Overcoming the operational challenges of 4G and 5G slicing at scale
Why network slicing and why now?
4G delivered on its promises. With billions of devices still in use, 4G defined the mobile video market. 4G will also remain a staple for several years as hybrid networks involving 4G and 5G technology work together for the foreseeable future.
Hybrid networks, and eventually 5G only networks, are designed to deliver personalized connectivity options tied to latency, speed, and volume carrying capacity. Flexibly delivering combinations of these service attributes, demonstrates to consumers and business/enterprise customers that communications service providers (SPs) are strategic partners within the everything connected world. Due to the complexity and growing number of customer service connections, the time is fast approaching when the end-to-end service lifecycle management process (design, deliver, assure and charge) will need to be real-time, integrated, and fully automated.
Personalized network connectivity takes shape through network slicing—a virtual connection enhanced with partner functionality that is delivered across a common network infrastructure—which can come about in multiple ways. For example, slicing enables the connectivity layer to use adjustable attributes defined by the service intent of a business or enterprise customer and for maximizing the edge-to-edge connection with hyperscaler cloud provider (HCP) compute capacity, data analytics, and storage resources.
Intent-based network slicing, with or without added value that comes from HCPs or other partners, means communications SPs must automatically act on the operational and monetization needs that characterize a slice. Once established, application developers can define a variety of new service options targeted at various industries such as healthcare diagnostics, sports analysis, manufacturing, agriculture, retail, logistics, public transportation, and media tech production to name a few. Even without HCP involvement, network slicing offers connectivity options not ever before realized until now.
Managing network slices is no simple process
Although the complete benefits of network slicing will not be realized until 5G SA is fully deployed, many of the promises that slicing brings starts now within a hybrid 4G and 5G NSA architecture. Taking this approach has several operational advantages, especially in learning how to address multi-customer needs with personalized service attributes and in working collectively with partners to provide customer value. Perhaps the most significant learning comes from understanding that elements of the slicing process need to be addressed collectively across a multi-vendor environment consisting of the radio access network (RAN), core network, and transport network domains.
These three domains must be managed collectively, which means the service provisioning process becomes dynamic as network resources are aligned for each service need. Assuring that a customer offering in this new environment satisfies contract commitments also means that the provisioning process is entwined with the SLA management, assurance and even charging functions. Charging for services that meet or exceed expected performance guarantees takes on a new level of significance.
Addressing these operations and monetization needs requires a real-time, flexible, and automated business management solution. Such a management stack is essential for enabling the customer support and network operations functions working with the new network technology to design, deliver, assure, and charge for each customer instance at scale and in near real time. This environment is possible, practical, and available from a select number of solution suppliers who understand the issues, been there and done that already, and who can also provide the needed experience consulting to bring network slicing to a full state of business reality.
Changing how business does business is likely the greatest benefit that 5G can bring. Beginning this process and learning how to provide full 5G SA defined network slices now, by working through the operations management details of 4G and 5G NSA slicing, can give communications SPs an advantage in the future where "at scale" will involve hundreds of slices supporting a variety of business solutions.