The Great Transition

Moving from 5G Non-Standalone to 5G Standalone: Can you see the difference?

Green 5G Tower
John English

The evolution of the network to Standalone 5G means that communications service providers (CSPs) will now have to manage new millimeter radios, cloudification of the network, automation, encrypted interfaces, and more. Many carriers that started with 5G Non-Standalone will have to transition to standalone 5G by adding a new 5G core to the cloud as well as moving to virtualized radio access network (vRAN) or Open RAN. Although the current network planning focus may be on 5G planning and deployment, the mobile operator’s 4G/LTE network is not going anywhere soon. Subscriber sessions will be handed over between 5G and 4G/LTE networks, and those interoperability procedures must work.

To ease this transition to the cloud, CSPs will likely minimize the interoperability challenges versus multi-cloud, multivendor implementations by selecting only a single or limited number of network equipment manufacturers (NEMs) to ensure compatibility. While taking that path of least resistance, they must still plan for a multi-cloud future.   

A solution to the challenges of 5G Standalone implementation starts with gaining and maintaining end-through-end visibility.

Cloudification of the Network

Moving to Standalone 5G speaks to the transition of network elements running on physical servers becoming virtualized with microservices running on virtual machines (VMs) or Kubernetes (K8s) containers. With the cloudification of the network, there will come a time when humans manually turn a switch to spin up and spin down compute resources and storage to handle changing traffic volumes—and patterns will not be viable. The ultra-low latency, hyper-bandwidth, reliability, and device-density capabilities baked into 5G will need to be managed by automation to realize their full potential. That’s scary stuff for CSPs who are used to hands-on management of the network to assure that high-quality services are delivered to subscribers and that devices are operating properly on the network.

Having visibility of the network elements composed of transitory VMs and containers out to the end-through-end network (with a bidirectional view) gives network operations and engineering teams the ability to proactively monitor the network and perform timely service triage.

Automation Is Key

Once their 5G networks are cloudified, CSPs will look to take advantage of that fact by offering network slicing. Network slicing essentially provides a dedicated network for a business while offering customized performance parameters for latency, bandwidth, reliability, and device density. Initially, CSPs can simplify the provisioning and management of network slices by delivering fixed slices—that is, pre-provisioned allocation of network resources that do not need constant tuning to traffic. Dynamic network slices will require automation to tune compute resources in response to changing traffic in order to meet service level agreements (SLAs).

Additionally, mobile edge computing (MEC), which moves the intelligence and data from the core network out to the edge for lower latency and increased throughput, is another 5G technology that will be served with automation.

What is critical to managing both network slicing and MEC with the cloudified 5G Standalone network is continuous measurement and visibility of latency, bandwidth, and resiliency between each logical, virtualized node, as well as end-to-end measurement. By also looking at the user experience of the devices operating on the network, CSPs will be able to better manage SLAs.

Meeting the Encryption Challenge

It is also important to keep in mind that visibility to the 5G Standalone network is further hampered by the encrypted interfaces in the RAN and core network elements as part of the 3GPP standards. CSPs have the option of turning encryption on and off, but once the encryption is turned on, they must have a solution for maintaining visibility of the network and the devices functioning on it.

5G Standalone offers CSPs the ability to offer exciting new network services to enterprises to support a myriad of ultra-low latency, ultra-high reliability applications in manufacturing, mining, healthcare, smart cities, and more. But the transition to 5G is not a simple one because this will be the most complicated network ever to be constructed—and to operate. Although the fully executed version of Standalone 5G may be some years out, CSPs that bake end-through-end visibility into their plans will be ahead of the game.

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