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An introduction to network slicing

What is network slicing?

Network slicing is a kind of virtual network architecture, which leverages the principles behind network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN). The technology allows operators to slice a single, physical network into multiple virtual networks, where a slice represents an independent virtualized end-to-end network. The virtual networks are then tailored to meet the needs of specific applications and services.

Benefits

Service providers are gung-ho about network slicing for a variety of reasons. The technology can provide the latency, reliability and requirements of applications. The virtual aspects of network slicing, for example, enable the instantiation of network elements at appropriate locations, providing a near-direct path for communication.

The technology is also manageable since the virtualized elements share a common pool of computational power, among other end-to-end resources. The main benefit of network slicing, however, is it allows operators to offer networks on an as-a-service basis, lowering operational expenses (OPEX) and capital expenditure (CAPEX), improving operational efficiency and decreasing time-to-market as a result.

The role in 5G

Network slicing is expected to play a major part in the enablement of 5G. 5G stands for fifth generation, serving as the next mobile wireless standard. The purpose of 5G is to help guarantee the speed at which data is transferred across a network in an era of web-connected devices. According to research and advisory firm Gartner, approximately 20.8 billion web connected devices will be in existence by 2020 — around the same time 5G is expected to be made commercially available.

5G systems are anticipated to be designed for logical network slicing. Within a 5G system, the technology can offer connectivity for smart meters and water meters through a network slice connected to internet of thing (IoT) devices with high availability, a specified latency, data rate and security. By the same token, the technology can offer a different network slice with high throughput, fast data speeds and low latency.

Network slicing is also expected to have an impact on 5G radio access networks (RANs). The technology will slice a physical network into multiple virtual networks capable of supporting various RANs or services running across an individual RAN. While network slicing will mostly be used to divide the core network, it could still be enacted in the RAN by logically abstracting physical radio resources, such as spectrum, and physical hardware, such as a base station.

Challenges

Nearly everyone acknowledges network slicing is going to play a big part in 5G. Despite this general recognition, however, an industry consensus about how to implement the technology has yet to be fully developed. In addition, although the isolated performance of the technology ensures one network slice cannot interfere with the performance of another network slice, this is difficult to achieve with many slices. Moreover, employing network slicing in 5G networks creates technical hurdles around virtualizing and apportioning the RAN into different slices.

For a succinct overview of network slicing, check out the video below.

ABOUT AUTHOR

Nathan Cranford
Nathan Cranford
Nathan Cranford joined RCR Wireless News as a Technology Writer in 2017. Prior to his current position, he served as a content producer for GateHouse Media, and as a freelance science and tech reporter. His work has been published by a myriad of news outlets, including COEUS Magazine, dailyRx News, The Oklahoma Daily, Texas Writers Journal and VETTA Magazine. Nathan earned a bachelor’s from the University of Oklahoma in 2013. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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