Can ARM processors move the mobile network into the cloud?

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Credit: Gigaom Illustration

ARM is already powering our smartphones, and it’s seeing its processor architecture migrate into networks that supply those phones their connectivity, but it has even more ambitious ideas for the mobile industry. It’s latching onto a new idea called Cloud-RAN, which turns the mobile network as we know it inside out. At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week, ARM and Cavium will be demoing their concept of a mobile network on a chip.

Cellular networks are typically built with their processing power on the edges, right under the cell towers that send out radio signals. As demand for LTE capacity mounts, carriers are forced to put more and more horsepower into their cell sites. Network vendors like [company]Ericsson[/company], [company]Alcatel-Lucent[/company] and [company]Nokia[/company] are building more powerful base stations designed to host dozens of cells spanning multiple 4G frequency bands and support tens of thousands of subscribers.

But the mobile industry is starting to look for alternatives to this constant chasing of capacity and it’s looking squarely at the data center. If we could move all of that processing into the cloud, we could have a much more flexible network that moves baseband resources from cell to cell as demand dictates. What’s more, instead of using highly specialized baseband processors in equally specialized base stations, you could use off-the-shelf processors and servers and run all of the functions of the network as software.


That’s where [company]ARM[/company] and network semiconductor maker Cavium come in. [company]Cavium[/company] is using its ThunderX data center processors, which use up to 48 ARMv8 cores, as the building blocks for a virtualized base station. At Mobile World Congress, Cavium and ARM will basically “load” an LTE network into system-on-chip (SoC).

The concept isn’t unique. [company]Intel[/company] has long been pursuing Cloud-RAN and it has a big head start on ARM. It’s already working with mobile network vendors like Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent and some of the world’s biggest carriers, like [company]China Mobile[/company], [company]SK Telecom[/company] and [company]Telefonica[/company], to run elements of their networks on its Xeon processors.

For itS part, ARM is thinking bigger than just Cloud-RAN. On Thursday it announced a grand-scale vision it calls Intelligent Flexible Cloud, which puts ARM processors in every nook and cranny of future software-defined and virtualized networks. In addition to Cavium, it revealed partnerships with [company]Altera[/company], [company]Advanced Micro Devices[/company], [company]AppliedMicro[/company], Enea, [company]EZChip[/company], Linaro, [company]Marvell[/company] and [company]Xilinix[/company].


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Larry Pierson

If I understand this concept correctly, the bandwidth needed between cell towers, and centralized switching systems, will grow, perhaps by an order of magnitude or more. Is that kind of capacity in place? And do the switching systems to handle this kind of traffic and port count even exist?

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