We have come a long way since the first cell phones, which could barely keep a call connected, let alone send a text message. Today, 4G is seen as a blessing for many, but as we progress forward we now find ourselves on the cusp of the 5G roll-out which has been promised for years by network providers across the world. The jump to 5G will make accessing data a more efficient and faster experience, or so that is the promise. However, for vendors like Sprint, T-Mobile and EE to achieve these results some overhauls must be made to their network.

More data is coming through the network and greater speed is needed to handle it all. But by increasing line speeds up to 100G the current network monitoring, application monitoring and SIP monitoring tools, which often work at lower speeds, cannot handle the new influx of traffic. This leads to vital traffic potentially being missed and therefore sub-optimal performance from the tools being used. Upgrading the monitoring tools to cater for higher network speeds would be extremely expensive, so instead carriers should invest in a network visibility solution that offers flexibility and high port density to make traffic more manageable for the legacy tools that are already deployed.

5G brings challenges for Mobile Network Operators

5G truly looks set to make the end-users’ lives easier but for the carriers or Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) the stress is only just beginning. Even ignoring the competition among MNOs, to be able to scale existing 4G networks and transition into 5G, while also remaining profitable, is a tough challenge. 5G has great potential but for it to benefit the MNOs it also needs to be cost-effective.

An infinite network requires truly scalable visibility solutions

Right now, there is a lot of debate amongst MNOs around when 5G might roll-out. Recently, network provider O2 stated that having a full 5G service before 2020 would be impossible, however EE, and parent company BT, are confident they can get the network up, running and in the hands of consumers in 2019. Meanwhile across the Atlantic many MNOs in the USA, like T-Mobile and Verizon, are confident they can have 5G ready by the end of this year, albeit only in select cities and for certain purposes..

Much of the uncertainty around commercialization of 5G is based around the complex nature of 5G architecture. As data leaves the radio to the network, it is fronthauled to a Baseband unit (BBU) then backhauled to wireline networks. There is likely to be many more smaller cell sites in 5G architecture than its 4G predecessor. This small cell backhaul requires many more high speed links connecting cell sites to the wireline network. All wireless data, emails, file transfers and other information generated by 5G devices will travel over these wireline links. These links need to be monitored and protected.

Network Function Virtualization

Network Function Virtualization (NFV) is an important piece in the 5G architecture puzzle. By using off the shelf hardware and moving routing, switching, firewall and other network functions to software, MNO’s can realize significant CAPEX and OPEX savings as they build out 5G services.
There are, however some challenges that must be met prior to full commercial deployment of NFV:

  • Interoperability among various off the shelf vendors using different chip sets
  • Testing and validating reliability of a wide variety of off the shelf hardware to carrier standards (99.999% or better availability)
  • Backwards compatibility and integration of NFV with existing hardware-based networks that are the foundation of 3G and 4G platforms
  • Monitoring and securing the ingress and egress links to NFV servers as well as inter-network trunking to 3G and 4G networks
  • Managing an ordered rollout of NFV while supporting growing demand for more bandwidth on legacy 3G and 4G systems

In order to ensure that demand is met for 3G and 4G visibility to the growing volume of traffic and links, packets must be consolidated and mapped into manageable segments. This traffic can then be sent to the appropriate monitoring tools. It is simply not practical or cost effective to put monitoring tools on every link. Leveraging visibility solutions that are affordable, scalable and offer high port density can help MNOs efficiently manage legacy network traffic for quality, availability and security as they roll out new 5G architectures. Further, there may be additional requirements for specialized security and monitoring products on virtualized networks that are not yet available in software. These tools can be deployed and managed through network packet brokers on the ingress points as traffic enters the new 5G servers.

Ensuring profitability

When operators increase the speed of their network, they need to ensure that the monitoring solutions will keep up with the changes in network technology. This is where packet brokers can delivery the flexibility to manage existing monitoring tools, while also allowing for the introduction of new technology. As the bandwidth of MNO’s networks increases, the scalability of the network packet broker becomes more and more important for cost effective growth.

Controlling the traffic

Network packet brokers need to be able to manage the traffic through to the monitoring tools in an efficient and effective manner. Imagine a single road, full of traffic all following each other at the same speed. Any single accident, breakdown or malfunction will quickly lead to a blockage that lasts for hours. Now imagine you have the same amount of traffic but rather than one big road, you have lots of little roads defined by the vehicle type. This way each road can be easily managed and if something happens on one road it doesn’t disrupt everyone. This is the service that packet brokers provide to the network operators.

It all comes down to the capability of the packet broker to efficiently manage traffic to the monitoring tools. When existing roads are blocked, packet brokers can often provide alternative routes in order to keep traffic flowing and availability high. This efficiency can lead to not only lower network costs but also a reduction in churn for the MNO’s.

5G integration with 3G and 4G legacy networks is a new venture for MNOs and this can lead to unpredictability in the network. Historically one of the challenges faced by MNOs is that they may purchase a packet broker to meet their immediate requirements, only to find that rapid network growth means additional ports are required, which often leads to the need to purchase additional larger packet brokers. What they need is a smarter packet broker that is truly scalable. This way the number of links required can be met by simply expanding the number of ports of their current network visibility solution, rather than buying a whole new packet broker. MNO’s may soon discover that the packet broker and associated monitoring and security tools may be the “missing link” to a smooth transition and seamless integration to commercialization of 5G services.

Whether we see 5G in 2019 or 2020, in my view for 5G to thrive it is important for the MNOs to roll out the service in a profitable way. They can do this by having maximum visibility across their network. This way they can manage traffic efficiently by identifying problem areas and correcting anomalies. MNOs should be looking for an exceptional tool that is scalable to any situation, with a high-port density, easy to use and affordable. A packet broker that works smarter and faster – that is the ethos behind what we have focused on developing here at Network Critical to enable MNOs and consumers to reap the rewards and potential of 5G.