Mobile operators around the globe are gearing up for a new era of 5G network services. The move to 5G promises higher transmission speeds and more bandwidth, allowing videos and other data-rich content to be uploaded and downloaded up to 20 times more quickly than with current 4G technology.

Perhaps even more importantly, 5G networks promise to be much more responsive for time-critical applications: the latency, which measures the time taken for data entered at one point of the network to elicit a response, is set to plummet from 50 ms today to just 1 ms when the roll out is complete. This improved responsiveness will be crucial for real-time consumer applications, such as self-driving cars, lag-free gaming, and live streaming without the annoyance of buffering. But it will also play an important role in delivering improved and more personalized healthcare services, allowing patients visiting their local clinic to be treated by the best specialists from all over the world via video links, with remote diagnosis and monitoring using systems powered by artificial intelligence (AI). At the same time, first responders with real-time access to sensor data and network-assisted AI will be able to make better informed decisions in the most challenging conditions.

But achieving such performance improvements is forcing mobile operators to rethink and redesign their networks. 5G will exploit higher frequencies to speed up network connections, but this has the effect of shortening the transmission range. More base stations will be needed to provide the same coverage as today, and more computing power will need to be available at the edge of the network – in local offices and branches, for example, and even at the radio tower itself.

“There’s a new wave of technology coming out at the edge to enable low-latency applications, such as those exploiting artificial intelligence and video technologies,” says Jeff Sharpe, director for IoT and embedded solutions at Supermicro, a leading developer of high-performance hardware solutions for datacentres and edge computing. “These technologies will allow network operators to optimize their networks and deliver better services to their customers.”

The new-look network will still have high-performance computing power in the core of the network. That high-end compute would be used, for example, to develop and train the models used for different AI applications. But intelligent edge computing will bring that power to wherever it is needed, allowing end users to exploit the AI algorithms to process and analyse incoming data in real time.

“Operators will also need to exploit cloud-based software solutions to support the move to edge computing,” comments Yaming Wang, director for IoT and embedded solutions at Supermicro. “To do that the operators are focused on adopting an open hardware architecture as well as open-source software.”

That will be a fundamental shift from today’s mobile networks, in which most of the equipment has been sourced from a small number of companies providing proprietary solutions. The effect, says Wang, has been to slow down the evolution of network technology, with many innovations relying instead on the development of improved software services.

As a result, the world’s leading network operators – including the likes of AT&T, Verizon and Deutsche Telekom – have come together to form the Open Radio-Access Network (O-RAN) Alliance. Its mission is to build an open 5G infrastructure from virtualized network elements that allow installed equipment to be used more flexibly, standardized interfaces, and hardware sourced from multiple vendors.

“The O-RAN Alliance was created to accelerate the delivery of products that support a common, open architecture that we, as operators, view as the foundation of our next-generation wireless infrastructure,” explains Deutsche Telekom’s Alex Jinsung Choi. “It will also ensure that we have a broad community of suppliers driven by innovation and open market competition.”

That approach plays to the strengths of a company like Supermicro, which has focused on developing open-architecture hardware platforms and building virtualized solutions with different software partners. These virtual network elements – essentially a combination of hardware and software that performs a specific network function – will be distributed throughout the radio-access network to deliver high-performance computing to end users, and to support the more dynamic needs of 5G services.

“Supermicro sees the edge as different areas,” explains Sharpe. “We have equipment that’s specifically designed to be installed in a customer premise, something like a local banking office that needs high-end technology for security applications. We also have a high-performance server that’s designed to be used in a controlled environment, such as a micro data centre.”

Supermicro’ high-performance server, the 1019P, comes in a compact rackmount format – less deep than standard data centre equipment – that allows it to be deployed in branch offices and other network-oriented indoor locations such as repurposed telephone central offices.  It can run many different applications, and has two expandable slots that can be used interchangeably to provide local computing power or to support network O-RAN applications.

For compute-intensive applications such as AI inferencing, one or both slots can be configured with 2nd Generation Intel® Xeon® Scalable processors, designed specifically for data-centric computing and offering built-in AI acceleration. Alternatively, it can be fitted with Intel®’s Programmable Acceleration Card N3000, a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) that supports site-to-site communications for an open 5G radio-access network.

“Intel® and Supermicro address this network transformation opportunity as partners,” says Allen Leibovitch, senior product marketing manager at Supermicro. “Intel® often supports us in developing hardware and software reference designs, including verified Intel® Select Solutions.”

Another high-performance server, the SuperServer E403-9D-16C-IPD2 has been designed for installation on the radio tower itself. It also has expandable slots capable of running both FPGA and Xeon®-enabled processing technologies, and the whole package fits inside a standard IP65 environmental enclosure to enable it to operate in the harshest of weather conditions. “Our new outdoor SuperServer brings high-performance data centre capability to the cell site itself,” says Leibovitch. “This will be essential for network providers to deploy dynamic 5G networks and to implement advanced real-time applications and services for their customers,” says Leibovitch.Visit the Supermicro website to find out more about the company’s open hardware solutions for 5G networks.