Network slicing and dicing
Network slicing is poised to play a pivotal role in the enablement of 5G. The technology allows operators to run multiple virtual networks on top of a single, physical infrastructure. With 5G commercialization set for 2020, many are wondering to what extend network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) can help move network slicing forward.
NFV and SDN are two similar but distinct technologies that are spearheading the digital transformation of network infrastructure in the telecom industry. NFV is an initiative to provide network services that conventionally ran on proprietary hardware with virtual machines, where a virtual machine is understood as an operating system that imitates dedicated hardware. With NFV, network functions such as routing, load balancing and firewalls are delivered by virtual machines. Using NFV, resources are no longer bound to data centers, but pervade the network to accelerate the productivity of internal operations.
SDN, on the other hand, involves managing network traffic flows through application program interfaces (APIs) from a centralized control plane. Whenever a packet of data arrives at a particular switch in a network, for example, guidelines baked into the switch determine where it forwards the packet. Leveraging SDN, network administrators are able to provide services throughout the network irrespective of the hardware components.
The role of NFV and SDN in network slicing
Both NFV and SDN provide the ingredients required for network slicing. The main idea behind network slicing in 5G is to create and partition different services on a network, enabling operators to provide optimum support for those services. NFV and SDN serve as a basis for network slicing by allowing both physical and virtual resources to be used to make certain services.
Another way NFV and SDN are expected to play a major part in network slicing concerns radio access networks (RAN). In the core of a network, both NFV and SDN virtualize the network components of each slice to fulfill specific needs. Network slicing can be enabled in RAN by drawing from physical radio resources. It is expected that NFV and SDN will be applied to support different RANs as well as the different service types running across those RANs.
Moreover, the commercial introduction of NFV and SDN is expected to grow significantly within the coming years, allowing network slicing to provide agile installations of networks to meet the requests of various applications and services. In addition, SDN can be used to provide an overarching framework to help 5G to function across a control plane, determining the optimal route for traffic flows across the network.
NFV and SDN are expected to evolve alongside network slicing. The use of open protocols to decouple software from hardware and manage network behavior from a control plane will enable 5G networks to deliver different kinds of services to various customers. For these reasons, SDN, NFV, among other technologies like machine learning are expected not just to compliment 5G network slicing, but propel it.