The 5th Generation mobile networks, known as 5G, are without doubt one of the most discussed technological trends and comes with new telecommunication standards beyond the currently adopted 4G. Though the standards has not officially been coined, 5G has drawn tremendous attention with the promises of higher transfer speed, wider bandwidth, better reliability, lower power consumption and much lower latency, to encourage the smoother device-to-device and IoT communications.
According to the announcement by ITU (International Telecommunication Union), 5G will be officially launched by 2020. Therefore, since 2016, telecom operators and various supply chain vendors have been evaluating relevant hardware and software solutions, and in 2017, many deployment and software-hardware integration standards have been frequently discussed.
Since the introduction of 5G standard, two critical technological trends have emerged and been considered as the revolution of telecom network infrastructure: SDN (Software-Defined Network) and NFV (Network Function Virtualization).
Motivations for SDN and NFV
The rising popularity of SDN and NFV are partly contributed by the motivation for an agile, cost-efficient network management. The benefits promised by 5G indicate that telecom operators have to provide higher serviceability, enhance application-delivery and improve QoS. By traditional means, the operators have to invest more on the proprietary hardware equipments, such as EPC (Evolved Packet Cores), for each added service or application. Besides the expense in purchasing proprietary hardware, the integration and the future maintenance will dramatically escalate the ownership costs in the 5G era, due to the multi-vendor supply chains.
Concepts of SDN and NFV
Therefore, telecom operators have been evaluating the advantages and the feasibility of SDN and NFV. SDN is considered as the first step to revolutionize network architecture by making network control programmable. In other words, the network control has been transferred from proprietary hardware to open systems. Network applications and services are abstracted from forwarding and are run in programmable software components on top of open hardware platforms.
NFV can be considered as the next step to make network infrastructure totally virtual. The main concept behind NFV is to shift away from proprietary hardware and run virtualized network functions on x86 based open platform hardware. This shift was initiated with a goal to establish common standards and eliminate hardware incompatibility among vendors. Today, many VNFs are already commercially deployed such as firewall, DPI and WAN optimization, to replace the huge costs and development time of implementing vendor-specific hardware equipments. In fact, the VNFs are more agile towards upgrades and customizations due to its abstract nature, in responses to changes in demands.
Since the emergence of SDN and NFV, major telecom corporations like Docomo and AT&T have virtualized their LTE networks, while equipment providers such as Ericsson and Nokia have also launched solutions for LTE virtualization. With software defined elements and virtualized network functions (VNF), the telecom network infrastructure become programmable, and thus more flexibility in service customization and system scalability.
There have already been successful deployment cases for SDN and NFV, such as vCPE, SD-WAN, and NFVi (NFV Infrastructure). However, challenges are still waiting ahead as common standards have not been established in order to integrate with the existing IT infrastructures.
Opportunity for White-Box OEM/ODM Manufacturers
Another major ecosystem-scale revolution by SDN and NFV is the emergence of white-box hardware providers. In traditional business model, telecom operators purchase hardware platforms from equipment providers who define the hardware specifications for the OEM/ODM manufacturers. In other words, the hardware platforms are practically vendor-specific. This model had worked until the beginning of cloud computing, and telecom operators have realized the increasing TCO for each added service or application. If the added service fails to appeal to end-users, the new equipment will be a huge burden.
Therefore, telecom operators have turned their attentions to SDN and NFV for a new type of hardware and software integration. Service and applications can be run in Open Source software, like Open Stack, on top of a white-box hardware platform. This new business model by open source reduces both software and hardware costs for telecom operators, and meanwhile, the white-box manufacturers have the opportunity to directly deal with telecom operators, opening up opportunities for OEM/ODM manufacturers specializing in white-box hardware platforms.
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