Things you should know about the future 5G networks

The GSA published some updates on October 17th 2013 announcing 222 commercial LTE networks have been deployed in the world on 83 different countries (here), demonstrating the wide acceptance of the 4G, but also showing the highly heterogeneous spectrum combinations for its deployment (here). The TD-LTE and the LTE Advanced technologies are also being deployed as methods for ensuring higher connection speeds and improved spectrum usage. The most advanced operators, vendors, and standardization organizations are working in parallel on the future networks, looking to set the rules for the technologies that represents the next step in the communications evolution, and looking to ensure the business opportunities for these. That evolution of the networks is the so-called 5G.

5G

The following summarizes some information you might want to know about the 5G today:

  • Some of the main vendors like Ericsson and Huawei are pushing for making 5G a reality

A report from Fierce Wireless (here) suggests, “5G is not yet real in any sense of the word because it’s not a standard yet. It is, however a marketing term being tossed around by various vendors and operators”. Ericsson, Huawei, and other main vendors are pushing for the standardization of the 5G via the Mobile and wireless communications Enablers for the Twenty-twenty (METSIS), organism that has been granted with a big investment from the European Commission as part of the huge bet Europe is doing for catching up in the next generation communication technologies (here).

  •  The 5G definition has already been started by at least 6 different organizations, so far

According to a presentation shown this month from Mike Wright, Executive Director Networks & Access Technologies at Telstra (here), a 5G standardization or definition effort has been started by the following different organizations: European Mobile and wireless communications Enablers for the Twenty-twenty Information Society (METIS), Intel led American initiative, China led IMT2020, Spectrum initiatives in ITU, UK Ofcom regulator, aiming for 2018, and Japanese 2020 vision and ad-hoc initiative.

This shows the potential opportunity seen in the next generation, but also the typical big hype created on a competition for leading the way towards the next evolution of the networks.

  • The 5G arrival could be around 2020

A report from ABI research, via the Laptop Magazine (here), suggests the standardization organizations (e.g. 3GPP, among others) are still to define the technologies required for certifying the phones for 5G in the future. As these processes take considerable time, the estimated date for seeing the 5G deployments is expected to be around the year 2020.

  • The 5G formula could be: Spectrum + Spectral efficiency + Spatial Efficiency = Increased capacity

Marcus Weldon, CTO for the Wireline Networks Product Division at Alcatel-Lucent, presented last week his vision of the “ultra-broadband” networks during the Broadband World Forum 2013 held in Amsterdam (here). According to his view, the formula for getting the highly demanding capacity required by the next generation networks is a combination of three factors.

ALU

The classical investment in macro technologies and spectrum allocation, which could double the capacity. The physical spectrum efficiency increase by improving the signal to noise ratio, interference reduction, superposing signals, etc. which could also double the capacity. And the spatial efficiency with small cells deployments, with interference reduction between cells, which could increase the capacity in a factor of ten, or more.

  • The future networks are a combination of macro and small cells technologies

As commented in my previous post “The top 10 fast facts you should know about LTE today“. A whitepaper published by Ericsson and supported by the GSA commented, “…the 5G system will not be a single technology but rather a combination of integrated RATs, including evolved versions of LTE and HSPA, as well as specialized RATs for specific use cases, which will jointly fulfil the requirements of the future…”

  • The toolkit for the next generation networks include several innovations

Mike Wright, Executive Director Networks & Access Technologies at Telstra, commented on the possible techniques and innovations that might come with the 5G for solving challenges foreseen like the 10 billion connected devices to attend, 1000x traffic growth, the limited spectrum resources, and the diversity of services required. This toolkit might include spectral efficiency with massive MIMO, spectral aggregation, or interference cancellation. Optimization of radio with small cells, self-optimising networks, mesh networking, dynamic spectrum and flexible duplexing, or cognitive radio. Traffic optimisation with QoS and policy tools, end-to-end optimisation, or improved codecs. Architecture optimisation with Network Functions Virtualisation and elasticity, Software Defined Networks, smart caching, or embedded network intelligence. And others like extended battery, identity enablers, location enhancements, etc.

  • Flexibility is key for the 5G networks

Vish Nandlall, Ericsson’s CTO and Senior Vice President of Strategy, recently spoke at the GigaOm Mobilize conference, via PCWorld (here). “5G should be flexible enough that carriers can reprogram and reconfigure their networks to accommodate different applications. Those will actually get different slices of the network with different technologies, including modulation schemes and levels of capacity”. Increasing the network efficiencies should also keep reducing the cost of the service, he commented.

  • The next generation will represent a balance between efficient investment and highly performing networks

During the Futurecom 2013 convention held last week in Rio de Janeiro, Alcatel-Lucent CEO Michel Combes commented, via European Communications (here). “Throughout the world operators and service providers are pro-actively seeking technologies to help them balance the need for capacity and delivering high quality services with protecting their own balance sheets”. He also highlighted the investment ALU will be doing for IP networks and ultra-broadband technologies in the future. “This is a strategic decision to become a technology vendor for the marketplace of tomorrow, a market populated by customers who themselves are moving to more efficient and more profitable business models, adopting new technologies like cloud, SDN and NFV in the process”.

  • 5G is also about the best QoE on a transparent manner

According to Tod Sizer, Head of Wireless Research at Bell Labs, during the Mobile World Congress, via Pipeline (here). “Of course there will be substantial speed increases. However, weaving different access technologies together in a fluid fashion and creating smart gateways that choose the -best- connectivity for a given situation, not to mention in a transparent manner, will be the DNA that gives life to 5G”.

A. Rodriguez

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My hands-on experience with NFV for the EPC

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I have written many times about the Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) and/or Software Defined Networks (SDN) revolutions for the telecom operators, but last week I had the chance to attend to a hands-on workshop with some of the most advanced vendors for the Core Network virtualization field. I was able to test the products, ask all the questions I wanted, and get a real feeling on the vendors and operators opinions on the subject. Despite the trip to Silicon Valley in the sunny California USA, the beautiful San Francisco sights, and the unavoidable visit to the technology monsters (e.g. Google in Mountain View CA, Apple in Cupertino CA, Oracle in Redwood Shores CA, etc.), my objective was doing a reality check on the NFV trend which I will try to share with you.

What is ON with NFV:

The advantages of the NFV for the CSP’s are obvious, as previously commented in my article “The Network Functions Virtualization, a different kind of animal”, these includes: using COTS hardware, flexible automatic scaling & HA based on software, licensing costs reduction as a consequence of unified software domains, signalling load reduction, and pure IT software based maintenance & operation, among others. The operators are all well aware of this, either by their own initiative or because of the NFV/SDN vendors sales efforts, and that is the reason why most of them are researching the technology and have already done trials (e.g. Telefonica, AT&T, NTT, Vodafone, Verizon, Orange, Verizon, Optus, Telecom Italy, T-Mobile, for naming a few I know).

According to the information seen these days the release of the ETSI ISG standards for NFV will most likely happen around October 2014, and this should unify the different approaches in the market today. In the meantime the vendors seems to be taking different paths, like virtualizing the current core network nodes one by one (e.g. virtual S-GW, virtual P-GW, virtual MME, etc.), or virtualizing the functions required in the core (e.g. virtual attach & register, database, bearer handling, policy, etc.). If you think the NFV for the core or the Evolved Packet Core (EPC) is going slow, and the tier-1 operators will wait years for testing these technologies, you had better think again. Many products are available now, and some mavericks in the industry are already betting hard for the change.

In terms of the actual products these already deliver some of the promises commented. I was able to see virtual EPC’s based on software running, and handling test traffic with the equivalent functionality of the traditional core while reducing the signalling messages, and having an impressive flexibility for the flow logic and scaling. I also saw OpenStack based orchestration working, and API’s connecting to the operators OSS/BSS. Some HA capabilities are also quite innovative, like methods for managing the SCTP flows when a virtual machine gets down and other takes over. All of this was running on standard Blades, or Bare Metal, having a ridiculous cost compared to the current traditional solutions.

What is OFF with NFV:

As you would expect the current NFV solutions are not all roses. The bad news are the lack of maturity seen in most of the solutions, typical of the starting and revolutionary technologies.

The automatic scaling is not yet mastered, and the management & monitoring capabilities neither. Some solutions are still not able to match the performance of the traditional cores when activating Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) up to layer 7, which is being optimized with virtual DPI’s now. Some challenges are also seen when handling distributed no-SQL DB’s for things like the HA. The standards support is still not complete neither, as most of the solutions still do not cover the 3GPP Release 12 for naming an example. The Policy and Charging features are very limited, often relying on external solutions, which potentially affects the improved performance. There seem to be a lack of security features in the products. Among other limitations.

These challenges combined with the fact a new EPC represents additional costs, as no operator would intend to fully replace the current core network yet, the fear for mentality change in the different areas of the carrier, and the lack of knowledge in the NFV/SDN details and possible use cases, are currently blocking the technology embracement. An interesting article on this is available in Light Reading (here), and reflects what I felt from some operators in the field.

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What is coming for NFV:

Lucky for us some intelligent carriers are solving those challenges by having a vision of the future today. Some operators in the US are thinking on interesting use cases, like having portable EPC’s for special events in highly congested areas (e.g. you can imagine installing a virtual core network next to the radios around the stadium during the Super Bowl day, reducing congestion and improving the QoE), they are already testing this as you read this article. Other carriers in the UK and Japan are thinking on dedicated core networks for M2M type traffic based on NFV. The NFV start-ups are improving their products, including vendors like Cyan, Connectem, Affirmed, among many others, making these more robust and solving the challenges faced. Some big vendors are also perfecting their NFV offers for entering into the game, including vendors like Ericsson, Juniper, Alcatel Lucent, among many others.

As soon as we start seeing production deployments in the field, and I anticipate you this will happen very soon according to what I saw, other operators will join the trend and learn from the competition. This is the future of telecoms.

A. Rodriguez

The Network Functions Virtualization, a different kind of animal

If you are involved somehow in the telecom’s industry, you should know the buzz that Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), and its parent trend Software Defined Networks (SDN), are having in both vendors and operators. This in part because the NFV trend was originally encouraged by the main operators of the world themselves, with October 2012’s whitepaper (here), on an exercise where they seemed to explain what they wanted to see in their networks in the future. Which is in other words like commenting what type of technology they wanted to buy, or wanted to be sell on, for having that well-known list of NFV/SDN advantages in the future (i.e. reduced CAPEX/OPEX, simpler and standard networks, shared resources, faster services, etc.).

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The excitement and kind of “shark behaviour” of all the involved can be seen by the fact that more than 100 companies or organizations are directly involved in the NFV standardization, via the ETSI (here), without mentioning those involved in the SDN standardization, via the ONF. Being realistic I believe these trends will not be so great in the short term, but most likely not so terrible in the long term neither, on a classical Amaras’ law fashion. The operators are simply pushing for securing the future of their business, and we know the current traditional networks will not be migrated or replaced to virtual networks in the short nor medium term, but the new ones being installed in the mid-term might be a different story depending on the NFV/SDN evolution pace.

Now what are the NFV and SDN trends after all? I remember an interview I especially liked with one of the Technical Experts for Networks Virtualization initiatives from Telefonica I+D, during the SDN World congress in Barcelona last June 2013. He made a simple explanation by saying, “Current traditional networks are like having a group of dogs and cats for pets, you must feed them and take care of them independently, each one has its own different needs, and sometimes you cannot have them together. What we (the operators) are looking to have with NFV are networks like a herd of horses or cows, where we can maintain them and work with them as a group, despite having faster horses or some dedicated to specific jobs, but sharing the same needs and therefore requiring around the same resources and skills for maintaining those”. This is an analogy that explains by itself with the fact the operators spend huge amounts of money in OPEX for the current networks. This without mentioning that any upgrade, integration, or evolution, requires huge CAPEX with its consequent increased OPEX during the nodes life cycles. Now you can imagine having a whole IMS network hosted in highly efficient and cost effective COTS hardware in a rack, with separate and automatically orchestrated virtual domains in software, dedicated for each function. Note I say function instead of node, since the idea is again simplifying the architectures, so if a SBC and a CSCF share a functionality it would only appear once in this new approach. That would represent multiple advantages compared with the traditional approach of multiple different nodes, with different hardware and software for each stage of the IMS flow, including: power consumption reduction, less signalling messages required, lower latencies, flexible and automatic scalability, and a lot less resources for maintaining the operation… among many others. Now imagine that in the core network, or in the Value Added Services (VAS), etc. So that is the operators’ panacea, and some vendors are already having some solutions thinking on that, starting with the nodes more easy to handle in the virtual world without affecting performance and reliability, like: policy & charging, firewalls, signalling routers, or some IMS network elements.

Therefore if we were to define the NFV and SDN trends in simple terms, the SDN would then be as splitting the control plane from the data plane in the networks, while NFV would be like splitting the software from the hardware; both could be implemented together, or independently, depending on the path followed and the specific needs. A third and final flavour is added to the mix with Cloud computing. Most of the industry experts believe the real gain of NFV/SDN applied to the carriers should be the same already proven in the enterprises’ data centres world, and that is having most of these architectures in the cloud. In the previous example of the IMS network, you can imagine that rack hosted by some cloud provider taking care of its capacity and maintenance on an outsourced model of SaaS, and opening a set of API’s with the operator’s services. If you are concerned about security in that approach you can even consider having that cloud hosted in your own data centre, having then a private cloud, etc.

NFV_vs_SDN

Even when some vendors are already claiming to have carrier grade NFV/SDN solutions for the operators, I think no one has yet offered a full and solid product for this year. According to a survey from Heavy Reading this year, 32% of the respondents think the SDN will be widely adopted by 2015, and 36% think by 2016 or later (here). I would say the vendors closer to have these solutions ready for the operators are Alcatel-Lucent with the CloudBand, and Cisco with the Cisco ONE. Some groups of small vendors are also working together to offer interesting things in the near future, like the CloudNFV group (here). And some specific services oriented vendors are just offering a virtual version of the same nodes previously owned, like the Policy and Charging vendors, including: F5, Amdocs, Openet, Tekelec, etc. A report from Informa Telecoms & Media, with Juniper Networks sponsorship, states: “…operators consider mobile SDN to be a critical technology for the future of networks: Ninety-three percent of operator respondents expect SDN to be implemented in mobile within five years, and half expect it to be implemented in the next one to two years” (here).

As the momentum for NFV/SDN is building rapidly, make sure you are prepared for the new and different kind of animal in the farm.