Could Network Slicing Concept Run Afoul of Regulators Seeking to Preserve Net Neutrality?
Chuck Robbins, who took Cisco’s reins from John Chambers six months ago, said this week at the Mobile World Congress on 5G: “We see the value isn’t in connectivity, but in data and insight into it.”
Further, he added, “As billions of devices are being added to the network, we envision the next-generation [network] architecture will become incredibly distributed.”
Robbins said the new-generation cellular network’s mobile core is getting increasingly virtualized. It’s being distributed closer to the network’s edge, enabling it to be divvied in slices for different services.
Those in the wired network world are familiar with things like network function virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN). What’s new at the Mobile World Congress here, however, is that the mobile industry is not only catching up with the wired world, but introducing a concept called “Network Slicing” into the 5G system. In describing it, Ericsson said, “networks will be built in a flexible way so that speed, capacity and coverage can be allocated in logical slices to meet the specific demands of each use case.”
Combined with NFV and SDN, the new concept is challenging cellular network operators to rethink architecture and business strategy.
Indeed, for the cellular industry, this is a big deal.
For decades, when the global mobile industry embarked on the development of the next-generation cellular standards, its main concerns were radio access technologies, modulation schemes and network architecture. Operators fretted over connectivity speed and capacity that can meet with the demand of specific hardware – such as mobile handsets – and their applications.
But this could all become a thing of the past.
If the Mobile World Congress this week is any indication, the discussion of 5G’s physical connectivity, while still important, has decidedly begun to shift to such topics as 5G network slicing and network virtualization.
That’s precisely where Cisco sees an opening to insert itself into the coming 5G market.
Cisco announced at the show, among other things, a next-gen collaboration with Ericsson and Intel to develop 5G routers, and a partnership with AT&T on Internet of Things.
Cisco also introduced a new virtualized mobile services platform, called Cisco Ultra. Anticipating different industries to request a slice of network for their particular services, Cisco developed Ultra to help mobile operators launch and deploy new services and more efficiently.
Cisco CEO Robbins described the Ultra as offering “easy button” to operators so that “they can set up a network that can scale up and down within minutes.”
The 5G system is shaping into a platform for services (vs. building out physical networks dedicated to individual hardware). As this transition happens, Robbins stressed, “Service providers should be at the heart of value.” Whether service providers are in automotive, mining or manufacturing businesses, 5G network needs to be able to deliver security, speed, reliability and capacity each service demands, he explained.
Nokia explains 'Network Slicing' -- Network as a service
Preventing anything services
Consider automotive. What sort of services do carmakers and their OEMs want from the emerging 5G network? How far along are they in embracing connectivity and adopting the network slicing concept?
Robbins believes that automotive OEMs are moving very fast – probably much faster than anyone tends to believe.
Tesla is embracing the connectivity to download software to add new features to its cars, he said, but Tesla’s not alone. Many OEMs are interested in offering better information and “preventing anything” services, before something catastrophic happens on the road, Robbins said.
Christian Martin, senior director of engineering, and CTO of Cisco in the North America, noted that the focus on “different services” typifies the “network slicing” concept.
First off, Martin asked, what’s the biggest cost issue for automotive OEMs these days? Answering himself, Martin said, “Recalls.”
Whether called “proactive recalls” or “preventive analysis,” carmakers would like to detect a problem before it blows up into a full-scale recall, said Cisco’s Martin. When he talked to General Motors recently, he understood the auto industry’s dire need to sense and head off recall-level problems – as the new models hit the road and start revealing their idiosyncrasies.
Naturally, automakers will use a slice of the network for sending software updates. “They want to optimize the performance of their cars and add new features,” Martin explained.
But the need for connectivity in the automotive industry doesn’t stop there. There are a number of component vendors supplying products to car OEMs. “They can have a slice of network so that they can check how their engines, brakes or any of their components are functioning in new cars,” explained Martin.
Or, assume you’re a fleet manager. Your trucks have refrigerated containers. Perhaps refrigerator suppliers might want a slice of network to track the temperature of all their fridges.
The idea extends to entertainment inside cars. “Entertainment service providers, such as Hulu, for example, might want their own network slice” to cater to screens inside cars, Martin said.
“Of course, consumers can certainly go to the Internet to stream content, but the network slice could give service providers an opportunity for a tiered billing system” even for different types of cars.
IoT Ad Hoc Networks
During an interview with EE Times, Martin also touched upon the changing landscape of the Internet of Things (IoT) market. “Up until now, we’ve been building an IoT network on top of other networks already in existence,” he said. “We are now seeing the growing networks that are native to IoT.”
Asked if he is referring to such Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networks as LoRa which Cisco has been pushing, Martin said, “Not necessarily.”
As Cisco’s senior director of engineering, he said, “I’m interested in things like ‘IoT ad hoc networks.’”
Calling it “still a research concept,” Martin said that the ad hoc network actually makes much more sense for IoT devices.
“Assume that I’m a light post” on the street, he said. “I could piggyback on radio signals coming from moving cars around me when I need to send data, for example. I don’t have to be equipped with my own cellular or LPWA network connections. When I establish a call, I could use others’ radio. I might even be able to use NFC’s magnetic fields, for that matter, to send data.”
As more devices need to get connected in 5G, the “Platform As A Service” (paas) layer becomes an important enhancement. What might become a winning concept is an approach called Information-Centric Networking (ICN), he said.
The ICN’s goal is to evolve the Internet infrastructure away from a host-centric approach based on perpetual connectivity, to a network architecture whose focal point is information, content or data.
It isn’t here yet, but that’s something we need to think about, said Martin.
The network slicing idea – heavily discussed during the interview – could potentially run afoul of regulators seeking to preserve net neutrality.
How the industry defines net neutrality when the network is virtualized is an interesting question. After all, network slicing is designed to allow service providers network flexibility. But then, who is to decide which party has priority for network access?
That’s another story, and it’s barely begun.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times