Network slicing first appeared with 4G networks and enabled new possibilities – and this will go much farther when 5G enables network slices to incorporate the radios. With great power, however, comes great responsibility for getting the quality of service right, otherwise end-to-end services and mobile devices could be in deep trouble.
The power of 5G networks isn’t in its capacity alone — although 5G networks will have the potential for greater capacity at the mobile device and in mobile backhaul. The power of 5G networks won’t be the actual perceived improvement in the user experience, although that also will be significant. The real benefit is that network slicing will enable application designers and network architects to build end-to-end virtual networks tailored to their applications’ requirements – and implement throughout the entire network.
Network slicing, while a relatively new idea, isn’t totally new to the forthcoming 5G standards. Elements of network slicing appeared in some 4G architectures, and could be implemented to encompass everything from the data center to the network core to the network edge. The radio part of the wireless mobility, however, wasn’t programmable in the network slice— specifically, 4G network slicing left out the radio area network (RAN) and access vendors’ tower microwave links and cellular data networks.
With 5G comes broader completion of the network slicing concept, and this unlocks tremendous possibilities. A network slice still originates at the data center, and now extends through the core IP/MPLS networks, macro cells, and small cells. Network slices can encompasses the cloud RAN and also program the last-mile wireless connections for mobile users. In other words, it’s got everything.
Slicing and Dicing
Driving the architecture of 5G network slices is software-defined networks (SDN), which provides the programmable infrastructure that separates the data plane from the control plane of the network. SDN enables application designers and service providers to define the exact networks they need, encompassing specific data center servers, cloud providers, network core, backhaul, and front haul services. Running on top of those applications are virtual network functions (VNFs), specific programs that offer necessary functionality running on the SDN-capable devices via network functions virtualization (NFV). Lifecycle service orchestration will ensure that the network is configured properly end-to-end, even across multiple carriers, and that the proper VNFs are installed and running correctly.
5G network slicing allows service providers and application developers to create the ideal virtual network to tie together their back-end servers, mobile end-points, analytics, firewalls, authentication servers, encryption, revenue systems, and other infrastructure — and layer it on top of whatever physical network and service providers happens to be the ones offering the L1/L2 connectivity.
From Carrier, to Kiosk, to Car
The opportunities for leveraging 5G are countless, not only for provisioning applications delivering programming to mobile phones, but also to other wireless devices like pop-up, point-of-sale kiosks with customized video and offers. This also includes medical equipment integrated not only with back-end servers in the hospital, but integrated with other healthcare equipment in the patient’s room — and with real-time video delivery and two-way communications with specialist care professionals. Smart cities can use 5G networks to manage traffic by integrating vehicles with traffic lights, embedded road sensors, intelligent analytics, mapping software, and even information about the city’s sporting events — automatically routing through traffic away from the football stadium as the big game is about to end.
In all those cases, and more, 5G and network slicing will allow the service provider and application developers to envision the ideal network architecture for their specific purposes. Thanks to SDN, NFV, VNFs and lifecycle service orchestration (LSO), a virtual network can be provisioned end-to-end, embracing the mobile devices, the data center and cloud services, and everything in-between. The advanced functionality of 5G will ensure that the radios in towers, small cells, smartphones, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are an integral part of the service’s network slice.
The capabilities of modern networks will unleash those possibilities. As multi-carrier SDN networks become more common and performant, new applications will emerge that leverage the low-latency, high-reliability of 5G networks. And that’ll be true of applications that require a lot of bandwidth, such as mobile gaming and fixed-mount security cameras, as well as those that have more modest requirements in the automated factory, connected car, and modern business.
Maintaining Quality of Service
As Spiderman’s beloved Uncle Ben teaches him, “With great power comes great responsibility.” 5G network slices have the potential to become quite complex and resource-intensive. If the virtualized requirements for those networks are not carefully designed and properly instantiated on physical networks through orchestrated SDN, they could become hogs that run slower than expected, consume more resources than anticipated, and become brittle and unreliable.
This can become a particular problem when it comes to the wireless portions of the virtualized networks and the 5G network slices. The bandwidth and capability of mobile networks are quite constrained; whether microwave, 802.11, or cellular data, there’s only so much available, and in the case of cellular data, the end-user may have caps and charges on its use, and wasting that resource may cost the customer money. Even on mobile backhaul and small-cell networks, there’s only so much radio to go around on today’s often-oversubscribed networks.
This points to the need for not only careful design, but continuous monitoring of 5G network slices. A failure of a 5G network means more than a service outage that must be routed around or solved through the rapid fail-over to a backup network. It could also have adverse affects on the other applications requiring the carrier network, microwave tower, and even the mobile device itself.
As we move into the exciting new world of 5G networks, and begin to develop, design, and deploy network slices for services and applications, it’s essential to consider service assurance every step of the way. End-to-end service assurance – extending through the RAN and other aspects of the mobile connection will be key to ensuring that service level agreements are met, resources are used effectively, and customers will be happy.
With great power comes great responsibility. As with Spiderman, 5G offers the potential for great power in mobile networks. The responsibility? Service assurance for SDN and the IoT. It’s the best way to go when planning to deliver excellence for the many opportunities in 5G.