Dell’s new approach to telcos seems like the opposite of open RAN

LAS VEGAS — Dell Technologies has a huge business selling basic hardware such as servers and storage units. And, as such, it’s been a big part of the open radio access network (RAN) movement from the start. 

Telcos have been disaggregating their hardware from their software for several years now in an effort to get away from proprietary “God boxes” from vendors such as Ericsson and Nokia. And Dell has been very happy to supply its off-the-shelf servers to these operators, who can then run a variety of software from different vendors on those servers.

So, it seemed a little counterintuitive this week when Dell announced a partnership with Wind River, indicating that the vendor’s software would come pre-loaded on Dell hardware for open RAN.

The pre-packaged offering will meet specific telecom workload requirements and use cases, spanning the network core to open RAN Distributed Units (DU) and Centralized Units (CU).

Dell is referring to this offering as a “telecom infrastructure block” which is a turnkey offering of hardware and software — similar to what Nokia and Ericsson have been doing for decades.

While its first announcement is with Wind River, Dell is planning to create telecom infrastructure blocks with various vendors. It will provide its hardware with complete software stacks for telcos to build their open RAN infrastructure.

Speaking with Fierce Wireless, Dennis Hoffman, senior vice president and general manager of Dell Technologies Telecom Systems Business, said the industry has swerved from “guardrail to guardrail.” People were tired of vendor lock-in where everything was on one box and they had no choice. “Then along comes Open RAN,” said Hoffman. “The original notion was pick any part from anybody and slap it together. It turns out that’s just not reality to take any server and any software and create something you can bet your business on.”

He said the industry is settling “into a more pragmatic notion,” which is something in the middle. Operators are comfortable with a reduced number of choices, provided that each part is independently available and somebody will help set it up and keep it running.

Andrew Vaz, VP of product management with Dell’s Telecom Systems Business, said, “When you have multiple vendors in the stack you have to get that entire stack to work together. That requires an amazing amount of testing. And they all release things at random times.”

Hoffman said there’s still plenty of room for openness at the top of the stack, but operators are finding they don’t want to spend a ton of time and energy on the plumbing of the infrastructure. “The place they want to innovate tends to be toward the top of the stack,” he said. “This gives them the foundation and some level of openness.”

Dell’s objective with telecom is to become an enabler of the open ecosystem that provides stability, security and the ability to scale up. It decided to start from its core strength — the infrastructure — and then partner on top of that.

“Most carriers have little fear that Dell will go away,” said Hoffman. He noted that Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen recently said that dealing with all the vendors in an open RAN network was harder than Dish expected it would be. “They’ve asked Dell to start do some of this,” said Hoffman.