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SDN poised to play major role in 5G networks

Fifth-generation, or 5G, networks promise increased wireless capacity and speed with reduced latency. SDN architecture can help improve performance and scalability.

In many ways, fourth-generation wireless networks are beginning to show their age. New modes of data interaction and an ever-increasing number of connected devices are two issues that force carriers to look to the next evolution in wireless data communications. The first 5G networks are expected to crop up in 2020.

While three years may seem like forever to the average consumer, to those tasked with designing and deploying 5G networks, 2020 will be here in the blink of an eye. With so much growth -- and with so much potential riding on the next generation of wireless technologies -- carriers are seeking ways to improve performance, automate processes and create a network that operates ubiquitously, no matter where a user connects.

The secret sauce to achieving these goals can be found in SDN technologies.

Wireless carriers have three primary goals for 5G: to increase capacity, increase speed and lower latency. Given these goals, the assumption could be that simply refreshing hardware and software with the latest technologies would do the job. But that assumption is largely incorrect.

In order to build and maintain a network capable of handling a thousand times more devices, providing connections 100 times faster and latency at or below 1 ms, the entire network has to fire on all cylinders every second of the day. This type of network can't simply be built with current architectures that consist of independently operating parts. Instead, the industry needs a new approach that can offer end-to-end visualization and the power to manipulate the network as if all independent parts act as a single unit.

This is where SDN fits into the 5G equation. Because SDN uses centralized intelligence to manage and push policy for all parts of the network, networks can be  built and changed centrally, rather than network managers hopping from device to device to make changes manually.

Four benefits SDN can provide 5G networks

Fifth-generation wireless is going to stretch the boundaries of what is possible, given available spectrum. Thus arises the interest in SDN to use 5G networks as the overarching framework to make 5G work seamlessly across the entire plane. A network with an underlying SDN architecture can achieve this by providing four primary benefits:

1. The ability to provide far more efficient data flows as data traverses the 5G network. No longer will data be forced to be routed to core parts of the network. Instead, SDN will be used to dynamically route traffic on a flow-by-flow basis, using both source and destination address information. Doing so will provide improved speeds and latency, while eliminating potential bottlenecks that are common on current-generation architectures.

2. The potential to have carrier networks cache commonly accessed content closer to the end user. Data caching on such a large scale requires back-end intelligence that has end-to-end network visibility. SDN architecture is well-suited to lower network bandwidth requirements and improve latency.

3. The ability to leverage SDN for use in 5G networks creates a way to manage and automate sophisticated network redundancy from a centralized controller. SDN routing decisions are vastly more intelligent, compared with traditional dynamic routing protocols. A well-tuned SDN network can overcome previously catastrophic outages by intelligently recalculating data flow routes on the fly.

4. SDN allows for tremendous scalability and dynamic provisioning. No longer will carriers have to manually expand the network when moving into new regions, or add capacity to existing areas. Clearly, a manual effort will still be required to install gear in new regions, but from a configuration standpoint, SDN allows for auto provisioning after the initial build. Like 3G and 4G networks, 5G will probably be in use for a decade or longer, which means carriers could ramp up at a moment's notice with as little effort as possible.

The 5G networks drivers

While 5G isn't expected to roll out for several years, the continued growth of mobile devices and the internet of things is expected to constitute a true sense of urgency within the wireless carrier vertical. Today's 3G and 4G networks may end up buckling under the load before 5G networks get here. For that reason alone, it's critical that carriers follow through on the 5G ambitions they've set out to achieve. One way to meet their goals from one end of the network to the other is through the use of SDN architectures.

Next Steps

SDN and next-gen Wi-Fi

SDN can increase wireless performance

AT&T seeks 5G collaborators

This was last published in December 2016

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