5G and My Headless Workstation

It’s a bit of a strange headline perhaps but my recent blog posts on working with a headless workstation that supplies extra CPU muscle to my working setup has a lot to do with the envisaged 5G evolution of wireless networks and services. Let me explain…

In the past two years, 5G in the ‘real world’ has first and foremost been about rolling out a new air interface as a speed booster and connecting it to the LTE core network. LTE has so far remained in control with 5G being a powerful add-on to an LTE air interface connection. That’s particularly the case when band n78 with a channel bandwidth of 80-100 MHz is used. In a next step, 5G is now used in the same way in some networks to tap unused spectrum in the 1800 or 2100 MHz band. There’s less bandwidth available there but despite of this, it brings a noticeable increase in overall bandwidth available to users, particularly in smaller cities and on the countryside where not all frequency bands assigned to LTE are used. So that’s the story so far.

But the new air interface is only a tiny part of the overall 5G story. 5G has also been specified in a way to virtualize and cloudify the software that is used in mobile networks to manage connectivity and mobility. In the core network, the 5G core (5GC) evolution is all about separating hardware from software, putting standardized mobility management, session management, databases, charging functions, etc. into containers and to distribute work among different nodes in a standardized way with web APIs. No longer shall hardware and software necessarily come from the same vendor, especially for components that do not directly deal with transferring IP packets.

Separating hardware from software is a revolutionary concept for telecom equipment but already an ‘old hat’ from an IT point of view. 20 years or so ago it was the norm that companies such as Sun, IBM and others supplied server hardware and the software that ran on top of it. Today, this has completely shifted to off-the shelf hardware built by many different companies unknown in the public with Linux as an operating system and open source software such as Apache, nginx, php, node.js etc. etc. on top. The software is being supplied by many different organizations which are not dependent on any particular server hardware vendor and will run on any x86 based machine from a small notebook at home to the most powerful supercomputer. This shift is long complete in the IT world and from a technical point of view the same can be done to telecom ‘components’ that manage connectivity, mobility, charging, etc. in just the same manner.

On the radio network side, virtualizing as many parts as possible so they can be hosted at central sites for easier maintenance and load sharing while running on standard x86 hardware is also attempted. The Open-RAN (ORAN) alliance has taken things a step further than what 3GPP was willing to do and some early greenfield deployments are already live, such as Rakuten’s LTE network in Japan.

If and how these efforts will succeed in the mid- to long-term has yet to be seen. But coming back to the headline of this post: What has my headless workstation got to do with all of this? Well, apart from the practical uses I have for combining my low-power notebook with the high capacity workstation below the desk with a network cable in between applies many of the thoughts that have gone into the concept of the 5GC and ORAN: Distributing software that has once run on a particular hardware to a central, more powerful network node, do the heavy lifting there and deliver the result back over the network. Virtualization and containers also play a role in my setup, the same as in 5GC and ORAN. So for me it’s the ideal playground to get a better grasp of how these concepts can, are and will be used much more in the future in mobile networks. Learning by doing!