Telecom network transformation through slicing

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The pandemic highlighted the importance of connectivity in all our lives, making telecommunication companies an essential part of the human fabric. As connectivity needs became more complex — remote working, video calls with distant relatives, a seemingly endless array of digital entertainment options — networks needed to stay up to date with this complexity. Network slicing is a major part of how we will get there, and the recent proof-of-concept between TELUS and Ericsson is a prime example of how companies working together on technology will impact the way we stay connected.

 

What is network slicing?

The concept of network slicing has existed conceptually for many years. However, the introduction of 5G – particularly 3GPP Release 15 and further enhancements with the 3GPP Release 16 – have made the technology possible and turned it into a game changer for network evolution.

Network slicing enables you to build multiple logical networks—network slices—on top of a common shared infrastructure. These network slices, typically one for each kind of service, are completely separated and independent to the extent that if something goes wrong in one slice it will not affect the other slices. This separation and independence also enables you to add new slices without impacting the rest of the network. For example, you can use a slice of the network for a fully private network such as a power grid that needs a dedicated, secure environment without impacting the rest of the network should an issue arise.

Each logical network is designed to serve a defined business purpose and comprises of all the required network resources, which are configured and connected end-to-end. This allows a tremendous amount of network flexibility and the ability to handle complex, multi-layered tasks simultaneously, opening up a wide range of possibilities across the industry (such as smart manufacturing) and for consumers (real-time personal health networks, smart home services, etc.).

 

TELUS proof-of-concept shows impact on key market verticals

To test the merit of network slicing and the “art of the possible,” TELUS and Ericsson conducted the first multi-vendor network slicing proof of concept (POC) in a lab environment based on two different standard bodies, 3GPP Release 16 and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). This unique trial involved connecting a common end-to-end (E2E) network slicing orchestrator to the chain underlying domains in RAN (simulated), IP transport and 5G standalone (SA) Core. This was triggered from the TELUS Enterprise customer ordering portal that interacted with Ericsson’s E2E Slice Orchestrator that created, modified and monitored/reported various types of slices requested.

The lab setup consisted of multiple vendors providing different pieces of technology and scenarios to successfully test slicing. For use case selection, TELUS and Ericsson took a pragmatic approach to target the various selected verticals (health care, agriculture, enterprise, industry, automotive and public safety) that are the most relevant for the Canadian market. We completed a thorough requirement analysis and mapping of these requirements to a customized formation of standardized telco slices (eMBB, mMTC and URLCC).

The TELUS 5G network can now support multiple virtual networks that run in parallel, seamlessly. This enables networks to support different kinds of services at the same time. In traditional 3G/4G networks, communication service providers (CSPs) use different Quality of Service (QoS) values or virtual private networks (VPNs) to differentiate service level of priority, for consumers, business and public safety services on one network. However, when congestion happens, it increases the likelihood of dropped calls and service interruption. When there is a site failure and during disaster recovery, the so-called “fail over” to an alternative site and restoration of services takes longer than expected, which is not acceptable for today’s customers who are used to having always on connectivity.

With 5G and the help of network slicing, assurance, automation and AI/Machine learning technology, we are now able to create a closed loop environment to ensure the same service-level agreement (SLA) experience during downtimes, failure and interruption of certain network functions within the slice.

Networks will now have the intelligence to understand how to best serve a teenager streaming a high-definition (8K) live concert from across the globe, a young professional in downtown Toronto engaging in an interactive gaming session with friends that are in different cities across the country, or a surgeon in Montréal who is operating on a patient virtually in real-time in Vancouver. Telecom can adapt to user needs and support activity with a slice of the network. If there is congestion and failure, the TELUS network adapts itself to provide experience and bandwidth based on requirements needed.

 

Automotive use case shows network slicing potential

Take the example of an automotive use case. The table below shows a simplified version of the requirements used and how all these could design a technical slice of a certain type, without having to expose the sophisticated and complex telco technology in the background.



Automotive use case

 

To implement the use cases, network service templates were used during the orchestration design time to expose offerings to the enterprise end users. Orders were sent to the orchestration run-time, which consisted of the network slice management function (NSMF) responsible for catalog, slice inventory and assurance and acted as the domain orchestration for the core and transport slices. In our POC, we orchestrated the 5G core consisting of an AMF/SMF and UPF while the transport slice consists of building L3VPN connection between different switches and routers.

In the POC, TELUS and Ericsson verified eMBB and mMTC use cases with plans to further collaborate on URLCC, which will enable TELUS to offer highly customized services to its customers in different verticals in a simple and intuitive manner – leading the journey towards network slicing as a service (NSaaS).



The Core, IP transport and network slice infrastructure with multiple network slices including enterprise and consumer use cases

 

Both the TELUS CTO Network and Architecture Strategy team and Ericsson’s Global Research and Development teams built the Core, IP transport and network slice infrastructure with multiple network slices including enterprise and consumer use cases. With this proof-of-concept, testing eMBB and mMTC use cases, TELUS and Ericsson successfully tested the maturity of standards and readiness of commercial products to meet the needs of enterprises and industry verticals.

 

Despite initial promise, challenges remain

While there are plenty of reasons for optimism after the successful proof of concept, there are some challenges that need to be addressed by the industry in order to execute this at scale. In the end, this is not only a technological evolution but also a process, organization and business model level of change that will have a major impact on the whole industry.

Some of these challenges include:

  • Addressing immediate market/customer requirement for better networks and performance on slicing vs. slower development of new technology by standards bodies such as 3GPP, GSMA, ETSI, IETF
  • Coordinating and aligning various industry standards – 3GPP, GSMA, ETSI, ONAP, IETF, TMF
  • Requiring end-to-end support from devices, RAN, IP transport, Core, infrastructure to be on the same level, otherwise the slice will fall apart
  • Extending a single CSP’s slice to address requirements, such as 5G private networks, inter-connect, MOCN and roaming partners with E2E slicing
  • Chaining together SW and test automation (including CICD), process automation, service level orchestration, NF life cycle orchestration, non-3GPP elements and non-traditional Core elements (DNS, FW, TCPO, CGNAT, etc.) orchestration to be developed as part of slicing development
  • Defining the characteristics of various verticals on slicing including latency, throughput, performance, dimensioning is still being defined along the way
  • Leveraging AI/ML to feedback and adapt the network slices is still at an early stage
  • Securing security of slicing, with new business models still at infancy stage.

Together, TELUS and Ericsson are embarking on a journey to develop true end-to-end network slicing, network automation and data analytics capabilities and building towards a cognitive network to support any device, any access, and any network vision that will unleash the era of 6G and beyond.

A truly self-adapted network with zero-touch automation will serve as the the foundation for all industrial verticals, building upon connected vehicles, smart city, agriculture, autonomous manufacturing and much more.

Network slicing is pushing the telecommunication industry to new heights – enabling such new technologies as AI/ML/analytics, slicing, edge compute, cloudification, convergence and automation to make the future more interesting. The learning and development opportunities are unlimited.

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