Virtual network slices increase the value and performance of mobile broadband, IoT, mission-critical communication, and more
5G, SD-WAN, and network slicing are three of the most important technologies for the future of networking. To a certain extent, enterprises’ digital transformation will go only as far as the convergence of these technologies will take them. The first step is understanding the role that each technology will play — particularly network slicing, which is still unfolding.
So, how does network slicing work? Let’s explore the architecture, equipment, and network requirements necessary to take advantage of virtual slices.
What is network slicing?
Network slices are virtual networks that operate on top of shared 5G infrastructure. Available only on 5G networks with a standalone core, each virtual network or “slice” is optimized for a defined business purpose by tailoring throughput, latency, coverage, speed, reliability, security, and more from end to end. Slices defined by the 5G standards of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) include:
Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB)
The eMBB slice is dedicated to large volumes of human-centric use cases requiring high throughput and low latency or “best effort” connectivity. This includes mobile video streaming and broadcasting, in-car entertainment, mobile gaming, and social networking, primarily done from a laptop, tablet, or mobile phone.
Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC)
URLLC slices are built with strict requirements for reliability, availability, and ultra-low latency. This network slice supports such use cases as autonomous vehicles, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), mobile robots, real-time human machine collaboration, and remote-control applications.
Massive or Critical Machine Type Communications (mMTC or cMTC)
mMTC and cMTC slices are dedicated to extreme coverage for low-cost, long-life IoT devices that send or receive small volumes of data. The data transmission in these cases requires very little power, enabling devices to preserve battery life. These devices include actuators, sensors, trackers, wearables, and meters.
Public safety slices are intended solely for government use, emergencies, and other public safety agency needs. These slices are characterized by high bandwidth, high reliability, and low latency to support push-to-talk, IoT sensors, and remote audio and video feeds.
Carriers may also develop several custom slices for enterprise businesses.
How does network slicing work?
In order to steer traffic to a designated 5G network slice, edge routers must have SD-WAN capabilities. Current SD-WAN routers steer traffic to the desired interface based on policy-based routing. Network slicing expands on this concept by providing a selection of end-to-end network segments available through one wireless interface. However, most current SD-WAN solutions require critical adaptations to use network slices, including the ability to create multiple modem WAN interfaces aligned to the carrier-defined slices.
Even with their SD-WAN solutions prepped for network slicing, enterprise businesses must still rely on network carriers to determine the number and types of slices available. Users can subscribe to one or more network slices based on their business needs, but because of variations in capacity, coverage, and capabilities, they may encounter variations from one region to the next.
What are the benefits of 5G network slicing?
Opportunities for new and enhanced applications, business models, and data-driven innovation at the network edge will become available with 5G network slicing thanks to its sophisticated traffic management capabilities in addition to the bandwidth boost of 5G. Ericsson and BT predict that network slicing solutions will drive a 35% increase in value for mission-critical IoT thanks to a range of enhancements that include increased network flexibility and enhanced security for critical traffic.
Instead of best-effort, one-size-fits-all wireless services, businesses across a variety of industries will be able to match their network needs and spending to desired or required service levels, improving use cases such as:
- Tele-operated driving and real-time situational awareness
- Remote medical emergency assessments and surgeries
- Remote video and real-time smart surveillance
- Remote drone control
- Virtual power grid monitoring and control
- Remote monitoring and control of machines and robots
- Ad-hoc or temporary mass events
- Augmented on-site experiences
Because 5G network slices are completely isolated, no slice can interfere with the traffic in another, making the user experience and security of each network slice the same as if it were operating on a physically separate network.
Using APNs as an alternative to network slicing
5G standalone cores are anticipated to begin rolling out across the globe in late 2023. This means network slicing is not yet widely available. For a similar experience in the interim, some enterprise agencies — particularly in the public safety industry — subscribe to private, dedicated environments, referred to as access point names or APNs, over public 3G, 4G, and non-standalone 5G networks.
APNs establish a secure, dedicated path between routers and public cellular networks that’s useful for trafficking sensitive information. However, APNs cannot guarantee network performance or quality of service (QoS) the same way a network slice can, in part because they do not operate on dedicated spectrum from end –to end. Additionally, while both APNs and network slices are a premium service offered by carriers, network slices provide more customization and configuration options through a variety of slices with guaranteed service level agreements (SLAs).
The value of cord-cutting increases with the availability of 5G network slices, but only if your business is equipped for what’s on the horizon. Effectively using network slices requires the right combination of compatible 5G equipment, effective network analysis and management tools, and the traffic steering capabilities of SD-WAN.