Michele Zarri, Technical Director, GSMA
Software defined networking enables connectivity to be customised
One-size-fits-all connectivity will soon be a thing of the past. The mobile industry is on the cusp of a new era in which operators will be able to dynamically adapt and allocate their network resources to meet the needs of specific applications, such as autonomous driving, tele-presence, live video streams and augmented reality.
In the past, mobile networks have had a monolithic, inflexible design in which each piece of hardware always played the same role. But engineers are now creating software that can perform many of the tasks that had previously been baked into dedicated hardware. The expanding role of software will make mobile networks far more versatile and flexible. Two of the key technologies bringing about this shift are network function virtualization (NFV) and software defined networking (SDN).
With NFV and SDN, mobile operators can dynamically allocate resources where they are needed most, allowing the creation of virtual networks tailored to the needs of a specific service type. Throughput, latency, reliability, security or energy consumption can take priority depending on the particular requirements of the application.
How do these technologies work? NFV decouples the software of a given network function from its dedicated hardware, enabling the software to run on commodity hardware. SDN then decouples the control plane function of the software from the corresponding data plane function. This allows the mobile operator to aggregate and adjust the control plane functions in real-time using application programming interfaces (APIs), effectively giving the operator centralised control of the network’s resources (see chart).
Dynamic, flexible and efficient
NFV and SDN bring clear business benefits to a mobile operator and its customers. By enabling a step change in flexibility and efficiency, these technologies make it cost-effective for mobile operators to support a very wide range of services, including consumer applications, the Internet of Things and other solutions for enterprises.
Rather than having to deploy multiple physical networks to meet the diverse service requirements of different applications, the operator can use a SDN controller to define multiple virtual networks (known as network slices) that can meet the requirements of each service. Although it shares the same physical resources with other network slices, a network slice amounts to a dedicated network with its own processing, management and connectivity characteristics.
Using the network slicing concept, the same infrastructure could, for example, support a smart meter network and a public safety communications network, underpinned by service level agreements. Each slice can have different levels of network level security, support for mobility management, latency and throughput. Moreover, network resources can be provisioned and allocated dynamically as needed.
There are other efficiency savings. NFV also allows workloads to be consolidated on a smaller number of servers during off-peak hours, allowing unused servers to be put into energy saving mode or even switched off completely during off-peak hours.
In summary, NFV and SDN will play a fundamental role in enabling mobile operators to deliver a much broader range of solutions than they have in the past. Using the same physical infrastructure, operators will be able to cost-effectively meet the needs of everyone from vast enterprises to individual entrepreneurs and consumers. To paraphrase, Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of the leading venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz: “software is eating the mobile world.”