Steering traffic to virtual network slices improves service-level performance guarantees
If the phrase “traffic steering” conjures up images of cars, trucks, and busses being directed to roads based on their payload and travel needs, your imagination isn’t too far off. Similar to how GPS directs drivers to the best route based on conditions such as accidents, construction, tolls, and congestion, traffic steering technology examines application traffic traveling across a network and directs it to specific wide-area network (WAN) links based upon characteristics such as bandwidth and latency needs.
Traffic optimization through software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) technology has been fine-tuned for more than a decade. With that much experience in the books, it’s hard to envision how SD-WAN can improve much more beyond its current state. The answer? 5G network slicing.
What is 5G network slicing?
Available on 5G networks with a standalone core, network slicing is a set of virtual networks that share a domain. Each virtual network or “slice” is owned by the cellular network provider and designed to serve a defined business purpose. For example, the enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) slice is built to support large data volumes and low latency needs for applications such as live broadcasting, while the ultra-reliable low latency slice (URLLC) supports use cases such as augmented reality or mobile robotics. Further, the massive machine type communications (mMTC) slice is designated for low-cost devices such as IoT devices, and sensors.
By subscribing to network slices through their carriers, enterprises are able to experience benefits including increased network flexibility, segmenting of dissimilar applications or devices, and enhanced security for critical traffic, including 5G IoT use cases across financial services and more. However, taking advantage of network slices and making the most of these benefits requires a certain level of intelligence at the network edge.
The relationship between traffic steering and 5G network slicing
Network slicing and traffic steering are independent technologies. Although network slices give enterprises the ability to segment and isolate different applications or devices, prioritize mission critical traffic, and have greater control over wireless network services, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards do not yet go far enough to identify all the applications the enterprise is using, classify them, and then steer them to their respective slice.
These application recognition and policy-based routing capabilities require the help of SD-WAN to effectively steer traffic to the desired slice according to the application’s bandwidth, latency, and performance needs, much like SD-WAN does today when steering traffic to specific network providers or WAN connections.
How does 5G network slicing change the network traffic optimization experience?
Quality of service (QoS) traffic control through SD-WANs, multi-protocol label switching (MPLS), and other technologies can make it seem like network slicing has been around for years, but these solutions come with their own drawbacks. Even with desired packet routing defined, QoS does not guarantee that every router in the end-to-end path will be able to deliver the desired performance and uptime. While MPLS can deliver those service-level guarantees, the setup and management are complex and expensive, making it unsuitable for mobile or on-demand routing.
Alternatively, 5G network slicing is a simpler and less expensive method for ensuring traffic has the desired network resources and performance from end to end. In short, it offers carriers the ability to provide wired-like service-level agreements over 5G networks.
Preparing to take advantage of 5G network slicing technology
Those eager to sign on for the benefits of network slicing still have some waiting to do. Although carriers around the world are actively working on their 5G standalone network deployments, only a very small percentage of those networks are officially upgraded. Rollouts across the globe are anticipated to begin in the second half of 2023.
To take advantage of 5G network slicing, carriers not only have to launch the slices along with their respective subscription models, but SD-WAN technology must also undergo critical adaptations to steer traffic to network slices, including the ability to create multiple modem WAN interfaces aligned to the carrier slices. These upgrades will roll out at varying speeds. In the interim, enterprise businesses can take steps to keep their network edge sharp and prepare themselves for network slicing availability.
Review application steering and SD-WAN policies
Applying different service levels to different applications is the backbone of 5G network slicing. It’s important to assess current steering and segmenting capabilities available with your existing SD-WAN solution and reclassify or redirect traffic as needed. Additionally, check with your SD-WAN vendor to gain insight to how your current solution operates on 5G nonstandalone and standalone networks.
Plan for network slicing advantages
Some applications and services that weren’t practical over Wireless WANs may now be achievable. Incorporating extreme bandwidth, ultra-low latency, high reliability and availability, and support for low-power or low-cost devices into your business starts with examining the capabilities and certifications of mobile apps, employee devices, vehicles, and IoT devices that are all potential sources of innovation and competitive advantage with network slicing.
Leverage WAN segmentation in the meantime
From point-of-sale systems to Zoom to 5G IoT, separating traffic is a great way to enhance security, making it easier to detect abnormal behavior, apply policies and filters, and protect sensitive or confidential data. Become familiar with the needs of each application and begin mapping out where your company can benefit from a reduced attack surface, and increased bandwidth and performance provided by network slicing.