With 5G roll-outs gaining momentum globally, software-defined networking (SDN) and its complementary technology, network function virtualisation (NFV), have emerged as critical drivers in the implementation and management of 5G networks. Both SDN and NFV offer several advantages to operators in terms of delivering a personalised customer experience and enabling enhanced flexibility and control over their 5G networks. By facilitating network slicing, SDN and NFV enable the division of a single physical network into multiple virtual networks that share the same infrastructure. This capability empowers operators to provide services tailored to each customer’s specific needs. In addition to boosting the customisation capabilities of 5G, network slicing contributes to improved quality of service by reducing latency and enhancing network security.
Further, the high degree of flexibility and adaptability inherent in SDN and NFV solutions permits independent scaling and deployment of services to meet the varying throughput and processing demands of different 5G services. These technologies also enable operators to scale up their operations to support 5G expansion and configure their networks to facilitate seamless interactions among different services within the core network.
Inherent complexities of 5G architecture
5G represents a significant leap forward in the evolution of cellular networks, offering the potential for speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G and ultra-reliable low-latency communication. The technology promises to support a massive number of connected devices simultaneously and is expected to play a critical role in driving digitalisation and automation in fields such as healthcare, manufacturing and transportation.
However, 5G is considered a more complex network than previous network technologies due to several factors. For one, 5G operates on higher frequency bands, including millimetre waves, which allow for faster data transfer rates and lower latency. However, these higher frequency bands have a shorter range and are more susceptible to interference, requiring more advanced antenna systems and deployment strategies. Further, 5G leverages edge computing capabilities to enable low-latency applications and support real-time processing at the network edge. This introduces complexities in terms of distributing computing resources, managing edge nodes and ensuring seamless integration between the core network and edge infrastructure. Furthermore, 5G incorporates multi-access edge computing (MEC), which brings computing capabilities and services closer to the network edge. MEC enables the deployment of latency-sensitive and bandwidth-intensive applications at the network edge, requiring coordination and synchronisation between edge resources and the centralised network.
The deployment of 5G services, therefore, necessitates a shift from operator-centric network management and service orchestration towards more advanced approaches. To augment the capabilities of operations staff and enable efficient network automation and orchestration, machine intelligence, including analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, will play a crucial role in generating real-time operational intelligence and reducing the need for extensive operator intervention. However, in order to leverage the use of these next-generation technologies in their 5G networks, operators will have to shift from relying on human operators making decisions and directing workflows, based on the information from various tools and dashboards, to virtualisation-driven closed-loop continuous data analysis and intelligent decision-making, with a minimal need for direct operator involvement.
Role of virtualisation in scaling and customising 5G networks
NFV enhances the efficiency and adaptability of network services by separating the operation of a network from its physical infrastructure, resulting in improved effectiveness and agility. By leveraging a centralised control layer, this technology transforms networks into more flexible and open frameworks, thereby optimising network resources, minimising congestion and increasing network capacity. By utilising virtualised infrastructure and shared servers instead of dedicated appliances, operators can reduce both operational and capital expenses. In addition, NFV eliminates the need for costly proprietary hardware investments, making it easier for operators and enterprises to introduce new services and scale their existing networks. With NFV, service providers can deploy various network functions, such as firewalls or encryption, on virtual machines, facilitating the rapid and cost-effective delivery of on-demand applications with minimal disruptions.
In the context of 5G, NFV plays a crucial role in deploying 5G services on third-party hosting infrastructures. It allows the division of a 5G physical network into multiple virtual networks, capable of supporting different radio access networks across diverse customer segments and environments. This enables network slicing, where multiple virtual networks operate on a single physical infrastructure. Furthermore, NFV aids the development of a highly scalable and flexible virtualised infrastructure management architecture and systems, capable of accommodating future 5G applications with unknown requirements.
Going forward, NFV is poised to play a much more significant role in 5G deployment by enabling higher workloads and simplifying hardware management. NFV’s capacity to enable individual scaling and deployment of services in response to the unique throughput and processing requirements of diverse 5G applications will allow telecom operators to effectively scale their networks, supporting 5G expansion and establishing seamless interactions within the core network. Industry experts also contend that NFV could potentially reduce operators’ capital expenditures on 5G networks by up to 40 per cent.
Optimising 5G network traffic through SDN
The SDN architecture leverages software-based controllers or application programming interfaces (APIs) to establish communication with the underlying hardware infrastructure and govern network traffic. SDN offers operators the ability to create and control virtual networks, while simultaneously managing traditional hardware using software-based approaches.
In the case of 5G, SDN serves as a comprehensive framework that enables the seamless operation of 5G networks across a standardised control plane. This facilitates network management through the use of APIs and allows the provision of services throughout the network, irrespective of the connected hardware components. Additionally, SDN plays a crucial role in optimising data flows across the 5G network by dynamically determining the most efficient data paths in real time. This helps minimise network bandwidth usage and reduce latency, enhancing the overall network performance.
Security risks in the face of increased virtualisation
Although virtualisation enhances the the simplicity, speed and flexibility of deploying 5G networks, the substitution of dedicated hardware with software-defined systems potentially exposes mobile networks to increased vulnerability against attacks. Both SDN and NFV heavily depend on widely known and utilised internet protocols such as the hypertext transfer and representational state transfer protocols. Consequently, the familiarity and widespread usage of these protocols on the internet may facilitate hackers to discover tools and exploit vulnerabilities within 5G networks. In certain instances, virtualisation has also been observed to cause unusual fluctuations in latency and considerable instability in throughput, even when the underlying network experiences low usage. Consequently, maintaining network performance at a level that matches or exceeds that of dedicated hardware implementations becomes a significant challenge.
The increasing adoption of SDN and NFV reflects a broader trend of separating software from dedicated hardware, aiming to establish agile networks at significantly reduced costs. This shift towards SDN and NFV brings numerous advantages for operators and enterprises. These include accelerated time-to-market for new services, effortless scalability of operations, potential to provide personalised experiences to consumers and reduced energy consumption in networks. In the context of 5G, SDN and NFV have emerged as promising solutions to enhance the deployment process, capabilities, flexibility and interoperability of 5G network designs. With the exponential growth in data traffic and complexities associated with 5G networks, operators face the need to adopt solutions that allow for easy network scalability, even as they maintain service quality.
SDN and NFV are already driving significant transformations in global 5G roll-outs, enabling operators to substantially reduce their hardware and software requirements, while leveraging the value of cloud-based networks. These technologies hold a great potential in the Indian market as well, where operators have faced challenges in recovering their substantial spectrum investments due to pricing pressure and low ARPUs. By embracing SDN and NFV, operators can effectively reduce costs, expedite service deployment, optimise resource utilisation, simplify network complexity, enhance scalability and offer on-demand, differentiated services. Impleme-nting SDN and NFV solutions will provide operators with a foundation to meet the demand for service agility, improve customer experience and achieve expense reduction.