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Enabling 5G: NFV expected to play a key role

August 25, 2017
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While what 5G exactly encompasses is still under discussion in the wider industry, relevant standards development organisations are currently defining the new technology and standardisation work is progressing apace. The evolved 5G system will be characterised by an agile, resilient, converged fixed/mobile core network based on network function virtualisation (NFV) and software defined network (SDN) technologies, which is capable of supporting network functions and applications across different domains.

Network operators recognise NFV as a key technology enabler for 5G. The breadth of foreseen 5G use cases implies massive scalability, ultra-low latency, the ability to support a large number of concurrent sessions, ultra-high reliability and strong security. In order to achieve these goals, factors such as network slicing, Edge computing, security, reliability, scalability and radio-acccess network (RAN) cloudification should be taken into account. Moreover, given that the goal of NFV is to decouple network functions from hardware and enable the running of virtualised network functions in a generic IT cloud environment when required, cloud-native design principles and cloud-friendly licensing models are critical matters.

NFV key features for 5G

Network slicing: Domain-specific standards bodies and open source communities are using slicing in contextually different ways, which is a barrier to the convergence of requirements and  increases the complexity of implementing network slicing in a converged core infrastructure supporting 5G and other evolved network services.

Cloud-native network functions: Cloud-native network functions are network functions implemented using generic IT cloud techniques beyond virtualisation. The goal is to maximise the efficient use of resources through finer-grained multiplexing on the infrastructure and to be amenable to advanced cloud orchestration techniques as used in IT environments, while offering the desired performance.

End-to-end service management: An end-to-end vision is necessary to implement NFV use cases in general and 5G-related ones in particular in order to realise the benefits of an NFV-based architecture in a production network. To make the end-to-end model work appropriately, different deployment interworking scenarios, including those related to interworking with legacy networks, must be taken into account.

Edge computing: The support of services with ultra-low latency requirements is one of the key differentiators of 5G over previous technologies. This implies deploying 5G networks as highly distributed systems, where network functions that are the most sensitive to latency run on servers located as close as possible to end-user devices or even within such devices.

RAN cloudification: Following its success in the core network, virtualisation is now moving into the RAN area. As 5G approaches, it is apt to accelerate RAN cloudification, and radio function virtualisation is one of its key use cases. RAN cloudification is expected to provide operators with unprecedented capability in terms of flexibility, agility, resource management and orchestration.

Multi-side/Domain services: The support of infrastructure-as-a-service, NFV as a service and network service (NS) composition in different administrative domains is critical for 5G. Thus, NFV orchestrator (NFVO) hierarchies may need to be deployed wherein a top-level NFVO responsible for a parent NS would delegate the management of nested NSs to lower-level NFVOs.

NFV licence management: Providers of NFV software components currently offer proprietary licence management mechanisms, which make service provisioning and licence acquisition/renewal operations complex and error-prone. Moreover, the dynamic nature of NFV-based 5G systems with rapid reconfiguration of infrastructure for responding to on-demand changes imposes requirements that are difficult to meet through the licensing mechanisms available today.

Security: Operators and developers of 5G network functions have been considering the security implications of deployments on virtualised infrastructure. The core goal of ensuring security for 5G deployments using NFV is extendability of identity management, attestation, authentication and encryption solutions across all aspects of 5G deployments.

Reliability: 5G is likely to increase the occurrence of complex deployment scenarios, thereby making resilience mechanisms more complex as well. For instance, the coexistence of VNFs and physical network functions in some 5G systems, potentially coupled with SDN elements, increases the complexity of end-to-end resilience-by-design. Network functions following cloud-native design principles such as software componentisation increase the overall fault tolerance of network services from an end-to-end perspective.

Scalability: 5G networks will be composed of millions or even billions of distributed compute nodes. This degree of scalability and distribution is not possible with the existing virtual infrastructure managers. It is imperative to develop VIM (virtualised infrastructure manager) architecture and implementations that are massively scalable yet open and flexible enough to address future unknown 5G applications. s

Based on a non-proprietary white paper authored by network operators participating in the ETSI NFV Industry Specification Group


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