Nokia adds ARM-based HPE server support to Cloud RAN strategy

HPE and Nokia trial Arm-based trial integration of Cloud RAN higher layer processing. OK - and so?

Nokia said today that its Cloud RAN anyRAN solution has been proven to work in lab trials of an Arm-based server from HPE. It added that the trial proved the flexibility of its solution for Cloud RAN and that it showed it can work on different silicon architectures.

The background:

In February, Nokia announced a new solution to enable its Cloud RAN software to operate in a diverse set of cloud and server environments. What it produced was a SmartNIC card that provided acceleration for L1 radio baseband processing, effectively a plug-in vDU card. This used Marvel’s Arm-based SoC to provide the inline L1 processing. The idea was that the NIC could then be inserted in a variety of hardware options, with L2 and L3 processing running on the server’s general purpose processors. At launch Nokia was showing solutions from AWS, Dell and HPE, for example.

The HPE server in that instance was the ProLiant 110, an Intel based server. So at the time the companies said they had achieved an end-to-end Layer 3 data call running Nokia 5G Cloud RAN software with the Nokia Layer 1 acceleration.

Today’s announcement sees the companies announce similar, but instead of the L2/L3 processing running on the Intel-based architecture, it’s running on HPE’s ProLiant RL series, which is based on Ampere’s Arm chip. The companies said lab trials had achieved “the completion of a Cloud RAN L3 data call utilizing Ampere Computing’s Arm-based general-purpose processor.”

And so?

The main import of this for Nokia is validation that operators that have a preference of server type or architecture can use Nokia’s L1 accelerator in a variety of designs and architectures.

Indeed, Nokia told TMN, “This is the deployment proof that with Nokia inline accelerator, our anyRAN solution is able to provide flexibility on working on multiple silicon platforms (Arm and x86). ”

It also added, “We don’t need any specific adaptation/integration effort for Arm processor. This is seamless. That is the beauty of [the] inline architecture solution.”

What it is not

It’s not a proof of Open RAN and nor did Nokia seek to claim it as one – but it’s worth mentioning because the concepts do often get muddled. anyRAN may be deployed in an Open RAN environment if the vDU baseband server is operating over an Open Fronthaul compatible interface to the RU. In that sense it’s an enabler for those that want to be able to specify a variety of hardware options – a part of Open RAN but not one that addresses horizontal interoperability. But equally it could be used in a Nokia RAN solution: one of the deployment options for the SmartNIC is also to operate in Nokia’s own CaaS and AirFrame servers, as well as those of its partners.

It’s also not quite a proof that vRAN software can be lifted and run in any hardware environment. The SmartNIC itself is where Nokia has integrated its L1 software with the Marvell Arm-based solution. You can take that and drop it into different cloud (Red Hat) and hardware environments, but the L1 software remains written to the underlying inline accelerator. That’s a normal situation too, and not specific to Nokia, but perhaps worth mentioning that there is still a hardware depedency at this level if you want Nokia Cloud RAN.

Abstracting the DU from accelerators

If you want to see where progress lies in abstracting RAN software from the platform, then one area to look is O-RAN Alliance’s Working Group 6, which is developing Acceleration Abstraction Layer (AAL) specifications to define hardware accelerator interface functions and protocols. The aim is to enable the use of accelerator cards from different vendors within AAL-compliant DUs.

Or, going further, you could look to a release this week from Parallel Wireless, who claim to have developed a full cloud RAN stack that can operate independent of underlying chip architecture – although it still faces performance issues enabling that solely on general purpose processors.

But today’s Noka-HPE-Arm announcement is a further proof that Nokia’s vDU and vCU containerised elements will run in different environments. And for operators that like the performance of the Arm-based L1 solution, that might be a nice signal.

As Mohamed Awad, senior vice president and general manager, Infrastructure Line of Business, Arm said: “Network operators are being challenged with increasing energy costs and looking for ways to improve the efficiency of their networks. Our collaboration with Nokia and HPE is enabling innovative CloudRAN solutions, powered by energy-efficient and high-performance Arm Neoverse-based servers and In-Line accelerators, to deliver the flexibility and scalability the 5G era demands.”