Network slicing the next step to automated networks: Nokia

Following virtualisation, network slicing is the next step towards automated and programmable networks and 5G, Nokia has said, with an upgrade to optical transmission key to this.

Network operators will go through a staged process of network virtualisation, slicing, and automation in the years towards 5G, Nokia has said, with an emphasis on upgrading optical transmission networks key to this.

According to managing director of Nokia Oceania Ray Owen and Global VP of Nokia Optics Sam Bucci, Nokia is one of only two companies in the world that can offer an end-to-end solution across the whole network for this journey towards 5G -- which begins with the optical transmission backbone.

"What we're seeing today is the need to do a massive infrastructure renewal, which is in the backbone of that network," Owen told ZDNet.

"The investment for 5G for us in Australia has started already, and it's mainly in this optical transport networking area ... behind every wireless network is a fantastic fixed infrastructure, and that becomes more so when you get to 5G.

"We're going through a journey to get to the end goal, which is a very programmable, automated network that can slice, provide a service, provide a segment in a very quick fashion, and be able to move capacity, even move latency, and move applications across the network very efficiently."

Bucci described the 5G upgrade process as removing the local processing from mobile towers to a more centralised location.

"We're taking the processing servers and centralising them, and interconnecting towers that have less processing with fibre-optic networks -- something we call fronthaul -- to centralise radio access, where you have banks of servers that do the processing," Bucci explained to ZDNet.

"That's needed for 5G; you cannot operate a 5G network unless you have that kind of centralised processing. So what we're doing is effectively putting in the ground the fibre-optic network that can be used today for 4G and is ready for 5G in the future."

The first 5G deployments in Australia will likely be in the fixed-wireless space, Owen said, because this industry lends itself easily to the network technology. Overall, though, Australia will be at the forefront of adoption, he said.

"In terms of [5G] adoption globally, we see Australia as having the infrastructure we have today, and with a healthy telecommunications industry, we see Australia being right at the forefront of that," Owen told ZDNet.

In APAC, Nokia is working with Optus Business, Spark, and Vocus on optical networking -- and while Bucci added that network slicing is already available, with Nokia working with several unnamed customers on the capability, it is more about the capacity to fine-tune this solution for each customer.

Nokia is therefore remaining ahead of the curve on this thanks to algorithms being developed by its Bell Labs research arm, Bucci said.

"We can offer network slicing, but you have to offer it in a way that fits into a customer's environment and that they can actually use in an effective manner," Bucci explained.

"Bell Labs has some very smart software that they've been working on that allows us to sort of help our customers evolve their networks. It's not just about slicing the networks, it's about taking what they have, adding bits to it, and making it useful. So those algorithms that they've developed are for our smart fabric ... the fabric underneath that gets sliced."

Owen added that while 5G and virtualisation are important for consumer use cases requiring low latency, such as virtual reality and gaming, the network slicing enabled by the two technologies is even more vital for government and public safety agencies.

"You can see the need to be able to slice the network and provide very dedicated services to very different environments, and virtualisation is a very key element to that, because it gives you that flexibility to provision a service very quickly across a different slice of the network," Owen said.

"What we see in Australia is ... the ability of 5G and virtualisation to slice the network and be able to provide, for instance, to government, to public safety agencies, different types of network experiences rapidly, quickly, and programmable in the network and that's a very important part of our future here in Australia."

Since Australia relies on subsea cables to connect it to the rest of the world, Nokia's Bell Labs has also been working on advancements in the speed and capacity of these, including through a trial with Facebook in March, when the two companies connected Long Island, New York, with Shannon, Ireland.

"We introduced the world's first 200-gig per wave solution. We were able to put through with something that's commercially available roughly 17 terabits of capacity through on fibre subsea link," Bucci said.

"What Bell labs brought to the table was something new, it's called probabalistic concept shaping or PCS ... it's a new piece of innovation from Bell Labs that allows us to double that capacity to 32 terabits of capacity."

Nokia's PCS "shaped" 64 quadrature amplitude modulation signals so that it could adjust the transmission capacity to the physical limits of Facebook's 5,500km subsea cable link.

Despite these subsea cable improvements, however, Owen explained that the latency via submarine cables will not be sufficient for future applications.

"You need high capacity, low latency close to where the applications are," Bucci told ZDNet.

"And you have to put the networks in the ground now in order to be ready for the future."

Australia must therefore work on upgrading and adding to its optical transport networks, along with building more datacentres and improving mobile edge computing; otherwise, high latency will prevent Internet of Things use cases such as driverless cars from being implemented within Australia, Nokia concluded.

"The investment required in Australia -- for the fundamental optical transport, mobile edge computing, datacentres -- will accelerate with some of the new applications and speeds required," Owen said.

"That has profound implications for industry. The days of us relying on a [subsea] fibre-optic cable to the US -- they're there, but that migration back will have some fundamental changes not only on investment in Australia, but investment in applications on the datacentres to support this, and the speed turnaround not just at the optic fibre but at the compute resources to be able to support these gaming or VR or AR.

"The investments we're making now in Australia are for the next 20 years."

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