SONIC Open RAN lab opens in London

SONIC Labs, one aspect of the UK's telecoms supply chain diversification strategy, opened this week in London.

SONIC Labs, a UK Government backed programme to test performance and interoperability of Open RAN products, has opened its new test centre in central London. TMN went along to take a look.

What is it?

SONIC Labs was announced as an initiative in June 2021. Its aim is to provide a place where companies can come to test the performance and interoperability of their products within an end-to-end Open RAN system.

The lab itself provides a bank of servers providing a multi-tenant virtual infrastructure, along with test equipment and UE simulators from Keysight and Viavi.

Digital Catapult puts out Open Calls for companies to join and they can submit their proposal to bring their products to the lab.

The first batch of companies to join were Accelleran, Mavenir, Radisys, Benetel, Phluido, Druid and Effnet. Paul Ceeley, Director of Technology Strategy, Digital Catapult, said that the first SONIC 1 work was really about proving the concept. Six months of actual technical work wrapped up at the end of January 2023. Vendors have their “lessons learned” and Digital Catapult is trying to summarise that into something that can be shared more widely.

Cohort Two work is ongoing, and includes work to test the capacity of systems as well as explore RIC and xApp use cases.

At the official opening held on 29 March 2023, Digital Catapult announced which companies would form Cohort Three. These are Airspan, Radisys, WNC (Wistron), CapGemini, Phluido, IS-Wireless, Acceleran and Benetel.

That brings SONIC to a total of 15 companies that have tested 36 products.

An Open call for Cohort Four is starting soon, with a seven month technical programme running from July 2023. It will look to evaluate performance, scaleability and mobility/handover in an Open RAN indoor environment with mature Open RAN products. It will also perform functional testing of Open RAN outdoor equipment.

What sort of work are they doing?

Visitors saw two demos. One involved five vendors, with a Benetel RU, DU from Effnet and Phluido on an ARM -based server, along with a CU and RIC from Accelleran, and 5G Core software from Druid running on an Intel server from Dell. Companies can create test scenarios, and automate end-to-end performance testing using Keysights NEMO. It also demonstrates the RIC from Accelleran, in this case simply showing handsets connecting and de-connecting from the network on a web interface.

A second demo carried out stability, capacity and throughput testing of an operational system end-to-end, using a Viavi E500 test kit to emulate a large numbers of user devices attaching to a Cable Free RU connected to an IS-Wireless DU-CU, with an Open 5GS Core – an Open Source implementation for 5G Core. The aim is to test the maturity of the products at an early stage of system integration.

What’s the point of it?

Joe Butler, CTO of the UK Government-backed SONIC Lab, hosted by Digital Catapult, said that the overall aim is to help Open RAN companies on their route to commercialisation, thereby increasing telco supply chain diversification.

“We support organisations that come to our labs to integrate Open RAN  product into working end-to-end systems, developing interoperability and performance tests in a neutral environment, as well as supporting organisations on their route to commercialisation.”

“You might say, well, this is very nerdy engineering going on here. But it is, if you like, the fulcrum of the lever and the implications of the output of this work are really significant for the sector.

“Ultimately, we are looking to support more vendors with more products suitable for the UK market, with working end-to-end systems that can interoperate amongst each other. The end goal is that more of those products can drive diversification and more innovation in the market.”

Ceeley points out that while companies have products, what they don’t have is a whole system capability. This gives them the chance to prove out their credentials and interoperability support within a system.

It’s early work – the lab is not about producing deployment-ready solutions that an operator can just pick up and plug in.

“The way that we’ve seen see it is that is you go through our bit, which is getting a working end-to-end system. Someone who is going to deploy it will need to go through further tests, which might be conformance testing to make sure it meets meets legal requirements. But also, I think one of the key things particularly with operators is about integration into their internal OSS systems.

“That’s something that must be done by them and that’s a big piece of work. And for that reason, operators tend to work with a smaller number of products and vendors, just because the investment in each one is quite significant.

“So we’re doing a broad brush approach, get a big pipeline so that they can do that next phase of really detailed conformance testing.”

It’s also worth pointing out that SONIC is not operating in an industry vaccuum (or Faraday Cage?). The UK Government is well aware that the UK cannot tip the scales on Open RAN by itself, so it also sees the lab as part of an effort to play within an international space, aligning outputs with other labs to avoid duplication of R&D effort, and if need be back to standards bodies. There were representatives from the USA’s DoD and NTIA 5G Challenge and from Germany’s i14y Lab  at the event.

What is SONIC achieving that isn’t there already in the market?

Ceeley said that a vendor might have a product, but not have a working system. Hoever, the people who are going to deploy a product are only going to do that with a full working system. “We’re trying to help people that have got separate products get to a working system,” he said.

There’s also portfolio building. A company might have an RU but they don’t have the 30 RUs you need to meet all possible form factors and frequency bands.

“And so their interest is to build their portfolio so that they’ve got a set of products that has a broader market fit. So that’s the bit that we’re about – that volume of integration. Whereas if you wanted to get ready for the actual network deployment, then you need the people are going to deploy it and really prove out in their environment that this is a system that will work in the real world. We’re not going to go to down to that level.”

Butler said, “Our longer term ambition has always been the wider uptake of open networking technology in all of its terms in the UK. [SONIC] is making that shift to later stage integration easier.”

Are the operators involved?

Not directly as members or partners. Of course the obvious question is how do Open RAN products move onto commercialisation if operators have not been involved in providing requirements for systems? Ceeley points out that if operators are involved too early then it can actually damage a vendor’s reputation, as they seek to test out their product.

“We at Digital Catapult need to make sure that we orchestrate that conversation so the product gets to the operator at that time. So we could get more operator involvement, but that would shift it towards having slightly more mature products and a smaller number you can work with.”

That’s not to say there’s no involvement. Ceeley pointed out that Digital Catapult convenes forums and events where viewpoints can be shared. But he also said that Digital Catapult is looking to see more bilateral sharing of roadmaps between vendors and operators, to define UK-specific solutions.

“We get really good information from the operators. They’re really interested because they can’t talk to all of these smaller vendors, so they are interested in understanding which ones should they talk to and where they are. We could probably get more [information]; we have lots of discussions with the vendors to try arrange bilateral discussions between them and the deployers so that the vendors understand what the UK market needs and the operators understand what’s coming down the line. I think we need to find a way to have that happen.”

Certainly, Ceeley sees the case for more interaction between Open RAN vendors and UK operators to align roadmaps.

“The mainstream vendors have user groups where they have that roadmap alignment. We need to find a way where we can help that roadmap alignment between the two – particularly when it comes to the UK. Our purpose here is to make sure that we can get the UK specifics understood by them.”

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