Ericsson announces first stop on Cloud RAN journey

Company says initial vDU and vCU can be deployed on any COTS hardware. More planned for later.

Ericsson today announced that it will have Cloud RAN solutions available in around a year’s time. The company has initially announced virtual Central and Distributed Units (vDU, vCU) that support low band 5G operation, as well as a Network Gateway that can interface between its vDU and already-deployed Ericsson remote radioheads.

Eric Parsons, Head of Product Development Unit, Cloud RAN, told TMN that the vDU and vCU can be deployed either on Ericsson’s cloud platform or on any Intel x86-based COTS hardware without any further hardware optimisation or acceleration.

“We are starting to see a surge of interest from the large operator community to undertake this evolution towards a cloud native environment. And we are supporting [them] on that journey with this launch,” Parsons said.

The vDUs are designed to integrate with Ericsson’s deployed radioheads via a new Radio Gateway that translates the vDU’s native fronthaul eCPRI protocol into CPRI, thereby supporting legacy radios. The Gateway is also the platform where Ericsson is siting its ESS technology – that’s the Dynamic Spectrum Sharing technology that enables 5G NR to operate in LTE frequencies.

Parsons pointed out that the vCU can also interface on the 3GPP F1 interface to Ericsson’s midband ERS and to its higher band street macros.

“So that gives a fairly complete portfolio – a big part of the journey is to introduce Cloud RAN as a complement to an existing RAN solution. What we believe is to get the anchor band in place and interwork for midband. We will support the midband natively as part of the next stage of what we intend to do.”

Ericsson’s Parsons also said that the vCU is designed to support future deployment of O-RAN Alliance interfaces to the O-RAN Non Real Time Radio Interface Controller (NRT-RIC). Currently it does not do so, as operators are more concerned to get the vCU and vDU working with their current Network Management Systems, he said.

Opening up management interfaces would give Ericsson the ability to shape RAN performance with information from across domains and from external sources, Parsons said.

So how significant is today’s announcement. Certainly, it’s not news that Ericsson is supporting Cloud RAN. The question for Ericsson has always been about timing – when to move – and also the “how”. Allied to the vertical “openness” of Cloud RAN – the separation of hardware and software – vendors have to work out how much horizontal openness they want to support. That means asking themselves if they want to support O-RAN interfaces to support multivendor operation between, for example, LTE and 5G radios, potentially between CUs and DUs from different vendors, and between RUs and DU/CUs. So how do we place Ericsson’s announcement on that continuum.

Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst at Heavy Reading, said, “It’s significant because Ericsson has been cautious about vRAN and has not, to date, offered a commercial product. This announcement – which Ericsson describes as cloud native, rather than virtualized – should been seen as a first step in creating a cloud RAN portfolio that is increasingly disaggregated, open and automated.”

“Ericsson expects operators to run its DU and CU software on their own edge cloud platforms, not right away but in the foreseeable future. This is a major departure for Ericsson. And for its customers this model requires a step-change in their RAN operations that won’t initially be simple or fast. Therefore some caution is merited.”

“In terms of O-RAN interfaces, I expect Ericsson to support open Service Management and Orchestration (SMO) via the O1 interface to the non-real-time RIC in the first instance. Ericsson appears committed to opening up this interface, but again, cautious practicality are the watchwords. At this stage, I don’t think it is committed to the E1 interface between RAN nodes and the near-real-time RIC.

“On open fronthaul, Ericsson continues to argue it can provide a superior system when it can co-optimize RU and DU and deliver them as an integrated package. It makes this case more forcefully and more persuasively in relation to massive MIMO. Looked at from a certain angle, this leaves the open the possibility that it will end up supporting open fronthaul for simpler 2×2 and 4×4 systems in future; Ericsson has resolutely avoided committing to this in public, but my bet is it will happen at some stage, probably in limited way at first, due to customer demand.

“Ericsson has invested a lot in understanding open RAN technically and commercially. It certainly doesn’t have it head in the sand. If and when it becomes clear this is the best way to build a RAN system, the company is acutely aware it needs to be ready and competitive. Even so, you sometimes get the impression Ericsson as a company is still coming to terms with how this will play out.”