Standards bodies make progress towards real world network slicing

Network slicing, until very recently, seemed like a distant and rather esoteric vision, yet at a time when many operators are sceptical about the 5G business case, there is real impetus to make slicing real and deployable.

Slicing could greatly improve operators’ ability to monetize their 5G networks and their virtualization projects, because it harnesses the capabilities of both those technologies, and diversifies they way they can be used to drive new revenues. It allows virtual slices of network capacity to be called up for particular services, industries or customers, automatically optimized for their individual connectivity requirements (such as low latency, high bandwidth or high device density). That makes operators far better equipped to support vertical industries such as manufacturing, automotive and public safety without performance compromises, and therefore to be able to charge higher fees.

But there is a risk that, despite all the work done in 5G R&D projects, and on early approaches to slicing which do not even need 5G, the gap between clever concept and deployable reality will be too great. So it is vital that standards emerge quickly which will allow operators to start to trial slicing without having to invest in a totally customized solution.

The 3GPP’s SA5 Group says it is near completion of its study on the management and orchestration of network slicing and is ready to start the normative phase. It will provide a further progress update after its meeting in August. This group works on the system architecture which will develop alongside the RAN itself (the 5G radio also includes specific features to support slicing of the air interface and enable end-to-end slices across mobile and fixed links).

And following its recent 5G workshop, the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) has put software-driven network orchestration, with a focus on slicing, at the top of its own agenda. It has set up a Joint Coordination Activity group to focus the work of standards bodies which hope to support the final IMT-2020 (ITU nomenclature for 5G) approved standards when these are chosen this year. It also hopes to include the efforts of the open source community.

The aim is to promote standards harmonization and prevent unnecessary duplication of effort, and so accelerate progress towards a commonly deployable platform. The JCA should provide a place where different players can contribute the work that is going on in standards bodies and open source groups across the ecosystem. It will focus on how slicing, and what ITU calls “softwarization”, will result in deeply programmable networks with the agility to support the specific requirements of any particular 5G application.

The ITU said the workshop was attended by a diverse set of stakeholders including industry associations, operators, manufacturers, standards bodies and research institutes . The topic was how to make 5G a commercial reality and it was designed to work alongside two weeks of meetings to progress the work of ITU’s standardization expert group for future networks, SG13.

“Here we see the fundamental importance of software-driven network orchestration,” said Chaesub Lee, director of the ITU telecommunication standardization bureau. “5G systems will be required to support an enormous number of diverse ICT applications. Our aim is to ensure that every application is able to perform to its full potential.”

“Network management needs be able to take a look at the network, create slices of the network, ensure isolation, ensure security, and ensure that you can build these systems so that you can have orchestrated pieces that drive the controller pieces that then feed into the thing that most people really care about,” said Scott Mansfield, SG13 vice-chairman (from Ericsson). “That is how you make money out of the network.”

The SG13 meetings concluded with the first-stage approval of three new ITU standards, one providing 5G terms and definitions and two targeted at 5G network orchestration and management. These are:

“Terms and definitions for IMT-2020” – a foundational set of terminology to be applied universally across 5G-related standardization work.

“IMT-2020 network management framework” a framework and related principles for the design of 5G networks.

“IMT-2020 network management requirements” – this describes the capabilities required to support emerging 5G services and applications.

SG13 also achieved first-stage approval of a new standards ‘supplement’ that provides an overview of “standardization and open source activities related to network softwarization of 5G”.