Industry Leaders Collaborate to Spruce up Legacy Networks with SDN & NFV Technologies

By Consuelo Azuaje

While some are focusing on the future nuts and bolts of 5G, others are looking past the required materials and are, instead, focusing on organizational needs. Take the European Union's recently formed public-private partnership (PPP), the 5G Infrastructure Partnership, for example. Having received €700 million from the European Commission for research, the 5G Infrastructure Partnership's vision has five points: (1) wireless capacity; (2) energy savings of up to 90% per service; (3) communication networks wherein the majority of the energy consumed comes from the radio access network; (4) reduction of service reaction time from ~90 hours to 90 minutes; (5) a network that can support connections from over 7 trillion wireless devices and serving more than 7 billion people. To these ends, the 5G Infrastructure Partnership has begun developing a new management model which involves software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV).

Despite often being pitted against each other, used jointly, SDN and NFV may just be the ticket to a 5G-future. Networking today has been described as rigid and proprietary by professionals, who often find themselves at odds with the constraints of legacy networks, but SDN allows tech professionals to build a flexible, programmable 5G architecture. The greatest difference between SDN and traditional networking lies in how each system routes incoming data packets. In traditional networking all incoming data packets are responded to and routed uniformly by network switches. Being that the way that network switches handle data packets is written into the device’s firmware, network switches are not programmable. Also, the control and data planes exist on the same network device. SDN, however, separates the control plane from the data plane and allows the control plane controller, known more commonly as the “SDN controller,” to program network switches dynamically in response to data packet flow. By doing so, it brings more flexibility in how networks are deployed and managed, but most importantly, it allows many of the SDN components to be deployed on industry-standard x86 servers.

NFV, on the other hand, is poised to improve network function by focusing—not on separating the control and data planes—but on standardization of devices and replacing the physical with the virtual. However, both would spur replacement of the physical platform with an x86-driven platform—replacing proprietary networking equipment with software running either industry-standard server hardware or on virtual machines hosted on servers. By combining SDN and NFV, industry partners in the PPP reportedly expect five-fold returns on their investments and maintain that collaboration is key to the development of 5G. Competition, they claim, can come later.