5G Networks Are Being Computerized

One of the most significant news developments to emerge from Mobile World Congress (MWC), this year’s trade fair in Barcelona Spain, is that the globe of communications infrastructure is changing dramatically. Not only are the techniques underlying 5G networks evolving quickly, but so are the companies that have entered the market. Not only did traditional network equipment vendors such as Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung Networks make headlines, but so did a wide range of traditional technology vendors such as Microsoft, Dell, IBM, Intel, and Marvell, often in collaboration with carriers such as AT&T.

On the technology front, we’ve been starting to hear about notions like vRAN (virtualized Radio Access Network) and Open RAN for a while now, but it’s clear from the numerous statements made at the show that these concepts are becoming a reality for major telcos all over the world. Similarly, based on the show’s news, applications of mobile-focused edge devices (technically Multiple-Access Edge Computing—short for MEC) appear to be progressing from conceptual designs to real-world solutions.

When you step back and look at these announcements in context, it becomes clear that the features of mobile networks and their extended abilities are largely being converted to software-based workloads. In layman’s terms, they’re being “computerized.”

Of sure, some of this isn’t entirely new. For many years, enterprise networks have been transitioning from important system functions performed by hardware platforms to software-driven workflows on generalized computer hardware via what is commonly referred to as VNFs (virtualized network functions). However, the reliability requirements of “carrier-grade” solutions anticipated by major telcos have slowed their use of cellular networks. According to statements made at the show, it appears that activity is finally becoming more mainstream.

Furthermore, as all of the computing resources are brought in to allow these network infrastructure functions, extra computationally intensive apps are being constructed into the network’s core. The initial hype surrounding 5G focused on the fact that these embedded software abilities were supposed to be a key differentiator between 5G and 4G. (beyond faster download speeds). But, once again, it appears that the pieces are only now being put in essential to facilitate this vision.

Given the shift toward virtualized channels, cloud-native software architectures, and the severe computing demands these workloads entail, it’s not surprising to see an increasing degree of interest and participation from major technology vendors. Indeed, there were numerous examples at this year’s MWC of major tech companies’ growing influence on 5G communications infrastructure and the assistance they can facilitate on their own or in collaboration with carriers.

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