Ericsson's Network Slicing: It's Far Out, Man

Vendor's CTO lays out his company's vision for the SDN-enabled cloud networks of the future, complete with "network slicing." It's a bold vision that's a long way from reality, say analysts.

October 23, 2013

6 Min Read
Ericsson's Network Slicing: It's Far Out, Man

AMSTERDAM -- Broadband World Forum 2013 -- Ericsson today unveiled its vision of the future communication networking landscape, one of integrated wide area cloud networks, managed by software-defined networking (SDN) tools and next generation orchestration software systems that can provision feature-rich network slices on the fly to meet the demands of leading edge applications. (See Ericsson Combines Carrier SDN With Cloud System.) But it's a long-term vision.

As with many other traditional vendors, Ericsson AB is talking up the prospect of "open networks" and instant network resources managed by new-fangled OSS systems that are driven by big-data intelligence and policy control capabilities. Like many of its peers, it's unveiling and developing new products for existing networks that promise some of the operational and efficiency gains that underpin the next-generation networking vision but which, ultimately, tie network operators even more closely to the current set of proprietary platforms.

The vision, which comes under the banner of the Ericsson Cloud System, presented here by CTO Ulf Ewaldsson, is an extension of the Service Provider SDN vision that he unveiled at this time last year. (See Ericsson CTO: Let's Redefine SDN.)

"It's an ambitious strategy that will take a long time to become a reality, but this is at the heart of SDN and NFV [network functions virtualization]," notes Graham Finnie, chief analyst at Heavy Reading .

The new product is a multi-application line card for the company's SSR 8000 routers that, utilizing Ericsson's SNP 4000 network processor, can house multiple virtualized network functions on the routers that can "hyper-accelerate" the launch of applications. "Centralize what you can but distribute what you must," stated Jan Häglund, vice president of Ericsson's IP and broadband unit (pictured below). (See Ericsson Unveils Network Processor.)

It makes sense to have some applications housed on the network element for latency reasons, he noted, and it's something operators are demanding. "We are getting a lot of requirements for multifunctional edge routers. It provides operational and performance gains" compared with having functions such as traffic management on separate, standalone hardware, he added.

Figure 1: The Cloud in My Hand 'Can I get a slice of the network with my chips please?' Ericsson's Jan Haglund holds up the SNP 4000 chip that's part of the vendor's new applications-centric router line card. "Can I get a slice of the network with my chips please?" Ericsson's Jan Häglund holds up the SNP 4000 chip that's part of the vendor's new applications-centric router line card.

The Ericsson Cloud System
So what is the new vision? Basically, it's the ability to set up dedicated network resources on demand as applications require. These dedicated resources are enabled by "network slicing," which involves the provision of connectivity and applications from the end user device (whether that is a smartphone, a TV, a car, a smart meter, etc.) all the way to the cloud, whether that be a centralized data center or a distributed entity at the edge of the network (for example, as part of the radio access network).

This, says the CTO, would involve the use of SDN capabilities to "control the cloud and the services in the cloud, allocate processing power and create a virtual machine at the edge of the network in real time, in a base station for example, based on the service requirements for an application." At the heart of this operation is the SDN controller (Ericsson has already developed an initial platform) and orchestration software, something that Ericsson is basing on software being developed by the Telcordia team that is now part of the giant vendor's business support solutions division.

"Each slice of the network would have its own QoS [quality of service settings]… with the virtual machine able to be created anywhere and orchestrated [by] analytics and policy," stated the CTO.

Ewaldsson recognizes that this is a massive step away from current network operations and management capabilities and that the open nature of such systems means that Ericsson might ultimately lose out in some areas (as a supplier of technology) but, he hopes, gain in other areas.

The key thing, he says, is to ensure that "networks are as relevant as possible for the future. If we don't, we won't realize the full potential of the networked society" and the assets, such as radio spectrum, that can be utilized to deliver services and connectivity.

"A lot of this is visionary stuff, but that is part of our role, to help networks to become the biggest and most important part of the networked society. That involves exposing the network so it can be accessed via APIs by applications. If we can't achieve this then the result will be that the services envisioned by the enterprises," such as car manufacturers, "will not be realized."

But does Ericsson have what it takes to deliver this vision? Can its Telcordia team deliver against the demands of virtualized network management? Ewaldsson says that the management of virtualized assets was something the Telcordia team was already working on prior to the 2012 acquisition and that Ericsson has "added to that development…. But we don't exclude having to add more capabilities," the CTO noted. "The requirements for orchestration are changing and everyone wants to develop the ultimate orchestration system…. We need to be humble."

Being humble also means knowing that Ericsson does not have all the pieces of the puzzle. Even so, does Ericsson have aspirations to extend its managed services offerings to such extensive, complex, virtual cloud networking environments? "It's something we are being asked about. We are thinking and listening," says Ewaldsson.

Networks of the future
So, did Ericsson's vision of network slicing and end-to-end application-based resource enablement impress industry analysts who were present at Ewaldsson's presentation?

Finnie sees its value long-term, but his Heavy Reading colleague Caroline Chappell wonders whether the telcos have the wherewithal to take it on. "It's an ecosystem play. Are the operators up for it? Enterprises could just as easily build bespoke networks to deliver specific services" rather than use a slice of a virtualized carrier network, she notes, "all they would need is some dark fiber. But then they would face the same management challenges as the telcos," she adds.

"It sounds like Ericsson wants to have its cake and eat it," quips Heavy Reading senior analyst Gabriel Brown, when asked about Ericsson's network slicing vision. "What's encouraging is that Ericsson understands the opportunity and that it could lose out, as well as gain, from such a scenario," he adds. "What Ericsson has as an advantage is that it is very good at timing its technology developments and very good at managing its accounts," he adds.

— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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