22 Mar 2021

Time is ripe for disaggregating telco networks

In recent years, there has been intensive discussions and security concerns with regard to the supply chain of the newest mobile technology generation 5G. These debates have highlighted how a limited choice of vendors is calling into question supply chain resiliency and a lack of healthy competition. Policy makers came to realise that there are only a few organisations which are capable of providing innovative technology for the 5G radio access networks (RAN). At the same time, it became evident that public telecommunication networks are part of the critical infrastructure of countries. 5G is not just for smartphones. It allows ubiquitous connectivity and by this amplifies the use of the Internet of things and cloud computing, enabling new applications in vital areas of advancements such as e-health or autonomous driving, as well as machine-to-machine communication in industrial production sites. Therefore, a secure, reliable and innovative ecosystem is paramount. 

A systematic change is needed 

By standardization and design, telco networks consist of core networks, where most of the data processing currently takes place and radio access networks (RAN), which connect to the end devices. In a traditional RAN system, the radio, hardware and software are proprietary. Almost all equipment comes from one supplier and it is nearly impossible for operators to use radios from one and hardware and software from another. This can create lock-in with high barriers to entry for new innovators. An approach is needed that would facilitate the entry of new players, increase competition and lead to more innovation. This can be achieved by disaggregation of the network using open and interoperable protocols and interfaces, called Open RAN. The adoption of Open RAN will create a more resilient supply chain by establishing a more accessible competitive landscape while also allowing for increased network agility, flexibility and cost savings.  

Will new interfaces create new attack surfaces? 

One of the common misconceptions about Open RAN is that open interfaces could introduce new security risks. In fact, these same open interfaces, defined in technical specifications, provide a foundation and architecture for improving security. 5G is already more secure than any other mobile technology generation preceding it. And in addition to that, technologies exist (and continue to be developed) to reduce and secure attack surfaces across all infrastructures, including Open RAN. This enables the detection and control of new security attacks and threat vectors.  

vRAN enables the management of increasing complexity 

While security will be improved by Open RAN, what about the management of a possible increase of complexity? Open RAN is not a technology, but rather an ongoing shift in mobile network architecture which also allows virtualized software functions to run on vendor-neutral hardware. This virtualized RAN (vRAN) approach creates additional security benefits as Open RAN cloud architecture facilitates improved network segmentation, allowing grouping and separation of security sensitive network functions. In addition to that, a virtualized telco cloud allows for management of a more complex environment and to operate it in a seamless way. 

What does this mean for policy makers? 

The complex world of Open RAN can be managed by telco clouds. And security can in fact be enhanced by Open RAN. Therefore, the time has come to give the implementation of Open RAN a boost. The trend towards open interfaces and the virtualization of the RAN is set. In order to make Open RAN a quicker success, policy makers should support the emergence of new network infrastructure enablers and support to accelerate the demand for Open RAN solutions. Governments should also engage with international allies to share experiences and best practices on how to catalyze investment in technical capabilities and support operators as they develop an approach to managing a multi-layer and multi- vendor network architecture. 

Guest blog by Nigel Stephenson, Director of Market Development, EMEA, within the Telco and Edge Cloud Business Unit at VMware. You can follow VMware Telco and Edge Cloud Business Unit on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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