Why 5G Network Slicing Matters for IoT Applications
One Network, Many Slices
While widely available 5G network slicing could still be years away, the slightly better news is that network slicing isn’t an architectural concept that absolutely requires 5G. “It could be done for 4G or 3G,” Hegers said. “It could be done without 5G at all because it’s a general network concept.” However, it is likely that mobile operators have not seen much demand yet for network slicing, and it may take the application evolution anticipated with the arrival of 5G to really stoke that demand.
Another way of thinking about network slicing is as an outgrowth of the well-established virtual private networking model and the more recent trend toward network virtualization. “It’s like the next logical step after VPNs,” said David Stokes, senior product marketing manager at ECI Telecom.
While VPNs are usually limited in range of coverage, network slicing can extend a dedicated path across the network, from the customer premises to the mobile operator’s network core. “That’s something you can’t do with VPNs,” Stokes said. “Additionally, it gives you the ability to isolate services from each other, so that you can assign resources to services which can’t be used by or even influenced by services on a different network slice. It really is like running several different networks on one physical network.”
As Stokes noted, network slices can be created in the radio access network, transport network or mobile core, though if mobile operators are looking to guarantee the quality and latency of a certain type of traffic, like IoT applications, across a wide area, the slice is likely to extend through all of these sections. A network slice would begin at the customer premises equipment, which could be an IoT device, and then become a dedicated channel over the mobile air interface. It would continue as a slice of the transport network all the way to the core.
A service provider could deploy several different network slices across its core and radio access networks dedicated to different traffic types, Hegers added. Some providers with large numbers of customers in specific industry verticals could create slices for each vertical to isolate their mission-critical traffic of other verticals. The largest enterprise customers may get their own “hard slice” of the network, Hegers added, and such a slice may contain a number of “soft slices” for different services and traffic types for that enterprise. For example, one slice of ultra-low-latency traffic, one for high-bandwidth traffic, another for services requiring great resiliency.
As IoT applications and other kinds of services, like high-resolution video and augmented and virtual reality, grow and evolve, network operators could near practical limits for how many network slices that can support in their networks. Creating network slices that are too thin could endanger their whole purpose in provide service assurance and guarantees, while sharply increasing the number of slices could create network management challenges for network operators, Hegers said.