PARTNER FEATURE: Michael Clegg discusses the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for Supermicro in the 5G era.

5G is here, and it’s growing fast. Although networks are still in the early stages of deployment, especially standalone 5G core networks, rollouts are gathering pace. Spectrum auctions have also now resumed following delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a report from GSMA Intelligence, 107 operators in 47 markets had launched commercial 5G networks by the end of September 2020. Around 121 operators in 35 markets had acquired 5G-enabling spectrum in 35 markets, and trials have been started by 217 operators in 100 markets.

Meanwhile, 5G connections are estimated at 234 million for 2020, with services offered by 149 operators in 57 markets. This momentum is expected to be maintained during 2021 and beyond. In 2025, 5G connections are expected to reach around 1.8 billion, with 410 operators offering 5G services in 123 markets.

“I have been quite impressed and pleased to see how quickly the 5G market has developed, particularly in the large, developed markets,” said Michael Clegg, vice president and general manager for 5G, embedded and IoT, at Supermicro. “On a global basis, it’s less advanced, however.”

Clegg said the early availability of the non-standalone 5G standard, as well as the use by operators of Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS), have really helped propel 5G growth.

“That has really enabled a lot of operators to launch much more quickly. Traditionally, in each mobile generation you have to get new spectrum, and then deploy your radio access network in your spectrum, which takes a lot longer. Although DSS is not the optimum way to launch services, it does allow you to get up and running very quickly, and you can put that stake in the ground and say, ‘we have a 5G network’,” he said.

Clegg (pictured, left) also agrees with the general view that 5G will open up many more applications that could not be supported before, particularly for the enterprise market. “It has been interesting to see how quickly private 5G networks have taken off. That is going to be a really interesting part. The fact that 5G standards include support for neutral host networks, private 5G networks and unlicensed bands as an integral part is a huge change, and is probably the most under-appreciated part of 5G.”

In terms of the opportunities in the enterprise market, Clegg takes us back to the 1990s to provide an analogy of how 5G networks will be sliced and diced to suit different service requirements.

“We will have a public 5G network, but many enterprises will also have a private 5G network in the way that they had a PBX before” he said. “They will end up with a miniaturised version of the public network. In the United States, there was also a service called Centrex, which was a phone system that looked like a PBX but was provided by an operator. The analogy to that with 5G is network slicing. There will be a dynamic between customer-owned private 5G networks, customer-owned but operator-run private 5G networks, and then network slicing, or operator provided, private 5G services. There are a lot of ways to cut the pie, and it will be interesting to see how companies do this. For operators, it is an opportunity to be more than a connectivity service provider.”

Going to the edge
For its part, Supermicro certainly intends to play a leading role in the overall 5G value chain. Over the years, it has grown into a global leader in high-performance, high-efficiency server technology and innovation, focusing on the development and provision of end-to-end green computing solutions to the data centre, cloud computing, enterprise IT, big data, high-performance computing, and embedded markets.

It is particularly proud of its green credentials as well as its ‘building block’ approach to solutions. Its unique advantages include the ability to provide disaggregated and customised solutions that meet the requirements of its customers.

Supermicro has been quick to prepare itself for the opportunities that 5G will provide, bringing its expertise in optimised server hardware and deep virtualisation experience to these growing 5G deployments. Its solutions include a broad portfolio of edge servers, which are designed to support powerful and efficient processing in a variety of form factors.

“Supermicro is now stepping up its efforts because 5G for the first time is a cloud-native network,” said Clegg. “With the arrival of software-defined networking, there was a lot of work to separate software from the hardware. In many cases, that still required fairly customised hardware underneath. But now with 5G architecturally being a cloud-native container-based network, it really looks no different to any other data centre running on standard COTS servers.”

He added: “You have the ability with container-based solutions to really scale your network. We have a strong storage portfolio, and are very active in the BSS/OSS field. Being cloud-native, 5G is a stateless network, which drives a lot of centralised storage requirements, and we’ve been successful there. We’ve also done some work around the core product lines.”

Clegg cites open radio access networks (open RAN) and edge computing as two primary focus areas for Supermicro.

“5G is going to drive a huge amount of edge servers and edge compute,” he said. “It is an area where Supermicro is going to be very active. That is going to be very exciting as it will expand and broaden the market.”

In terms of open RAN, Supermicro is already working on projects within industry bodies such as the O‑RAN Alliance and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP).

“That’s been a little more interesting,” Clegg said. “The RAN area is the area where there is still some hardware dependency given the Digital Signal Processing (DSP) requirements and it’s more challenging to reach parity with a bespoke solution. The industry is spending a lot of time and effort on this area. The RAN is traditionally 80% of the cost of a mobile network; the radios are even more.”

Supermicro provides DU and CU hardware and does not provide radios, “but we’ve been active in the open RAN space and we are partnered with the top three major players, and we are deployed in a number of early networks already.”

Clegg explained: “We do edge computing, and with a disaggregated open RAN solution, the server technology is the same as the edge servers. For us, the RAN is almost just another edge application. There is also now broader acceptance that open RAN is going to happen. It is starting to show its benefits and the ecosystem of suppliers is definitely much broader than the traditional three or four that we had wound down to.”

Clegg also pointed out that in a standards-driven industry like telecoms, operators have ended up building fairly similar networks. “But now, with cloud-native and software-defined networks, and disaggregated solutions, it really comes back to how innovative operators are in applying that software stack, how good their DevOps models are, how quickly they can upgrade the network, how stable and agile the networks are, and how frequently they can introduce new features. For the first time, we will be able to see operators compete on execution and be in a position to innovate a lot more on services – that’s going to be very interesting.”

As for the challenges that Supermicro faces in the 5G market, Clegg stressed that as a hardware provider it is essential that the company builds up an ecosystem of software partners to offer complete solutions to the market.

Supermicro has already formed a number of partnerships with leading industry players such as Intel®. Other examples include a collaboration with T-Systems on EdgAIR, an Edge Computing platform that delivers low latency for IoT applications at enterprise facilities; and a partnership with Altiostar to develop an open RAN-compliant hardware/software reference model for 5G NR Distributed Unit (DU) implementation. Parallel Wireless has deployments based on Supermicro and there are several other unannounced engagements in both infrastructure and private networks.

Looking ahead
Supermicro sees many reasons to be confident about the future trajectory of 5G and the benefits it will bring to customers and organisations across the globe. As a guide to some of the major changes that lie ahead, the company has compiled an overview of what we can expect to see in the coming years.

Going cloud-native: As already outlined by Clegg, operators will soon be running full cloud-native networks, which will enable the full potential of 5G. Cloud providers, including Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, IBM, Google and Oracle, are partnering with mobile operators to bring the edge to the enterprise. What’s more, DISH will go live as the first greenfield cloud-native, open RAN 5G network in the United States, following the launch by Rakuten Mobile in Japan. The success of these early adopters will determine how quickly open networks are adopted on a broader basis compared to more traditional, proprietary networks.

5G everywhere? Nationwide coverage will initially be available in low-band spectrum frequencies. At the same time, mid-band deployments will deliver more of the mainstream promise of 5G in high-density areas. High-band millimetre wave (mmWave) 5G coverage will increase, albeit still focused on high-density areas, such as transportation hubs, stadiums, fixed wireless access (FWA) and enterprise environments. Supermicro also predicts that we will also see more artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled edge compute applications, especially in conjunction with video services, to take full advantage of the low latency that 5G brings.

More 5G phones: Devices will proliferate and become more mainstream, particularly with the Apple iPhone 12 and Samsung S20 supporting low-, mid-, and mmWave bands. Consumers will also start to see the first 5G applications, notably gaming and augmented/virtual reality, with AR/VR enabled by the iPhone 12 LIDAR.

Increased efficiency: It is already apparent to operators that 5G will not increase consumer average revenue per user (ARPU). In other words, adoption and proliferation do not lead to immediate revenue increases. This will be offset by the fact that 5G cloud-native networks will be operationally more efficient to run, as well as the overall trend towards software-defined networking. The return on 5G investment will be driven by enterprise applications, with the rising deployment of private 5G networks, business service-level agreements using network slicing techniques, and neutral host networks.

Expansion of 5G use cases: Once live sports with crowds returns, stadiums will become shining examples of all that 5G can bring to consumers. 5G FWA will expand, offering an alternative to telecoms and cable broadband. With the auctions completed in the 3.5GHz band, there will also be significant deployments of private 5G networks. Furthermore, 5G will support smart manufacturing processes, enhance logistics in ports and harbours, add new dimensions to healthcare, and even support education. 5G speeds will also enable digital transformation in areas not well served by fibre, such as oil and gas, energy, and agricultural technology.

Clegg concludes: “5G is really exciting, and will have a huge impact on our lives. The transition to a cloud-native, container-based network is a much bigger technology enabler than people often realise. This will really move innovation onto the software side and create many opportunities for operators to be more creative, providing services that will really make a difference to how we live. However, all that software still needs energy efficient, high performance, COTS server hardware, which is where Supermicro come in.”

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