The 5G vision is to support a wide variety of services, with diverse performance requirements, across many different industries. As we've argued consistently on these pages, the ability to support diverse services on one network platform is a powerful idea, with compelling commercial opportunities. It is also very ambitious.
Network slicing is fundamental to this vision because it enables operators to configure virtual network instances optimized to the customer type or application. If we define a network slice as a processing path containing all the networking functions needed to deliver a service, it quickly becomes clear that slicing extends across network domains, across operators and across industries. To deliver this capability, self-evidently, requires industry collaboration.
In the first instance, collaboration means 3GPP standards and working with other networking organisations on common interfaces. This is fundamental to developing a system that is interoperable between providers, that can be built and operated using multi-vendor technology and that has global reach and economies of scale.
Network slicing also needs industry collaboration outside the standards process. This "off diary" development and interoperability work is critical to ensuring standardised components work together in reality, as well as in theory. One example of this is work between China Mobile (operator), Huawei (vendor), Deutsche Telekom (operator) and Volkswagen (end-user) published in a joint white paper at MWC. In fact, collaboration with prototype technology and test beds can inform the standards development process itself as it uncovers challenges, such as interoperability, and helps create the "semantics" needed to develop commercial network.
There are three key areas where the industry needs to collaborate to make network slicing commercially successful:
- Common Implementations: It is important that the communications industry offers common implementations of 5G network slicing to end-users. Automotive companies, device-makers, media companies, cloud providers, manufacturers, distributors and industrials all seek to operate nationally, regionally and globally. A common view on 5G slicing should make the decision to use 5G services easier and quicker.
- Across Network Domains: 5G is associated with the radio access and core network, as defined by 3GPP. In practice, an end-to-end network slice will involve transport, cloud and service platforms and the ability to isolate and assure traffic across these domains while meeting the performance requirements of the slice. Cross-domain collaboration is, therefore, also critical.
- Inter-Operator Slicing: In the end, it is operators that must create solutions and present them to customers. This is not easy in one operator network, and in practice, to offer customers a compelling service slice, will often require inter-operator agreements. One example of this is DT (Germany) and SKT (Korea), which demonstrated federated network slicing at this year's MWC. (See Eurobites: DT, Ericsson Slice 5G With SK Telecom.)
There is no question that network slicing will be difficult. Operators must think strategically and practically about how to deliver this capability. How granular should network slices be, for example? Should every user, or every company, have its own virtual network "slice"? Or are vertical network slice templates sufficient (an IoT slice, an automotive slice, a healthcare slice, etc.)? And do we really mean one single network implementation should provide every function needed in a slice? Or should we talk about "network platforms," capable of supporting multiple, optimized implementations using common technologies, but made up of diverse software and hardware components?
This blog is sponsored by Huawei.
— Gabriel Brown, Principal Analyst, Heavy Reading