Fourth Industrial Revolution

5G networks: to slice or not to slice?

Food for thought: A 5G network is a little like a pie

Manish Mangal
Global Business Head - Network Services, Mahindra Group
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Fourth Industrial Revolution

In many ways, 5G represents more than its definition as the fifth generation of network and mobile communication. When fully utilized, the technology reflects the augmentation of a smart ecosystem – a catalyst for other technologies, the Internet of Things especially. With industries – old and new – at the cusp of constant change, 5G fits into a unique market position, with the ability to ignite varied opportunities, tread into fresh innovations, and offer flexibility with customizable services.

In effect, 5G technology propels several concepts to flesh in reality. Smart cities, homes, or workplaces are, in fact, small examples that attest to the fact. It’s made possible by all the advantages 5G brings to the table – low latency, more bandwidth, and a denser network coverage; some of the apparent benefits are easily leveraged for IoT applications even. But as is the case with most next-generation technologies, innovation within the realm of 5G branches into several sub-categories; and the one I am most excited about is network slicing.

5G network slicing enables us to slice physical networks into partitions, which can be further assigned for dedicated use. It empowers an operator to structure several services on the same network, but with an assurance on service quality, reliability, and enhanced security.

Several slices from a single network - the pie factor

One had always heard the saying, “The Pie Is Big Enough” and is the best representation when one considers network slicing.

IoT applications such as smart metering, remote operations, telesurgery, and more require flawless connectivity, but with incredibly different characteristics. 5G network slicing addresses this complexity by enabling the creation of logical networks dedicated to meet the needs of each application; it offers enormous insight into matters such as network resource utilization and is even designed to stay on par with the complexity required by all the varied services. This feature enables enterprises to push new products and services into market at a rapid but adaptable pace; it offsets the biggest disadvantage of any business landscape – fast-changing demands.

Additionally, network slices can also be set up based on service characteristics such as latency demands, network coverage, or bandwidth. It works rather favorably with some of the newer technologies. Augmented reality, for instance, requires high data speed, throughput, and low latency; a massive IoT application such as a smart electricity meter, on the other hand, requires highly reliable data against specific data rates and levels of security.

But as new-age services and IoT applications continue towards growth and evolution, mobile operators may face practical limitations to slices in their networks. Creating slices that are too thin – especially for services such as UHD videos, augmented reality, and virtual reality – could endanger the original purpose of service quality and reliability guarantees. At the same time, a sharp increase in the number of slices could create challenges around management for mobile operators.

So, like a good pie, you gotta slice it right.

An evolution with existing technologies

Benefits and theory aside, mobile and network operators perceive the current demand for network slices as low; there is still much to do in terms of price definitions and business models. Contrarily, the evolution of enterprise and industrial technologies in the IoT landscape allow for the emergence of services that require benefits such as lower latency and more; it’s an encouraging factor when it comes to the creation of network slices. To add to the encouragement, 5G offers operators the opportunity to analyze and construct their networks in a more efficient manner.

Another matter that might boost urgency amidst operators around network slicing is with implementation via pre-existing technologies.

Software-defined Networking (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) are two technologies expected to become more integrated to mobile operator and enterprise network architectures. It’s designed to help organizations manage and scale networks in a cost-efficient manner. With the two technologies, slicing could be implemented either individually or in a format that leveraged them both.

With the emergence of 5G, it becomes a real possibility for the technology to hyper-evolve in line with the architectural concepts of NFV, SDN, or even the cloud, edge computing, and more. This is something that adds perspective, enough to urge consideration from network and mobile operators. But even as the technology stands as more aspirational than practical, there is no denying the opportunities, even from small explorations.

Hyper-evolving the Internet of Things: advantages to smart applications

Slicing 5G networks into partitions allow mobile and network operators to meet the requirements of different services; this is based on a variety of factors such as latency, quality, capacity, reliability, and security. A city, for instance, could isolate its traffic management system into a slice designed for monitoring in real-time, while bracketing emergency services to high-priority slices instead.

The 5G network slicing technology allows for computations close to edge as well, with slices supporting information streams and computations necessary for operating applications or services with greater, dynamic flexibility. West Hollywood’s Smart City Strategic Plan implements a version of everything discussed, in a pilot program that replaces light poles with smart nodes; the California city expects to do this by integrating 5G small cell technology.

In fact, the true potential of smart cities is in the realization of low-latency wireless connectivity. Network slicing empowers that desire, by enabling the allocation of a variety of slices to dedicated uses.

As enterprise leaders take a hard look at IoT as a new line of business, network slicing becomes more important for consideration; it might very well be the key to new revenue generation at lower impacted operating expenditure and efficient capital expenditure. The visualized world of 5G persists on revisiting digital strategies, investments on technology, and architectural solutions; early adopters are in line to pioneer a business, societal, and global revolution even. But that’s that; the question lies in just how soon we can leverage 5G into making all this happen.

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