5G architecture plus NFV, SDN offers performance gains

The intersection of 5G architecture and virtualization technologies like NFV and SDN could result in better network performance, but it will take time to get there.

Fifth-generation wireless networks that use software-defined networking and network functions virtualization could create the most advanced, efficient networking architecture ever to date, according to one industry analyst.

While 5G wireless doesn't depend on network virtualization technologies to survive, it can benefit from them, said Chris Antlitz, senior telecom analyst at Technology Business Research Inc., based in Hampton, N.H., and author of a new report on phases of 5G adoption. Making the technologies work together, however, will take money and time.

The performance benefits of 5G, with its fiber-speed connections and low latency, combined with SDN and NFV can include greater efficiency and flexibility on top of more dynamic service delivery.
Chris Antlitz, senior telecom analyst, TBR

Many players in the networking industry characterize 5G architecture as a fundamental change to the network, from the core to the edge and access layers, he said. The performance benefits of 5G, with its fiber-speed connections and low latency, combined with SDN and NFV can include greater efficiency and flexibility on top of more dynamic service delivery. Beyond that, 5G can help enable technologies like artificial intelligence, automation and distributed cloud models, Antlitz added.

But 5G architecture is still in the early stages of its emergence for network operators, with enterprise uses for it following in later phases of 5G development.

Service providers that include Verizon and AT&T in the U.S. are at the forefront of 5G architecture deployment and are laying the foundation for a network platform that will be cloud-centric, distributed at the edge and virtualized within NFV and SDN architectures, Antlitz said. This platform will enable providers to deliver services in a different way than they have in the past. By tying in SDN and NFV, 5G networks will be more dynamic systems where providers can configure similar microservices together to efficiently deliver advanced services to enterprises, he added.

Standards for a 5G new radio were finalized in December by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, and new 5G mobile core standards are expected to be completed in June, which sets the stage for commercial 5G evolution.

Phases of 5G development
Compare the phases of 5G development

Better performance at 5G access layer

To take advantage of SDN and NFV capabilities, network operators have a strong interest in pursuing virtual radio access networks (vRANs), Antlitz said. Operators that use 5G architecture with a virtualized access layer attached to the mobile core will get much better performance at the access layer of the network.

As part of the 5G architecture domino effect, vRANs and 5G networks require fronthaul -- a network architecture that interconnects access points -- to get full cost savings and efficiency gains.

While mobile backhaul is a familiar concept in wireless networking, fronthaul is less familiar. With fronthaul, a fiber or Ethernet line is attached to a base station at the access layer of the network, which then aggregates traffic from the access layer to transmit signals. These high-speed, low latency transmissions are important for future 5G use cases like autonomous cars and smart city initiatives that require real-time transmissions.

"Fronthaul basically juices the performance characteristics of the network by making it more flexible and efficient," he said. But many factors can affect performance and must be considered, including network topology, the amount of fiber in the ground and the kind of spectrum.

These 5G architecture changes are prompting operators to invest heavily in fiber network buildouts. The process will take years, however, since most operators don't have the needed fiber density to reach peak performance.

"You must have fiber because it transmits at the speed of light, and in order to have the latency that 5G -- or even LTE [Long Term Evolution] -- provides, you must have fiber interconnecting it," he said. "That's the reason telecom operators haven't been doing it at scale yet, because it's extremely expensive."

5G reaches the enterprise

Most enterprises don't see the need for 5G wireless yet and may not for a number of years, Antlitz said. Still, they should be aware of the intersection of 5G with SDN and NFV, as they've started to realize the benefits of virtualization within their networks.

As 5G awareness trickles down, enterprises will start to see the earliest 5G use cases and integrate 5G architecture with networking resources around 2020, he said.

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