The 5G network core is supposed to be fully virtualised and cloud-native. But formulation of the 5G standards has not been harmonised with the broader NFV project. What impact will this have on service innovation?
The 5G core is an instance of standardised, operationalised NFV
The 5G mobile core network as defined by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards body, along with the other network functions specific to 5G mobile networks (e.g. the Radio Access Network, or RAN), is intended to be ‘fully’ virtualised.
There are four main reasons for this, as set out below. The first two in the list relate more particularly to what we describe in this report as Phase 1 of the NFV project, as well as to the so-called Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G core. The last two reasons are dependent on capabilities being introduced as part of Phase 2 NFV and the Standalone (SA) mobile core:
- Scalability: to enable the capacity of the mobile core – particularly that of the data plane – to be scaled up flexibly and dynamically to support rapidly growing data volumes, both for existing 4G services and especially the much higher volumes expected with 5G.
- Cost: the replacement of dedicated hardware appliances supporting network functions by Virtual Machines (VMs) – and other modes of Virtualised Network Function (VNF), such as micro-services and containers – running over COTS hardware in theory enables that scaling of capacity to be carried out much more cost-efficiently.
- Latency: virtualisation, along with separation of the control and user plane within the core, allows that dynamically scalable data-plane capacity to be brought physically closer to the end user and application. This is important in the case of latency-critical services.
- Network slicing: to enable dynamic, automated network-slicing capabilities, which depend on being able to spin up end-to-end virtual networks – including the core – on demand, based on the variable networking requirements of individual clients and use cases.