Unless you have been living on a deserted island, you know that 5G is coming. The industry and ecosystem is racing, prepping, and hyping on many fronts to usher in this new generation. And you probably also know that 5G architectures are virtualized. Yet, as recently as four years ago there was still a debate over whether virtualized networks would ever go mainstream, replacing the legacy, hardware-based infrastructure the industry had relied upon forever. Well that debate is over. The industry now fully understands the many compelling cost advantages of NFV — which starts by replacing expensive and dedicated hardware with white box servers.
As widespread deployments of NFV continue in mobile networks across the world, some have challenged that the benefits of NFV are only realized if the system has the same or a better cost-performance ratio over its legacy counterparts. It’s a fair point, as 5G will place unique demands on the network in terms of routing, scalability, and services.
As network operators transform existing 4G networks the need to continually improve performance and scalability has become a key business imperative. With the arrival of 5G, this need becomes even more pronounced in order to serve the bandwidth demands of 5G applications and services. 5G will require significantly more data-processing horsepower from the network than we have ever seen in order to support the exponential rise in high-bandwidth data traffic (e.g., video), the creation of data-rich services, and the introduction of billions of “talking” machines via IoT. This performance will be required across all areas of the network, especially the mobile core.
To re-architect their networks for these new 5G services, mobile network operators (MNOs) have been utilizing NFV to provide agility for rapid service deployment and to cost-effectively scale the network to support higher-bandwidth levels. As part of this effort they have targeted a subset of applications including mobile edge computing (MEC), base stations (small/macro cells), and the mobile core because these systems are located in areas of the network where bandwidth is aggregated. Sitting at the intersection of the mobile access network and the wireline backbone transport network, the mobile core is where data handoff from access network to backbone network is made, where policies are enforced, and where service billing information is collected.
The mobile core processes traffic that is aggregated from multiple base stations, so it must support very high data rate network connections. Moving to a virtual mobile core means the network can be scaled much more cost effectively as services become successful. Even though an edge vEPC processes traffic from fewer customers, it still must feature it still must feature the processing capability for significant data flows coming from these ultra-broadband connections. At the risk of being repetitive, performance is a critical ingredient to ensure the success of this model.
Leveraging Advances in Technology
We are fortunate, however, to be part of an industry that never stands still and that continues to innovate and improve. In no area is this more evident than in the continued advances in processing technologies from leaders like Intel. By leveraging these advances, we as vendors can also experience continued performance gains in our solutions to improve the scalability, power, and, yes, the performance they provide to our customers.
By combining these advances with innovative, market-proven NFV solutions for the mobile core, we believe it is possible to achieve performance gains of as much as 10 times over purpose-built mobile core offerings or competitive virtualized offerings. And that’s just on a single server. While deployment size and scale varies by operator, we typically see customers deploy multiple servers as part of a cluster, which enables them to achieve linear scaling of the network, thereby multiplying the performance gains possible.
Gains of as much as 10 times are not the end game, however. If we continue to innovate at the software level and continue to leverage advances in processing technology, then it’s only just the beginning in terms of the performance we can continue to achieve. For those of us who have believed all along that future networks will be software-based and virtualized, seeing this type of performance confirms what we’ve known all along: virtualized network functions (VNFs) that leverage the latest server technology and are architected for high data plane throughput are the best path to building the high-speed, high-capacity networks that 5G will require.