Automated operations for 5G network slicing

In the 5G architecture, a network slice operates end-to-end across the network path – from device to cloud – to create a logical network tailored to the requirements of the service. The need to work across network domains, by definition, makes the implementation and operation of slices technically complex and, by extension, makes automation essential.

It is no surprise, then, that the new Heavy Reading 5G Network Slicing Operator Survey identifies operating complexity and cost as one of the key business challenges operators face as they seek to commercialize this technology.

(The survey is intended to help industry participants better understand the status of network slicing technology and how operators will use these capabilities to offer commercial services. To read the full survey, click here.)

Operational challenges

To dig into the issue of complexity and automation, the survey asked what operators see as the critical operational challenges in network slicing. The figure below shows respondents are split evenly between "cross-domain coordination, design and solutioning" (34%) and the "need to transform network operations" (33%). Both scores are indicative of early-stage technology. The low score for "assuring and reporting SLAs" (8%) reflects that network slicing is still in development. (Personally, I expect SLAs to rise up the list of challenges as commercial deployments ramp up.)

Operational challenges for network slicing
Source: Heavy Reading
Source: Heavy Reading

Just as interesting, or perhaps more interesting, were the demographics splits in the response. For R&D roles (16 respondents), the number that identifies "cross-domain coordination, design and solutioning" as the most challenging jumps to 67%. But among the 26 roles in network engineering and operations, the "need to transform network operations" comes first with 50%. For the 16 management roles, "organizational and people readiness" is the biggest challenge with 50%. The pattern here is well-known – when there is a tough problem that crosses organizational domains, everyone thinks their division has the hardest job!

Given these operational requirements, it is clear that service orchestration, analytics and assurance are important enablers for 5G network slicing.

Orchestration for 5G slicing

Asked when their organization would invest in an orchestration solution for network slicing, the figure below shows 40% of respondents expect this to happen "within 1 year." This perhaps gives an overly bullish picture of the overall industry timeline, but it does indicate that investment activity is underway or will start in the near term. Moreover, given the lead time to develop and deploy an orchestration system, operators need to start one to two years ahead of service launch. This survey result therefore stands as indicative of early-adopter and fast-follower investment plans.

Investment in new network and service orchestration
Source: Heavy Reading
Source: Heavy Reading

A smaller percentage believe they "will use existing 5G SA orchestration" (15%). In hindsight, this was perhaps poorly worded because, for many operators, orchestration for the 5G core is itself a major new investment. The key observation in this question, then, is that almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents believe investment will be needed in a new network and service orchestration solution over the next few years.

As Heavy Reading covers in the full report, slicing depends on a 5G core and can only be deployed in a standalone (SA) network. A 5G core is a major investment that is technically challenging to deploy, but an advanced cohort of operators in several global regions is getting closer and closer to commercial SA operation. We expect a ramp-up in 5G SA core rollouts in 2023 and believe this step will help unlock network slicing. Operators will be cautious at first, but once the gate is open, the use cases will start to flow.

To download a copy of the full 5G Network Slicing Operator Survey, click here.

— Gabriel Brown, Senior Principal Analyst – Mobile Networks & 5G, Heavy Reading

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