When it comes to the future of 5G radio access network (RAN) technology, Open RAN is poised to be a massive game-changer. By opening up interfaces between the radio and baseband units, Open RAN will deliver greater choice, flexibility and agility for mobile network operators deploying 5G. However, Open RAN has its fair share of skeptics. Let’s examine three popular misconceptions about interoperability, technology maturity and security.
Myth #1: Multivendor network components aren’t interoperable
When making the transition from proprietary systems to open networks, communications service providers (CSPs) need to adjust to operating and maintaining infrastructure from various vendors in one network. For some CSPs, there is a concern about interoperability and accountability when integrating multiple vendor components into the RAN. However, system integration in an Open RAN environment is guided by globally defined standards with well-defined attributes.
In fact, whether deploying an open network or proprietary infrastructure, the service provider needs to ensure that proper system integration is accomplished — from the RAN to the core. Arguably, this is actually easier to do when you’re not dependent on proprietary systems. Integration can be completed more effectively with open architecture, thanks to increased visibility at every layer, standard industry specifications, and interoperability use cases.
Network deployment, management and ongoing maintenance requires disciplined system integration and execution; you cannot just patch components together and expect them to work. That’s why many CSPs rely on system integrators to recommend proven, interoperable system components. Likewise, CSPs have the flexibility to select elements from various interoperable use cases, as demonstrated by industry groups such as the O-RAN Alliance.
Myth #2: It’s too risky to invest in such an immature technology
It’s true that, relatively speaking, Open RAN has not yet been widely deployed. It’s also true, however, that Open RAN standards and specifications leverage existing interfaces whenever possible. Organizations like the O-RAN Alliance, the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) OpenRAN project group, Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) and the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) have developed mature specifications that build on legacy technologies and components.
These established industry groups and organizations are not reinventing the wheel. Each group is dedicated to defining various attributes for open interfaces, aligning on those interfaces and publishing agreed specifications. As a result, these global standards can be relied on to ensure network performance, scalability and architecture interoperability.
Myth #3: Open interfaces will leave the network vulnerable to security breaches
It’s important to remember that open doesn’t mean insecure. Just because you have an open interface, that doesn’t mean that bad actors can just (virtually) walk right into your network. The transition from proprietary to open interfaces means greater transparency than black-box implementations, making it easier to align with security standards and best practices. Moreover, when it comes to security, disaggregation of network architecture improves agility, adaptability and resiliency.
With that said, cybersecurity best practices are just as important in an Open RAN as they are in any modern network, as security threats continue to multiply. Recognizing the critical nature of a secure RAN, the O-RAN Alliance has formed a security task group engaged with working groups to tackle security challenges on all O-RAN interfaces and components. Following the example set by organizations such as 3GPP, the O-RAN Alliance is following security design practices of rigorous threat modeling and risk analysis, in order to specify and recommend modern, practical security solutions.
The road ahead
As technologies evolve and advance, each transition brings reservations and new questions. Open RAN is a paradigm shift in RAN architecture and deployment, introducing intelligent control, as well as greater openness and flexibility. This new architecture offers the capability to speed service introduction and innovation, improve supply chain security, and reduce network OpEx and CapEx costs. But before we can benefit from Open RAN technology, we first need to overcome the perceived barriers to clear the way forward.
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