Slicing the 5G pie: automation is critical

5G network slicing
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When we talk about 5G innovation, network slicing seems to offer the greatest long-term potential. Often the discussion defaults to the end-customer use cases rather than the network itself. Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things are prime examples of the innovations being driven by 5G’s capabilities; autonomous vehicles and smart city applications are just two more among a plethora of others that suddenly have a pathway to realization thanks to the flexibility, speed, and scale of 5G.

5G is a network innovation native

However, there is plenty going on in the network to enable even greater innovations for end users. You see, 5G is a network innovation native; it came to be amid an era in which network pipes had moved well beyond being mere conduits ferrying traffic of any kind from one point to the next.

Over the past few years, networks have been constantly evolving to meet tomorrow’s needs. Many network functions formerly run by dedicated hardware have been virtualized. At the same time, it’s now open, featuring multiple vendors who leverage industry standards to help service providers continue to evolve and add capabilities.

5G was born into this way of networking. It means service providers can monetize their offerings better than ever. With a level playing field, there is a race to the top to see who can innovate the most to differentiate.

The opportunity for network slicing

Of the innovations associated with 5G, network slicing seems to offer the greatest long-term potential.

With network slicing, service providers can carve out a dedicated share of the network ahead of time meant for specific use cases – and then deploy it in minutes. This means that they can more effectively monetize the network by selling dedicated high-bandwidth slices for activities like eSports tournaments or major concerts in stadiums and then turn those slices off when the events are done. Other potential use cases include day-to-day applications like automation within industries like manufacturing, automotive, and utilities.

With its various use cases, network slicing is one of the most important technologies in 5G, and we can expect service providers to start offering full slicing services in the next 12-18 months. Within Southeast Asia, 5G network slicing has been adopted by operators to meet the demands of Formula 1 Grand Prix live streams in Singapore, while major operators in the Philippines have deployed end-to-end 5G network slicing to accommodate the requirements of their corporate customers.

New services

However, with those new services, particularly if they’re delivered on-demand, comes an expectation that the service level is exquisite and uninterrupted. Presumably, providing these services will come at a cost to the customer – and with that price tag will come an expectation that the service is perfect or as close to it as to be indiscernible from perfection.

That’s not the only challenge. The more the network is sliced, particularly for longer-term pathways – such as those ramped up for consistent over-the-top streaming services or for smart city applications – the more operational and architectural complexity is added to the network. Simply put, there’s more to manage.

But the unique monetization opportunities available with 5G network slicing certainly outweigh any challenge, making overcoming those hurdles imperative. Service providers who can implement slicing technology correctly can drive differentiation between themselves and the competition.

So how do service providers go about getting this right?

Cutting into the depths of 5G network slicing

First off: slicing can’t be operationalized using manual processes. Users need to avail of these services at the click of a button and be assured of exceptional service from the get-go. At scale, service providers will ultimately need to activate thousands of customized network slices across their 5G RAN, transport, and core networks.

They should be able to scale up or down a slice, assure performance, and enable it to handle evolving service or customer requirements, all in real time. In addition, based on customer use of a given slice, it needs to be able to dynamically expand or contract to meet the customer’s needs, time-horizon, or quality-of-service requirements.

Automation is critical

Automation is, therefore, critical – and as 5G is an innovation native, it’s possible to bake automation into a network-slicing architecture.  If the right approach is taken, it can become embedded in the architecture even as it continues to scale. The first step for service providers is to decide what must be automated, keeping in mind that what is automated at the beginning lays the foundation for what comes later. For this reason, automated, dynamic resource discovery and inventory federation are the best places to start.

Lifecycle management is equally imperative, and end-to-end network slice lifecycle automation is the ultimate goal.  However, it’s no easy feat. Bringing together multi-domain orchestration, inventory, service order orchestration, Multi-Domain Service Orchestration (MDSO), NFV orchestration, Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven analytics, and Machine-Learning (ML)-guided assurance in one platform is critical to achieving this goal.

This all sounds daunting

While this all sounds daunting, if the right incremental steps are taken at the start of the 5G network slicing journey, this and automation can be achieved from the ground up. Thankfully 5G is an innovation native, and these technologies can be readily deployed on the network for those services providers looking to increase their portion of the 5G pie through network slicing.

According to McKinsey & Co., service providers globally will spend more than half a trillion dollars on their 5G networks between 2022 and 2025, on top of the billions they’ve already spent. Network slicing is a crucial element of monetizing these massive investments. McKinsey calls for service providers to be “5G business builders”, key in a future where autonomous vehicles and smart city applications are not just proof of concepts.  

The opportunity for 5G network slicing is too big for the hurdles of complexity to prevent the journey from starting. The time is now for service providers to embrace their role as 5G business builders – with a ground-up approach, they will be able to quickly differentiate from the pack, moving away from test beds to actual innovation implementations.

By Kailem Anderson, Vice President, Portfolio & Engineering, Blue Planet

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