While 5G undoubtedly holds enormous potential, meeting its demands for increased speed, performance, scalability, and flexible service deployment is likely to result in untenable complexity and OpEx for service operators.
The only truly affordable and practical way to operate a 5G network is to virtualize and automate, change network design, and increasingly manage the network and services from the edge. The application of virtualization technologies such as NFV and SDN to 5G networks is therefore essential if 5G is to be deployed at a reasonable cost.
Many service providers are already adopting NFV and SDN as a means of boosting efficiencies, launching services faster, and supporting a wider range of applications. Indeed, McKinsey has estimated that the newest technologies in NFV and SDN would let operators lower their capital expenditures by up to 40%, and their network operating expenses by a similar amount.
Are any deployments under way?
Yes. Major service providers in the US, Europe, and South Korea, for example, are well advanced in their testing and initial network deployments. Verizon, AT&T, and Korea Telecom are all utilizing the 1Gbps capability of 5G to provide services such as fixed mobile broadband. In addition to enabling valuable enterprise applications, this supports their SD-WAN deployments which, due to their ability to flexibly instantiate new services, are increasingly being seen by service providers as a way of monetizing 5G, even at this early stage.
Is that the full extent of it?
Right now, both virtualization and 5G are being deployed on a crawl, walk, and run basis. We’re still very much in the crawl phase, with most service providers tentatively deploying both technologies in contained parts of their networks and businesses so that they can understand how they work, learn how to manage them and understand how to deploy them most effectively.
With a myriad of new use cases and technologies, fragmented standards around how VNFs are introduced and orchestrated in the network, 5G is filled with unknowns. The relative immaturity of both 5G and virtualization is therefore currently serving as a barrier to full-scale adoption.
How can we overcome this barrier?
5G and virtualization each rely on a series of other technologies for successful deployment. Both require tools that enable intelligent visibility into the network in order to generate smart data with clear, actionable insights that will feed automated systems, manage performance, and control automation. Power is nothing without control, after all, and accurate control is fundamental to the management of a virtualized network.
Fortunately, these tools exist in the form of virtualized software designed to gather data, analyze it, and present it in a way that it can be actioned by a service provider’s other systems. Critically, the days of using expensive hardware probes to reactively report on network performance are over. They may still be applicable in trial phases during which a new network is established, but only software-based network assurance will be capable of scaling up to handle the volume of data involved as the scale and scope of a 5G deployment heads towards the running phase.
What will happen when 5G is up and running?
The exact nature of the services of the future is still unclear. Despite all the talk about instantaneously downloading 4K video, or enabling connected cars and supporting a plethora of new devices and services with the Internet of Things, the killer apps for 5G are yet to emerge.
What is apparent, though, is that there are universal requirements that will remain the same regardless of what the future holds. The effective running of services and applications on 5G will rely on visibility into the network, and gaining insights that will enable proactive, as opposed to reactive, responses to any network issues.
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