How open development ecosystems drive rApp innovation
Childhood deprivation – I was never allowed a chemistry set!
I was never allowed a chemistry set as a child. I really, really wanted one, but after I blew my eyebrows off making gunpowder, my parents realized that giving me a chemistry set probably wouldn’t end well.
But I still think it is the ultimate toy. With a big enough chemistry set, and the right equipment you can make anything. My fascination with chemistry is most likely why I chose a career in tech. After all, this industry also enables experimentation and innovation, but without posing any danger to my eyebrows (my parents are relieved) – and the Open RAN architecture is my new toolkit.
Open RAN architecture
The O-RAN Alliance is a service provider-led consortium of over 300 companies working on the Open RAN concept. They have defined an Open RAN architecture which, as the name suggests, has openness at its heart.
The Open RAN architecture defines, or is in the process of defining, a number of open interfaces imaginatively named the O1, O2, A1 and R1 interfaces. Open interfaces are critical to our industry for enabling interoperability and interworking. The ability to support open interfaces is key for open innovation, and there is a process whereby open interfaces move from an aspiration, to a definition, to a set of standards.
Within the architecture there are two interesting new functions named:
- The near-real-time radio or RAN intelligent controller (Near-RT-RIC)
- The non-real-time radio or RAN intelligent controller (Non-RT-RIC)
These radio intelligent controllers support a new type of automation application for the network known as:
- xApps (Running on the near-RT-RIC)
- rApps (Running on the non-RT-RIC)
xApps are designed to automate functions between milliseconds and one second. rApps are designed to automate functions greater than one second, from one second to one day, or one week or one year. Automation functions below milliseconds are handled by the radio baseband: these are things like handovers between base stations and multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) beamforming.
However, what is exciting about this architecture in terms of openness and innovation is that the interface between the non-RT-RIC and the automation applications, rApps is an open interface. The R1 interface.
The importance of an open interface in the service management and orchestration (SMO) makes rApp innovation much, much easier. An open interface, when fully specified, allows portability of applications. One of the biggest concerns in the telecommunications industry today is around the use of proprietary technology and interfaces which, arguably, restrict or ‘lock-in’ communications service providers (CSPs) to specific vendors.
Where interfaces are not fully defined, specified or standardized companies use bespoke or proprietary interfaces to connect things.
Let’s look at an example from ancient history. In 2G networks the interfaces between the mobile phone (or brick) and the base station (BTS) was the Um interface. This was open and it meant that any phone could talk to any base station. The interface between the base station controller (BSC) and the mobile switching center (MSC), was also open meaning any BSC could connect to any vendors’ switch. However, the Abis-interface, between the base station (BTS) and the base station controller (BSC) was a closed or proprietary interface. The consequence of this was that all the base stations and base station controllers had to come from the same vendor.
The open R1 interface makes the rApp domain more attractive to potential rApp developers because any application they create will work across 100 percent of the deployed SMO/Non-RT-RICs in the market. An open, unrestricted market is a key driver for open innovation.
Conversely, there is no clearly defined open interface between the near-RT-RIC and xApps, the boundary between the two is referred to as a ‘message bus’ and it appears to be a proprietary or vendor specific boundary. This means that any xApp developed will be locked-in to the underlying vendor’s platform. In market terms, the addressable market for your xApp is limited to the maximum market share of the near-RT-RIC vendor. That market share may be significant, it may be commercially attractive, or at least viable, but it won’t be 100 percent of the total market.
Contributing to openness benefits us all
Sometimes in business you have to do things that are counter-intuitive for the greater good. In 1959 Volvo introduced the first car with a three-point seat belt fitted as standard. The three-point seat belt was developed and patented by Nils Bohlin, but Volvo later made the patent open in the interests of safety; making it available to other car manufacturers.
Ericsson has been a major contributor to industry standards for over forty years. It has been heavily involved in the 3GPP standards bodies behind the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM), 3G, 4G, 5G and beyond. 4G was the first truly global mobile communications standard in the industry.
As you would expect, Ericsson has been a major contributor to Open RAN and is one of the main contributors to the working groups focused on service management and orchestration (SMO).
The reason for Ericsson’s focus on service management and orchestration and the ability to create open rApps is our belief that this area has enormous potential for openness and disruptive innovation.
Why the openness of rApps is a game changer
The promise of rApps running on a non-RT-RIC is the democratization of RAN automation application development. Today, automation applications, such as centralized-self optimizing networks (C-SON) or network design and optimization (NDO) applications are tightly integrated with the underlying platform. This creates a barrier to entry and limits the choice within the wider market. This also means that if you have a diverse selection of application vendors today, you will also have a diverse set of application platforms as well.
The open R1 interfaces disaggregates the application from the application platform. For CSPs it means that there is a major opportunity to consolidate application platforms. For potential developers it means your focus is on development of applications and there isn’t any need to worry about the underlying application platform.
Another important capability in the SMO is the ability to access external data sources such as location data from the core network, or data on the environment or climate which can be used by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) systems to drive automation.
Examples: Climate or weather predictions can be used to understand whether air-conditioning is needed, or data about opening and closing times at a shopping mall could be used to determine when to power-up or power-down indoor small cells, which won’t be utilized after the mall shuts and everyone goes home.
This is why rApps will be a game changer for the industry. It will open up opportunities to new entrants – systems integrators, independent software companies, start-ups and universities to build rApps either based on the requirements from service providers or based upon the companies own unique areas of expertise or data sets.
However, on its own, the open interface and large addressable market may not be enough to stimulate the growth of a new development ecosystem.
What else can be done to genuinely initiate a new development ecosystem for rApps? The answer is simple: software development toolkits, or SDKs.
Software development toolkits are a catalyst for development ecosystems
The answer is simple: software development toolkits, or SDKs. SDKs provide the building blocks for rapid development of applications. Advanced SDKs include API libraries, instructions, testing tools and even templates that are designed for rapid application development and deployment of applications.
SDKs lower the technical barriers to entry for new entrants. They reduce the effort required to build and test new rApps. Improving time-to-market (TTM) also improves the time to revenue for companies selling new applications. This improves the ability to monetize these new applications.
In combination, the open interfaces and addressable market combined with lower technical barriers to entry and improved monetization really acts as a catalyst to drive the formation of new development ecosystems.
Why is co-creation so important?
One of the things that is most exciting about the SMO/Non-RT-RIC/rApp domain is the opportunities for co-creation within the industry.
Traditionally, with the industry network vendors and independent software companies supply CSPs. Some CSPs develop their own software and products, but they tend to be larger companies with large R&D organizations. At the commercial level, service providers have highly organized, complex buying organizations that are used to working with similarly large corporate entities. Having worked for a start-up in the telecoms market, I know first-hand how difficult it is for small companies to work with these very large organizations.
Similarly, it can be difficult for smaller service providers to influence the roadmap and innovation of the large network vendors.
rApps promise much greater opportunities for co-creation in the industry. They potentially lower the barriers to entry for new developers and companies with new and diverse knowledge bases. They also provide an opportunity for smaller CSPs to build, broker, or buy new rApps that can help them customize network performance, enhance customer experience and reduce operational costs in ways they haven’t been able to before.
Better living through chemistry
The service management and orchestration concept offers some significant win-win opportunities for CSPs, network vendors and third-party application developers with rApps:
- The open R1 interface gives developers a large addressable market
- The addition of SDKs lowers barriers to entry for new entrants, reduces the effort required to create applications, improves time-to-market and the ability to monetize those applications
However, the SMO concept is not a panacea: a solution or remedy for all difficulties. It’s a technology designed for the new Open RAN technologies and more work has to be done to see whether that concept can be extended from Open RAN to the existing purpose-built RAN that makes up over 98 percent of deployed networks today. Such an important automation capability should be available to 100 percent of today’s networks across multiple vendors and multiple technologies to deliver the needed impact.
That said, like a newly opened chemistry set, the SMO/Non-RT-RIC/rApps combination, offers endless opportunities for innovation, co-creation and (positive) disruption. Hopefully, no one will lose their eyebrows, but experimentation is great fun!
 Source: RAN market smashes expectations in 2020: Dell’Oro Group – 19 Feb 2021
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