Towards a programmable and virtualized mobile radio access network architecture
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Emerging 5G mobile networks are envisioned to become multi-service environments, enabling the dynamic deployment of services with a diverse set of performance requirements, accommodating the needs of mobile network operators, verticals and over-the-top service providers. The Radio Access Network (RAN) part of mobile networks is expected to play a very significant role towards this evolution. Unfortunately, such a vision cannot be efficiently supported by the conventional RAN architecture, which adopts a fixed and rigid design. For the network to evolve, flexibility in the creation, management and control of the RAN components is of paramount importance. The key elements that can allow us to attain this flexibility are the programmability and the virtualization of the network functions. While in the case of the mobile core, these issues have been extensively studied due to the advent of technologies like Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) and the similarities that the core shares with other wired networks like data centers, research in the domain of the RAN is still in its infancy. The contributions made in this thesis significantly advance the state of the art in the domain of RAN programmability and virtualization in three dimensions. First, we design and implement a software-defined RAN (SD-RAN) platform called FlexRAN, that provides a flexible control plane designed with support for real-time RAN control applications, flexibility to realize various degrees of coordination among RAN infrastructure entities, and programmability to adapt control over time and easier evolution to the future following SDN/NFV principles. Second, we leverage the capabilities of the FlexRAN platform to design and implement Orion, which is a novel RAN slicing system that enables the dynamic on-the-fly virtualization of base stations, the flexible customization of slices to meet their respective service needs and which can be used in an end-to-end network slicing setting. Third, we focus on the use case of multi-tenancy in a neutral-host indoors small-cell environment, where we design Iris, a system that builds on the capabilities of FlexRAN and Orion and introduces a dynamic pricing mechanism for the efficient and flexible allocation of shared spectrum to the tenants. A number of additional use cases that highlight the benefits of the developed systems are also presented. The lessons learned through this research are summarized and a discussion is made on interesting topics for future work in this domain. The prototype systems presented in this thesis have been made publicly available and are being used by various research groups worldwide in the context of 5G research.
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