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What is a radio access network (RAN)?

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A radio access network (RAN) is the part of a mobile network that connects end-user devices, like smartphones, to the cloud. This is achieved by sending information via radio waves from end-user devices to a RAN’s transceivers, and finally from the transceivers to the core network which connects to the global internet.

For telecommunications network operators, RANs are crucial connection points that represent significant overall network expenses, perform intensive and complex processing, and now face rapidly increasing demand as more edge and 5G use cases emerge for telco customers.

Just as the virtualization of network functions has enabled telcos to modernize their networks, similar principles can also be applied to RAN. This is especially important as the future of the industry focuses on the transition to 5G—in fact, the ongoing 5G network transformation often depends on the virtualization of RAN, and increasingly assumes that it is container-based and cloud-native

Virtualized radio access networks (vRANs) are a way for telecommunications operators to run their baseband functions as software. One of the primary benefits of virtualizing radio access networks (RANs) is that RAN functions no longer require special proprietary hardware to run, and can instead be run on standard servers. This is achieved by applying the principles of virtualization to RAN, and is usually one part of a larger network function virtualization (NFV) effort. Results of a Heavy Reading survey published in 2020 indicate that the following two years will see a sharp uptick in vRAN deployments.

The virtualization of RAN and move towards more container-based and cloud-native implementations of RANs have led to the development of industry-wide standards for open RAN interfaces. These standards, driven by the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and the O-RAN Alliance, support the interoperability of RAN equipment regardless of vendor.

Through open RANs, telcos can simplify network operations and improve flexibility, availability, and efficiency—all while serving an increasing number of devices and bandwidth-hungry applications. Cloud-native and container-based open RAN solutions often provide lower costs, improved ease of upgrade and modification, ability to scale horizontally, and with less vendor lock-in than VM-based solutions.

Many carriers have lowered their costs and created a more agile infrastructure by deploying a variety of virtual network functions (VNFs), including virtual firewalls, DNS, SBC/IMS, virtual evolved packet cores (vEPCs) for 4G networks, and vRANs.

This approach: 

  • Uses less (and less expensive) hardware. 

  • Increases flexibility. 

  • Provides the ability to spin workloads up and down with minimal effort. 

  • Allows resources to be scaled elastically to address changing network demands. 

Modernizing networks requires moving workloads and services out of the core network (in datacenters) toward the network’s edge: around points of presence and central offices. From here, services can be delivered to subscribers more efficiently with lower latency and higher bandwidth.

Our NFV solution is open source and standards-based, creating a stable, interoperable foundation to build upon. It is the result of Red Hat’s leading contributions to the OpenStack, Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM), Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK), Kubernetes, and OpenShift Origin Community Distribution (OKD) projects

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What is a radio access network?

A radio access network (RAN) is the part of a mobile network that connects end-user devices, like smartphones, to the cloud.

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