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Making Timing Secure in 5G Open RAN Networks

Making Timing Secure in 5G Open RAN Networks
Posted 05/25/2023 by Bob O’Donnell, President and chief analyst, TECHnalysis Research

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Over the last few years, we’ve seen dramatic evolutions of large cellular networks on several different fronts. Most notably, of course, has been the transition to 5G, a faster, more responsive and more powerful network architecture. 5G has enabled faster download speeds, opened up new applications like Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) mobile broadband, and is poised to bring important new innovations like network slicing to companies around the world.

Another big move that coincided with the launch of 5G has been the transition to more flexible, software-defined and virtualized network architectures. Before 5G, most of the network equipment powering our cellular connections consisted of proprietary hardware from a very small number of companies. With the increasing intelligence built into 5G networks, however, there was a move to using more general-purpose computing hardware and a variety of different software solutions. In addition, telco carriers and network equipment providers realized it made more sense to break up the monolithic BBU (broadband unit) at the heart of cell towers into three different parts that could be run in different places: the RU (Radio Unit), the DU (Distributed Unit) and the CU (Control Unit).

In order to do that reliably, a common set of interfaces and standards needed to be developed so that all these components could talk to each other in a speedy, dependable way. This led to the birth of Open RAN (Radio Access Network), a new architecture that takes advantage of the various technical advancements that had occurred including virtualization, software-defined networks, and open, interoperable connection standards.

For all the benefits that Open RAN architectures enable, however, they also created some new challenges. First, synchronized timing across the various parts of the network became a critical issue. In order for the vast amount of data to flow throughout a cellular network accurately and reliably, a shared timing source across the RU, CU and DU is required. Network equipment engineers developed the IEEE 1588-2019 precision time protocol (PTP) standard to address this need. This protocol ensures accurate and reliable clock synchronization for critical applications in a distributed system. In addition, for increased operability amongst telecom networks, there needed to be support for ITU-T protocols including G.8265.1, G.8275.1, G.8275.2 and G.8273.2 for time distribution, clock accuracy, boundary and transparent clock, and failure detection and recovery implementations.

It turns out the inherent timing accuracy and consistent operation of FPGAs makes them very well suited for timing applications, so companies like Lattice Semiconductor developed solutions that solved the immediate timing needs and included support for the key technical standards and protocols. As important as timing accuracy may be, however, the security of these types of connections is also critical. In fact, one of the potential problems early developers of Open RAN equipment discovered is that if the timing signal sent between components was somehow interfered with, it could prevent the proper operation of the network. In a world where hacking attempts and security breach stories have become a regular occurrence, that clearly wasn’t acceptable.

As a result, a solution to the potential security problem was also required. As fortune would have it, Lattice also happened to have some FPGA-based security solutions that were specifically created to “Secure the Wire” by helping prevent hacking attempts through hardware-based authentication. These solutions help ensure that multiple hardware components within a connected system can do a secure handshake to authenticate a request before enabling a full connection. This mutual authentication was integrated into the 1588 protocol solution to help make the synchronization of the network more tamper resistant. In addition, they leverage on-chip cryptographic algorithms to ensure that all communication between devices is encrypted. By combining the security capabilities and the timing functions into a single FPGA and matching it with the company’s Lattice Radiant® and Lattice Propel™ programming tools, Lattice was able to create a solution they call the Lattice ORAN™ solution stack, that is an ideal match for the critical demands of these Open RAN networks.

In addition to timing and security, because these chips are part of the company’s line of low power FPGAs, they have the added benefit of minimal power demands, meaning that devices which incorporate them can be made more power efficient. Many pieces of cellular network equipment are notorious power hogs, so any improvements in electricity consumption can start to have a meaningful impact when they’re repeated over and over again.

While it’s easy to forget all the details that go behind the operation of the technical marvels like 5G cellular networks upon which we’ve all become so dependent, it is important to know that critical details like timing, security and low power consumption are all working to make today’s networks more reliable, safer, and more efficient.

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can rel="noopener noreferrer" follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.