Readying the Cloud for 5G

Sandro Tavares
5/1/2017
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The telecom industry is increasing its emphasis on 5G and how it will transform both our personal lives and the way we work. As communication needs increase dramatically, so does our need for networks that can handle ever-growing speed and volume.

In general, the 5G discussion so far has been mostly concentrated on the radio domain. There is a lot of information on what has to be done on the radio standards to deliver on the 5G promise. The fact is, however, that the changes are not limited to the radio domains. There is a fairly significant change that will need to happen at the core of the network to enable 5G: To be able to deliver on the promise of ultra-high data throughputs (beyond 10 Gbps) and ultra-low latencies (1ms) the core network for 5G will have to rely on an extremely efficient cloud infrastructure. This Cloud Native Core will leverage the best of today's cloud technologies and further advance them, making the cloud architecture more reliable and more distributed to deliver on the availability and latency requirements typical of the telco environment. This will trigger a new approach to the design and development process for both cloud software and infrastructure components.

Network quality and standards
As mentioned earlier, latency is one vital concern in 5G networks. In fact, there are different factors that affect the quality of network connections. We tend to think of bandwidth alone, but that merely refers to the amount of information that can be transmitted through the connection, like the size of a pipe that carries water. Just as important is the issue of latency or speed of transmission, which is how quickly the information is being transmitted, like water flowing through the pipe. The lower the latency, the better. The two factors will have to work together in establishing the optimal user experience in 5G.

Tomorrow’s connections need to move massive amounts of data at lightning speed to support business and consumer demand. Most of us have experienced a pause of a few seconds when we press play on a streaming video or load a web page. And we would likely not notice a delay of a few milliseconds. But in a self-driving car in a 5G environment, even a fraction of a second can mean the difference between life and death if danger is detected.

Historically, the wireless operators were largely concerned with promoting connectivity, as evidenced by coverage maps advertised by wireless carriers. The fundamental connectivity as a service then began to give way to speed as the central business case while 4G became the industry standard. 5G promises to continue improving capacity, of course, but operators will also be able to take additional steps towards enjoying additional business opportunities. The improved control over network resources will allow operators to deliver new business services. Concepts like network slicing, for example, will enable operators to create dedicated network resources for specific services. These services will then pave the way for advancements like remote surgery, which will have dedicated resources that will be untouched by spikes in traffic in other network areas.

The path to 5G deployment countdown
As previously mentioned, to achieve the new benchmark of efficiency and capability of 5G, the evolution will impact more than just the radio aspect and will include the cloud infrastructure as well. The traditional cloud architecture, as a heritage from the IT world, is known for being very centralized, with few huge data centers providing services to the world. These services, such as those provided by large social media companies, don't require the highest delivery speeds because of their nature. That reality enables a few locations to serve many users with little regard for distance, and a second of delay here or there has little lasting impact on the user experience. For 5G to succeed, however, the user and the data center must be much closer to each other.

This distributed cloud network (also known as edge cloud) will provide the efficiency and low latency required for tasks ranging from trading stocks to virtual reality.

The telco industry also has to further evolve in the way cloud software is developed. Up until now, telco cloud (or NFV -- network functions virtualization) software has been developed as a monolithic package, just now running on top of a virtualized infrastructure. So, not a lot has changed. While this approach served its purpose initially for telco cloud and NFV, it is time to take the next step and make our software cloud native. This will give us the ability to optimize resources utilization and scale the network to provide the capacity needed for 5G. By taking a cloud-native approach, the software itself will concentrate on its specific business logic, with all the information related to user and session data being put into a centralized database, known as the Shared Data Layer. This approach provides better performance, scalability and reliability of services because data can be moved from one virtual network function to another. When one data center goes down, the next can take over without the user experiencing service problems.

Once this transformation is executed, service providers will then be able to build specific services for customers on the 5G network. With the latest evolution of 4G networks, like 4.5G Pro and 4.9G, certain applications are technically feasible, such as VR streaming. And to avoid a spike in the utilization of very demanding services that would impact the overall performance of the network, dedicated slices of the network can be created. These provide an additional level of control and ensure not only the availability of critical services, but also a good overall experience for the customers.

5G promises a transformational experience for businesses as well as consumers, and we are starting to see the standards and best practices take shape. By combining updated architecture with a new approach to software, and the ability to launch new services, telco companies will be able to traverse the path to successful 5G implementation within the next few years.

— Sandro Tavares, Head, Cloud Core Marketing, Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK)

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