Qualcomm is the undisputed leader in the 5G ecosystem from an end device perspective. The company's Snapdragon silicon is in many smartphones and connected devices. In a logical move, Qualcomm punctuated its entry into the cellular infrastructure space with a second-generation 5G RAN Platform for Small Cells (FSM200xx) in the summer of 2021. The design partnerships for the platform are impressive, including companies such as Airspan Networks, Altiostar, Samsung and others. Its operator deployments are equally compelling, including Rakuten Mobile and Verizon.
This week, Qualcomm announced a partnership with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) to collaborate on what the company calls the industry’s “first optimized virtualized distributed unit,” or vDU. Today, I would like to provide my take on the recent announcement and which of its elements I find most compelling.
What is a distributed unit?
Given the highly virtualized and software-defined nature of the 5G NR standard, disaggregation (in the form of Open RAN and vRAN) is gaining momentum with operators globally. Both promise to deliver operator agility, mitigate capital and operational expense and usher in a new ecosystem of disruptive infrastructure providers. Historically, baseband units found on radio towers were proprietary and, consequently, expensive. 5G NR comes with a newfound flexibility to break baseband functionality into centralized and distributed units. The beauty of a distributed unit lies in its ability to utilize industry-standard server platforms for baseband processing.
The companies believe their vDU platform could provide carriers with up to a 60% lower total cost of ownership for 5G vRAN deployments, thanks to its lower cost structure, improvements in power management and performance optimization. This claim is backed by a TCO analysis commissioned by Qualcomm and HPE that I have been allowed to review. From my perspective, the assumptions and rationale seem sound.
The vDU solution combines the HPE ProLiant DL 110 Gen 10 Plus Telco Server (optimized for Open RAN workloads) with the Qualcomm X100 5G RAN Accelerator Card. What I find impressive is HPE’s ability to support up to four cards in a minimal, 1U server footprint. By marrying the HPE server with the Qualcomm accelerator card, the vDU platform can efficiently offload the typically very compute-intensive 5G baseband processing from the server CPU. The result is improved performance, power management and lower latency – a trifecta that mobile network operators value highly.
In my mind, Qualcomm picked a great launch partner in HPE. HPE has a very mature telecommunications business unit infused with operator DNA at nearly every level of the organization. Last fall, HPE also announced the hiring of Tom Craig to serve as Global Vice President & General Manger for the Communications Technology Group. Mr. Craig is a former BT Global Services and Vodafone Group executive who brings a wealth of operator experience to the role. In addition to its solid bench strength, HPE also boasts a depth of carrier-grade solutions and blueprints, as well as significant 5G lab capabilities. I have spent time with the team in the past—if interested, you can find my article on the lab efforts here.
Qualcomm is on a roll, as evidenced by its recent earnings performance. This new focus on infrastructure could provide significant additional financial upsides for the company. The collaboration may also include other server providers, such as Dell and Lenovo, who stand to further Qualcomm’s impact on vRAN infrastructure. I expect Qualcomm will have additional announcements at Mobile World Congress Barcelona at the end of this month. I plan on attending the event in person and will share my comments and analysis on any other significant 5G developments. Stay tuned!