opinion


The role of OpenRAN in securing 5G networks and the IoT

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Martin Rudd, CTO of Telesoft Technologies analyses the opportunities presented by OpenRAN technology.

With recent announcements of joint initiatives from the likes of Rakuten and Telefonica, Dish Networks and Nokia, it comes as no surprise that OpenRAN is featuring prominently on the list of the most talked about telecoms trends of 2020.

Even the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has championed OpenRAN’s role in helping to make the UK less dependent on larger incumbent suppliers. The benefits are clear – reducing cost and increasing the resilience of mobile networks, as well as speeding up the development of interoperable solutions that can become the much-needed industry standard.

But, OpenRAN was initially heralded as a way for operators to improve network economics by cutting the cost of building mobile networks. The most significant cost in building a mobile network is the RAN. 5G is set to increase these costs further due to increased cell site density, the need for more backhaul capacity, plus various infrastructure improvements to enable new low latency services and applications.

OpenRAN has the potential to provide a much-needed platform for innovation, which helps drive new revenue opportunities and streams for operators and their customers. It’s something that is garnering attention from the wider technology community, beyond the traditional telecoms players. OpenRAN lowers the barriers to working with new vendors, creating a level playing field that enables the introduction and delivery of new applications at the edge of the network.

With vendor-neutral hardware, OpenRAN can reduce the reliance on a small number of vendors by decoupling the hardware and software components of the network. This disaggregation of hardware and software, and the development of isolated network sharing capabilities like node slicing, is making it increasingly feasible for mobile operators to realistically, and securely, share physical network resources as part of their 5G deployment.

The virtualisation that OpenRAN brings allows operators to run more easily and reliably create a distributed edge cloud that can deliver software-based network functions on standard servers. The move to a cloud-native architecture enables network functions and applications to be broken up into small microservices that can be mixed and matched to best suit the application required.

This, in turn, opens the door to local vendors and suppliers across the board, boosting the economy and enabling innovative solutions to the specific needs of that community. Whether it’s an organisation supplying white-box networking hardware or virtualised network functions, or someone deploying an application or service at the edge of the network, anyone adhering to the correct standards can be part of the makeup.

As a result, smart devices can be more tightly integrated into the network, rather than just as connected end points. This is vital to the development of ‘digital twins’ – physical objects that have a virtual online counterpart. These can span everything from simple IoT devices, through to connected multifunction devices and autonomous vehicles, and they extend all the way up to manufacturing, buildings, smart cities and even people.

And this is where perhaps one of the most interesting advantages of OpenRAN comes into play – the potential for it to improve network and data security, especially around 5G and IoT. It’s been a topic of discussion at the recent FCC ‘Forum on Open Radio Access Networks’ and the Prague 5G Security Conference.

It makes sense because the exponential rise in IoT connections (expected to rise to almost 25 billion globally by 2025, according to GSMA Intelligence) will naturally mean more potential threat vectors. And this is where the distributed and virtualised network design of OpenRAN can be advantageous. By implementing a mesh defence strategy, the security load can be divided up and the results aggregated, enabling discovery and provisioning by customer, service or application. Operators can then get a higher-level view and apply strategic decisions that filter right down to the most granular levels. This bespoke and segmented approach can also bolster national sovereignty, by enabling specific network paths to be routed and protected with additional security applications and monitoring.

What’s crucial in this scenario is the ability to monitor all traffic, including encrypted traffic (in a non-intrusive way) which enables SOC/NOC teams to derive threat intelligence or monitor Quality of Service (QoS) across their network. In the event of a large-scale attack, such as Distributed Denial of Service or credential stuffing attacks, the disaggregated and virtualised nature of OpenRAN can enable an operator to shut down a small part of the network and neutralise the attack while minimising network disruption. To accomplish this, operators need an uncompromised view of the network, devices and traffic.

Because OpenRAN seamlessly enables the ability to segregate the network for a variety of different consumer, enterprise and societal services, it can help to integrate data security into every aspect of the network by design, not just at the edge and core. At the same time, local data protection laws can be maintained.

Of course, delivering on the promise of innovation and an open marketplace requires trust. The combination of using open, robust standards and having security implemented by a trusted partner can ensure growth while protecting users and data. This can only be achieved by allowing operators to have as much visibility as possible, end-to-end across their whole network and the control to manage what goes in/out of it. This transparency is something that the large vendors don’t provide.

OpenRAN will enable mobile operators to take back control, reducing infrastructure costs by freeing them from a dependence on those large technology suppliers and their proprietary hardware. It also champions flexibility and interoperability, allowing operators to use the best technology solutions available from a range of smaller suppliers to deliver fast, reliable and secure mobile networking.

 

Martin Rudd is CTO for Telesoft Technologies, a cutting edge tech company securing public and private interests on the world’s largest data networks.

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