New 5G networks increase connectivity among IoT devices, people and services. Data center operators must pivot quickly -- transforming containers and virtual servers to cloud services and edge computing -- or risk being left behind.
Data centers should plan to upgrade existing infrastructure, devise new architectural approaches to handle hyperlocal edge data centers and learn how to incorporate automation for seamless 5G network management.
What is 5G?
Wireless 5G is the latest mobile networking technology for cellular networks. It's designed to connect everyone and everything -- including machines, objects, devices, people and systems -- no matter the location. 5G networks deliver higher peak data speeds, lower latency, more reliability, increased network capacity and increased availability.
5G uses virtualized and software-driven architectures to simplify mobility. Mobile users and devices can stay connected as they move between connections without having to reauthenticate or change any settings. This enables technologies like autonomous vehicles, virtual reality or massive IoT.
5G networks also offer better geographical coverage and can improve connectivity in underserved areas without adequate broadband connectivity or dense urban areas where demand outstrips current capacities. They support dense, distributed-access architecture and help move data processing closer to the edge.
How 5G networking works
5G technology encompasses multiple parts of network architecture. Generally speaking, though, 5G networks have two main components: the radio access layer and the core network layer. Their deployment style depends on the 5G network and the underlying architecture.
The radio access network (RAN) comprises the 5G small cells and macrocells that individual devices connect to, such as base stations, routers, smartphones or autonomous vehicles. Clusters of small cells use a high-speed, high-band spectrum that can only travel short distances. Small cells are typically short-range wireless base stations that handle extended coverage for residential and enterprise applications and cells. Depending on their configuration and deployment, they can offload network congestion, increase data throughput and extend network coverage.
Macrocells use multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) antennas to provide wide-area coverage to devices and small cells. Macrocells enable multiple connections to send and receive large amounts of data simultaneously so more users can connect at once.
The core network comprises all the back-end technologies and software that manage the data and internet connections for the 5G network, including beamforming, authentication and access control, user plan functions and session management. The coordination of a 5G network requires powerful computing systems and architectures, such as cloud-based systems, machine learning and AI.
How does 5G relate to and impact data centers today?
The large amount of data that 5G networks must process, store and distribute can create a strain on data centers. It increases the demand for computing capacity and the associated infrastructures, such as storage, connectivity and edge computing support.
Many data center operators have taken a wait-and-see approach when it comes to 5G rollout. That's partially because of the flexibility built into existing architectures, said Mike Wolfe, CTO of outdoor wireless networks at CommScope, in a recent webinar.
Some networking hardware and software have already upgraded to be faster and more efficient, with containerization and virtualization leading the way. These technologies already support the increased 4G usage and can scale up to handle the existing 5G networking infrastructure.
The future of 5G and data centers
Data center operators should prepare for increasing 5G networking demands in the future. Cisco reports that 5G will support more than 10% of the world's mobile connections by 2023, with an average speed of 575 Mbps. That's 13 times faster than the average mobile connection today.
Data centers can increase their lifecycle upgrade processes by replacing simpler networking hardware -- such as switches and routers -- with 5G-capable ones. They can investigate 5G's effects on existing technologies, such as network functions virtualization and software-defined networking, to ensure they can handle the increased workload.
They should also learn more about the Open RAN standards used by global network operators and the key OEM vendors. Newer, more nimble networking vendors often use Open RAN standards in their 5G technologies, which drives business away from traditional vendors. Data center operators and staff will need to be more familiar with such standards if they wish to stay relevant in the 5G landscape. That includes increasing training and certifications for internal staff and hiring external resources with relevant expertise.
Colocation and convergence of 5G architecture and supporting technologies will likely increase between the large and hyperlocal data centers to ensure the seamless transfer of data, low latency and frictionless communication.