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The Role of SDN and NFV in 5G

By Joe Rizzo January 28, 2016

During last year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, there was some discussion concerning 5G technology. Throughout the year, companies began to test their 5G technology with Chinese telecommunications company Huawei and Japanese mobile operator NTT DoCoMo demonstrating mobile internet speeds of 3.6Gbps.

The market is moving closer to 5G mobile network technology. One thing that has become evident is that Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN) will both play vital roles in facilitating the Communication Service Provider’s (CSP) transition to 5G.

Any time that CSPs transition to newer generations of mobile networking, there is always the need to introduce new technologies, business models, and services designed to accommodate the various upgrades. In most cases, it is necessary to upgrade or change their infrastructure.

While it is true that we expect to see significantly faster speeds with 5G technology, it will not be its speed of delivery, but rather the latency that will be the important factor. Currently, 4G is capable of between 40ms and 60ms, which is considered low-latency. However, it is still not sufficient to provide real-time responses. As more devices become smart and as sensors are placed everywhere, the need for real-time response, which requires low-latency, becomes an even greater issue.

As with any new technology, one of the biggest challenges is always going to be standardization. Additionally, there are other pieces to this puzzle, such as spectrum coordination, creating multiple hierarchies and cloud-based radio access networks (cloud RAN). The expectation is that this is where we will see SDN and NFV play an important role.

As a normal business practice, companies generally install more optical fiber lines than what is actually required for a particular job. The dark strands, or dark fiber, as they are referred to, can be leased to individuals or other companies who want to establish optical connections among their own locations. According to Raj Singh, general manager of the wireless broadband group at Cavium, the front-haul of cloud RAN will need to run on dark fiber.

Managing traffic flow is always an issue. An SDN controller is designed to manage flow control to enable intelligent networking. This allows servers to tell switches where to send packets. Content delivery networks cache popular content at the edge, 5G will cache content locally requiring SDN controllers to manage the traffic and organize how the devices communicate.

As more companies move away from large server filled datacenters to virtual environments, NFV will play an important role in virtualizing all the various appliances required in a 5G network. Instead of CSPs purchasing purpose-built hardware platforms designed to perform explicit functions, NFV enables the provider to build a network infrastructure using cloud-based methods to define network element functions.

I am sure that we can expect to see the discussion continue this week at ITEXPO in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. It will also be interesting to see the type of coverage that it will get at this year’s Mobile World Conference taking place at the end of next month.

Contributing Writer

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