It’s Time to Get to the Real 5G Issues and Architectures

Everyone probably knows the old story about trying to identify an elephant behind a curtain.  If you grab a leg, you think it’s a tree; grab a trunk and it’s a snake.  I’ve been reading the stories on 5G for the week, and it’s hard not to believe that we’re back to groping the elephant here.  If so, we’re again at risk to under-supporting and misunderstanding a massive market shift, because we persist in focusing on its piece and not the whole.

I’ve noted in earlier blogs that 5G is a lot like an arms race; operators know that a simple “4-is-better-than-3-so-5-is-better-yet” market value proposition is effective.  Customer acquisition and retention is the largest component of what I call “process opex”, and most operators don’t think they could survive as the only 5G holdout.  Given that, something that we’d be able to call a 5G evolution is inevitable.  What that means is a bit murkier, because a lot of the 5G revolution has to play out in the rest of network infrastructure, where uncertainties abound.  And completing or harmonizing 5G standards won’t address these issues at all.

Going back to the groping of elephants, just look at the wish list for 5G.  For many, this is about the difference in the radio network’s capacity.  5G would deliver over a gigabit of data, potentially.  For others, it’s about the number of devices; 5G is supposed to support IoT by allowing many more devices to be connected.  Network equipment vendors think 5G is about getting rid of a lot of specialized mobile metro gear and going back to something more like vanilla IP routing.  Intel, according to a Light Reading piece, sees 5G as an opportunity to push their chips into wireless prominence, and operators think it might be an opening to introduce white-box and NFV technology.  Has there ever been such a laundry list of wishes?  Sure; with SDN, NFV, and IoT, and of course frame relay and ATM before them.  Is there a better chance of wish fulfillment with 5G?  Maybe.

Money is one big thing 5G has going for it—meaning budget money and not just vendor revenue hockey-stick aspirations.  The big difference in 5G is that market evolution in at least a titular sense seems inevitable for the customer acquisition and retention reasons I’ve already noted.  Unlike other stuff like SDN and NFV, which are still largely science projects seeking a business case, 5G has the best business case possible—do it or you lose all your business.

There are, however, worse things than losing your business by not investing in the future.  You could invest a boatload of cash and lose it anyway.  The big worry now for operators is whether they can make that 5G investment into more than table stakes, and here some old and new truths could help them plan.

The old truth is that for several decades, network profits have been (like, it’s said, “all politics” is) local.  About 80% of profitable traffic is carried 40 miles or less.  Not only that, efforts to improve the price/performance of the big traffic headache, OTT video, has resulted in turning the Internet from a global network in a traditional sense to a bunch of loosely connected metro enclaves.  Hope what you want is cached, because if it isn’t then you’re trusting it to the Great Beyond.

Cisco, who often sees the future correctly then blurs the vision for opportunistic reasons, predicted another trend, with what they called “fog computing”.  The notion was that if a cloud is dispersed, fog is more so and because of ultra-dispersal it’s putting your stuff, your information, your content, closer to you.  You can see content delivery networks (CDNs) as a poster child for cloud-to-fog evolution.  People are now talking about caching in the neighborhood or even in the home.

All of this is driven by personalization, which is a nice way of saying that we want what we want when we want it.  Every whim demands satisfaction, and every whim is expressed through a little portable device that has more compute power than a data center did fifty years ago, and is connected through a broadband pipe faster than 90% of business sites had only 20 years ago.  These people aren’t doing abstract research, they’re trying to tie IT and the Internet into their lives at this very moment.  Not only that, they’re moving around while they do it.  You can see this as a world-class driver of infrastructure agility and it doesn’t matter what “G” they’re connected on.

NFV and SDN have been the technology targets in achieving that agility.  Virtualization, properly used, lets operators spin up instances of stuff that’s being over-used, change routes to accommodate traffic patterns created when all our personalization gets aggregated by some concert or game, and deal with the expected new demands of contextual services based on social connectivity and IoT.  You create a kind of blank slate of resources, and then write on it with virtualization.  To make that work, you have to host features as software rather than solidify them in appliances, and that’s a cloud mission.

If we presume a distribution of caches, and if we then presume that cloud computing.  If we presume successful mobile virtualization via NFV adaptations to mobile services, we create a mesh of in-metro data centers.  It’s this into which we have to fit 5G.  Yes, 5G has to fit in, fit into a profitable, responsive, infrastructure plan.  It’s going to fund a lot of the plan but it’s not the direct driver.  Personalization and metrofication are driving both agility and 5G.

To avoid getting G-centric, we have to ask where all this agility would lead without 5G or we risk stranding ourselves in sub-optimal technology till 5G becomes pervasive.  We have today, in mobile NFV, perhaps a half-dozen truly useful VNFs.  We have in vCPE, presuming we started using 5G to do wireline last-500-meters, another half-dozen truly useful VNFs.  From there, we move to things less useful and compelling when we need to be finding things that are better.  The only way to add value to this picture is to forget the limiting notion of a virtual network function and embrace the notion of a general cloud component.  Some of them will be network functions, some application functions, some IoT or collaboration functions.

Whatever operators use to connect with their customers, whether it’s fiber or RF or tin cans and strings, they will need to have something of a higher level to make money on.  That lesson should have been brought home by Cisco’s quarter and restructuring.  The value in networking is in the cloud, and getting the cloud and the network together and not separated into layers that will end up being operator and OTT is the mission of network planners (vendor and operator) in the near future.  5G isn’t going to change the picture, only change the details on how it’s applied.  The stuff we’re worrying about in the 5G evolution is trivial, table stakes.  Standards will define it; all vendors will support it.  All it does is connect, at the end of the day.  We need to build the stuff that empowers, and by doing that get the “value” back into “value proposition.”

The metro network is going to turn into a cloud enclave, a place that’s connected with fiber and SDN and over which we build extemporaneous connection networks for various users and applications, including mobile, IoT, and the infrastructure elements of 5G.  There will be new issues associated with the dynamic adaptation of infrastructure to match what we expect 5G to deliver in the RF domain with C-RAN.  All these things will depend on standard approaches, but all of them have to be hosted in an agile metro platform domain, and deploying that domain and making it profitable for every access mechanism it supports is the challenge, not simply “5G”.

Getting back, the, to our elephant, the most important point about 5G is that it’s at the endpoint (for now, of course) to a set of trends in demand and infrastructure evolution.  What’s important is first that set of trends and only second the details of how 5G accommodates them.  That’s because without the trends, 5G is just an expensive wireless transformation of supply, not an accommodation of demand.

One of the interesting things about all of this, presuming you agree with my points, is that it would suggest a much broader 5G opportunity than the current radio-dominated vision would permit.  Few vendors have credibility with the radio network, but a lot of vendors would benefit mightily from the broader transformation vision I’m describing.  If that’s true, then one or more of them could step up and promote a change of mindset, and that could be revolutionary in terms of 5G benefits.  By semi-disconnecting them from actual 5G, they could be realized in an evolutionary way even now, and by framing 5G in benefit terms instead of trying to find benefits to suit our conception of 5G, we have a better chance of actually making it happen.