A year after forming their wireless partnership, Intel and Franco-American network builder Alcatel-Lucent say they’re ready to start moving the mobile network from the cell tower into the data center. At Mobile World Congress on Monday, the two took the wraps off a new networking architecture called vRAN, which looks unlike any mobile system deployed to date.
vRAN moves the baseband processing that drives the mobile network to the cloud and at its center are servers running on [company]Intel[/company] Xeon processors. [company]Alcatel-Lucent[/company] then runs many of the functions of the network as software on that server. The concept is known as Cloud-RAN, and if adopted by the mobile industry, it could fundamentally change how networks are built.
The mobile industry certainly wouldn’t be the first to embrace virtualization, but the move is a particularly fraught one for carriers because of the highly distributed way mobile networks are designed. All of the processing might – and the lion’s share of the expense – of mobile networks is at its fringes, right under the radios that transmit signals to our phones. Today carriers have to maximize the capacity of those base stations so they can handle the enormous demand for mobile data and voice at peak times.
Cloud-RAN (the RAN standing for radio access network) would move all that baseband processing into a centralized data center and carriers could allot capacity to cell towers as it’s needed. It’s a more efficient way to build a network, and it could result in more reliable and faster mobile service for you and I. Instead of cell sites maxing out their capacity and dropping our LTE connections, Cloud-RAN could amp up capacity at congested cell sites – you can think of it as a kind processing SWAT team wherever its needed in the network at any given time.
There are some limitations to just how “cloud” Cloud-RAN can go. You’re not going to a mobile network built on Amazon Web Services, or a central massive data center for all of the U.S. Latency is a super important consideration in the mobile network so data centers will have to be reasonably close to the towers they serve, but Alcatel-Lucent wireless CTO Michael Peeters told me that ALU and Intel have managed to push that distance put to more than 100 km (62 miles), which is enough to build a virtualized network of thousands of cells.
“You could take a city of a 1 million-population city and host the entire everything in a single central location,” Peeters said.
Even before their collaboration began, Intel and Alcatel-Lucent had been plugging away at Cloud-RAN independently for half a decade or more, as have other mobile networking companies. The difference now, said Sandra Rivera, GM of Intel’s Network Platforms Group, is the two companies now have a commercially viable product in vRAN. “The products have been developed and we’ll be doing trials this year,” she said.
Two of those trial partners, China Mobile and Telefónica, will doing live demos of vRAN at their booths. If all goes as planned, Intel and Alcatel-Lucent hope to start installing their first data centers in commercial networks in 2016.
But Intel and Alcatel-Lucent face plenty of competition. [company]Nokia[/company] announced its competing network virtualization technology called Radio Cloud, and [company]ARM[/company] is working with network semiconductor maker [company]Cavium[/company] to put its processors at the heart of a cloud mobile system. And not every vendor believes that the Intel’s vision of a network running on off-the-shelf chips is feasible for something as complex as mobile network.
In an interview at MWC, [company]Ericsson[/company] CTO Ulf Ewaldsson told me that while moving the mobile network into a data center is most definitely possible, replacing its specialized digital signal processing workhorses with generic processors isn’t. He likened the baseband to the graphics accelerator, which is still separate from the CPU of any computer or high-end mobile device today. Just like GPUs can much more efficiently render pixels than a general-purpose processor, baseband processors can much more efficiently crunch signal data than any off-the-shelf chip, Ewaldsson said.