inform the skillsets required to bring ORAN solutions to life.

1. Scale matters

Although some operators may elect to provide their own integration, most operators are choosing to work with SIs because the integrator’s full scope in 5G would otherwise require new skill assets as well as a heavy lift from teams across many of an operator’s organizations to support the project. Size and scale prove to matter when handling ORAN integration to accommodate hyper-diversified 5G use cases especially in a standalone 5G environment, including those for Ultra Low Latency and massive Machine Type Communication networks. The network will become more complex with multiple factors to consider including optimized use of MEC, cloud and network components from a diversified selection while assuring service performance at the same time. Given the magnitude and the detailed extent to which the total systems need to be validated and fine-tuned, operators that select SIs with domain expertise, deployment experience, and scale have greater success.

2. Testing is critical

Granular end-to-end solution validation is critical. Though ORAN standards are in fact open, new vendor products must be tested rigorously for standards compliance and differences in interpretations of specifications must be corrected before entering the multivendor ORAN ecosystem. It takes extensive infrastructure and proficiency to conduct use case testing, system validation, performance testing, environmental simulation, and more. An SI should be able to deliver the expertise, tools, and proving grounds in which to test devices, configurations, and applications as end-to-end solutions before launch.

3. Product development expertise makes a difference in the field

In an ORAN environment, a suitable SI can bring expertise based on real experiences of carrier-grade product development to roll-out ORAN network for mission critical services. Such an SI has a thorough understanding of product development and design approaches as well as a similar depth of technical knowledge and experiences with adjacent radio product developers within the industry. In other words, they have competent skillsets in radio design, fine tuning of parameters, performance engineering, end to end diagnostics, quick root cause analysis and issue resolution to bring multivendor ORAN implementations to life and sustain them. The ability to realize optimal fine-tuning for the end to end performance, immediately identify and pinpoint issues that arise even under a multivendor environment and resolve them in the field is critical, making a robust R&D organization with ORAN product expertise a needed asset.

4. Assure end-to-end solution

ORAN introduces the challenge of a multi-vendor environment with many distinct components, and an SI’s role is critical in validating and assuring end-to-end functional/operational performance and service quality throughout the life cycle. However, one of the challenges is that each supplier in an ORAN setting could be held to specific SLAs limited to the component level, lacking consideration from the end-to-end solution perspective. An SI’s job in ORAN is to solve this problem. The SI should provide a clear line of business accountability – a responsible first/single point of contact - for the operator. It should also be responsible for enforcing a clear set of performance requirements, performing root-cause analysis when issues arise, and coordinating responses and actions across contributing suppliers. This is required to assure SLAs are met not only for distinct components but also at the total system level hedging the risk for the operators.

5. Address Lifecycle Management

Once an ORAN solution has been deployed, lifecycle management becomes necessary to constantly update, upgrade, fine tune, and improve the solution. This requires not only alignment among the vendor components, but also integration into CSPs’ existing systems for managing networks and services. The need to integrate with existing assets can pose a significant time constraint, especially for smaller, starter deployments. In such instances, systems integrators have been able to run pilot deployments separately on the CSP’s behalf, minimizing their operational overhead and assisting a successful deployment. SIs can bring a wealth of experience from other domains to streamline the processes using methodologies like Agile development and associated open source CI/CD tool chains for managing the development and deployment processes while ensuring short cycles for features deployment. An important, related takeaway is that SIs can also codify, manage, and sustain processes for upgrades and updates across an operators’ different potential ORAN solutions and improve the time-to-market for new applications.

Strong integration partner is critical to delivering the promise of ORAN

The 5G possibilities might be endless, but early deployments have shown that end-to-end integration by an experienced partner is critical to make it all work. ORAN is spawning a range of solutions for 5G operators to take on exciting challenges in sophisticated vertical-specific applications, low latency performance, and service quality across a variety of landscapes. Because ORAN’s strength derives from its emerging ecosystem of interoperable components, any SI must be able to take on wider roles - network integration ranging from cloud, NFVI, RAN, core, RIC, Orchestrator to application, - for operators to make sure their ORAN solutions will thrive and deliver in the real world.

                   Yogarajah Gopikrishna
                   GM, Network Solutions Div.
                   NEC Europe