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Digital transformation of 5G networks

by Bob Emmerson, Technology Editor



The digital transformation of network infrastructure through network functions virtualization (NFV) and software defined networking (SDN) is anticipated to play a pivotal role with respect to the commercialisation of 5G. An intelligent, virtualized, programmable 5G network will enable providers to innovate, both in their operations and in their service offerings. It will also enable the delivery of new services on demand and improve overall efficiency by optimising usage of network resources.

NFN technology has been deployed and network slicing, which it enables, has become an integrated component of 5G networks. The key functionality is the creation of multiple virtual networks – network slices – that provide customised connectivity for different business needs. Customisation includes data rates, latency, QoS aware differentiation of different traffic classes, security and availability. 

SDN is set to play an equally important role. The technology is proven, but deployments in 5G networks can be made in different ways and agreement on a standard is required.  But it’s only a question of when, not if.

Adoption of SDN by enterprises is slow, but in October 2016 seven of the top telecommunication service providers got together and came up with NFV, a concept that expands on SDN. The driver for NFV is the need for service providers to significantly reduce network complexity, and introduce flexibility and agility. SDN and NFV are mutually exclusive. You can have one without the other, but there are significant network performance and economics benefits when both are employed. 

5G’s three big pillars  

The first is the increase in data rates, which is needed to accommodate the anticipated massive increase in IoT data. The second is NFV’s ability to customise connectivity, thereby meeting performance requirements of virtually all industrial sectors. In turn that results in even more traffic. The third pillar is the deployment of SDN, which has the functionality that is needed to better manage all that data. 

When network resources are defined in software they can be reallocated at any time, almost on the fly, in order to accommodate changing requirements. Smart routing of traffic can be employed in order to make optimum usage of network resources. It becomes relatively easy to provision network resources so that they match application requirements, no more and no less. All this and more can be managed by network administrators as well as IT departments.

SDN: a proven technology   

Software Defined Networking (SDN) emerged at the beginning of the decade. It was a game-changing development and the game it changed was the closed, proprietary world of networking,which couldn’t accommodate upcoming developments such as virtualisation, the cloud, mobility and the IoT.  

A clean slate approach was needed in order to create a data communications network technology that could accommodate billions of new users/devices as well as a torrent of diverse data communications requirements. An additional requirement was the ability to service all these devices through a single network solution.

The requisite functionality was realised by separating the execution of logical procedures from data delivery and employing a controller that forwards packets according to defined rules.


Major changes are taking place in network architectures. They are needed because the Internet of Things is expanding the number of network endpoints, adding to a global flood of data that must be secured, analysed and transported.

The relevance of 5G will be based on the performance requirements of future IoT deployments, which it enhances, but more important is the transformation of the network into a suite of connectivity services that meet the needs of a new set of IoT use cases.


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