March 19, 2020

A Slice of the Action: 5G network slicing and the implications for your business

Seems like everyone is scrambling to prepare for the arrival of the first commercial 5G networks, supposedly sometime this year. Don’t panic if you're one of the many nodding your head during 5G slicing conversations, pretending you know all about it. We know, it’s a lot. We’re going to drill down and see why it’s the ‘it’ topic, and figure out the right moves to ensure that your virtualized infrastructure is sitting pretty.

So, what is 5G and why am I slicing it?

Simply put, 5G networks are the next generation of mobile internet connectivity. Faster speeds, more reliable connections, low latency, more bandwidth, and denser network coverage are just a few of the potent 5G features with obvious benefits for IoT applications. All good so far, but why slice it?

5G network slicing allows the multiplexing of virtualized and independent logical networks on the same physical network infrastructure. Each slice is an isolated, end-to-end network tailored to meet the diverse needs of particular applications.

In a virtualized network scenario, the physical infrastructure takes a back seat to the logical (software-based) partitions in the driver’s seat, dynamically allocating capacity to specific resources as the need arises. Sharing common resources such as storage and processors, network slicing lets operators structure several services on the same network, ensuring service reliability, quality, and enhanced security.

Network slicing isn’t new nor is it specific to 5G. As a concept, it’s been thrown about since the arrival of 4G, however, the difference is that we now have a standardized definition of how a slice will work end-to-end within the network. The upshot is that we can build a logical network consisting of different network functions while defining the service parameters of each function within that slice: bandwidth, latency, security, and so on.

Providers can offer this new functionality to enterprises as a new means of differentiation and a way to compete with webscale providers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. That’s the theory anyway.

What’s in it for me?

One of the major benefits of 5G network slicing is the ability to deploy only the functions necessary to support particular customers and particular market segments. This process should result in direct savings versus the requirement to deploy full functionality to support applications that use only a portion of that functionality. A targeted, tailored deployment = faster delivery = shorter time-to-market.

Newer technologies, in particular, lend themselves to dynamic, partitioned networks. Augmented reality is case in point, requiring high data speeds, throughput, and low latency. On the other hand, a smart home security application relies on impenetrable data and security parameters. 5G network slicing provides the elasticity to meet these varied requirements in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

No matter how thin you slice, it’s still baloney - or is it?

This all sounds great; higher speeds, lower latency, cost savings...what’s the catch? The telecommunications top-brass would have us believe that the winner of the mad scramble to the top of the 5G pile will reap untold rewards, but there are many that believe this is just hype—a mythical marketing monster designed to scare us into needlessly forking out for new technologies, new training, new infrastructures. Granted, few disagree that 5G will eventually replace 4G, that’s a no-brainer, but the speed at which this change will occur and the potency of the implications of this change are very much in doubt.

5G standards are still at the discussion stage with issues such as net-neutrality yet to find consensus. The current appetite for 5G slicing remains low, currently hinging on pricing structures, business use cases, processes for re-architecting entire enterprise networks while maintaining the security and integrity of infrastructures. Some are even discussing the possibility of retrofitting existing 4G infrastructures to meet requirements once 5G launches for real. Not such a crazy idea perhaps, given that network slicing is technically possible on 4G networks, meaning businesses could sidestep a 5G outlay and any teething problems that invariably accompany new technology rollouts. And what if another identifier system comes into play when we’re slicing up the network? Theoretically, this would create a separate internet for each application. The internet as we know it today would change completely, resulting in major security headaches.

OK, so we’re playing devil’s advocate here, worst-case scenario stuff, but there are real limitations and caveats to 5G and 5G network slicing as they stand today. That said, there are few that question the momentum of the 5G movement. It’s coming. Of that, there is no doubt. The question is, are you ready to grab your slice of the pie?