Multiplexing for Multiple Benefits: Network Slicing and the Future of High-Performance Extranets in 2020+

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David Walsh David Walsh

Those of us who have been developing ultra-secure, real time Extranets recognize the value of what the current “lingua franca” is now calling “Network Slicing.” During the last decade, one of the companies I had the honor to lead (Ribbon Communications) mastered the art of virtualizing session border control, which has been broadly embraced by telecommunications service providers given their move to software defined networking which makes it possible for them to offer services to multiple clients, including large enterprises, over a shared physical network infrastructure.

Rather than having to go to the expense and trouble of setting up individual physical networks, with purpose-built hardware and complex global systems made up of a lot of “moving parts” (and potential points of failure), those Tier One and other service providers are now rolling end-to-end virtual networks which connect people, places and things, systems and applications, supporting data at rest (in cloud storage, for example) and data in motion to support the requirement for compute, including compute at the edge and in the cloud).

We envisioned network slicing over two decades ago, at the dawn of Extranets, including one we built for the financial services community in the late 1990’s. Using software-based network provisioning and management platforms, we were able to partition network resources to allow for a range of companies and their end-users to multiplex over a single physical infrastructure (including the world’s most resilient and largest network, the public Internet).

Network Slicing is getting the most attention for applications associated with 5G, for mobile networks which can simultaneously run fixed Internet of Things (IoT and Industrial IoT), Mobile Broadband, and very low-latency truly mobile applications including connected and autonomous vehicles.

Just as the approach did when we initially began connecting large banks and their digital service providers back in the early days, the goal of Network Slicing is simply to enable the secure and efficient partitioning of the physical network from end-to-end categorize and optimize traffic, to isolate data  from other tenants, and to configure and control resources.

The investment of billions of dollars into the most recent development and innovation in Network Slicing takes “QoS” to the next level beyond DiffServ (Differentiated Services including voice, text and video supporting collaboration and real time communications (RTC). It is replacing Virtual Private Networking (VPN) with a much more efficient and affordable approach to services and is unlocking a ton of business value, including in the growing Network as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service (NaaS and IaaS) domains.

Network Slicing also opens a wider door for cloud and data center providers (AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google and others) to offer new connectivity services, including mobile connectivity services, putting additional pressure on incumbent telcos, while companies like AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon in the U.S. lease network slices in order to deliver increasingly fast and high-quality networking experiences.

With network slicing, any service provider (CSPs from Communications Service Providers to Cloud Service Providers) can deploy applications and services flexibly and quickly to accommodate extremely granular requirements supporting bandwidth hungry applications including augmented reality, online gaming, telehealth and more.

By decoupling network control and data forwarding, network control functions can run as applications independently in logically centralized controllers, freed up from dedicated and expensive hardware platforms to Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) high performance servers. Network operators can implement a variety of virtual network functions over the standard commodity servers, and makes it possibly to move computing, storage and networking resources from public clouds closer to the edge of the network where compute is most needed, particularly for ultra-low-latency processing with far less delay.

Network Slicing makes possible the next generation of Extranets with better than best-efforts performance, designed to support highly secure, low-latency logical networks with better performance than we’ve seen to date (including ultra-low latency with the right physical fiber optic networking design).

Cybersecurity in network slicing is a critical challenge, because of resource sharing among slices, but this can be dealt with using policy and “programmable networking” approaches; we are starting to see tremendous innovation occurring where security policy coordination mechanisms are required, including Internet overlay technology which splits sessions themselves and uses deflects and other software-based, policy-based techniques.

Back to where we started, virtualization technology has evolved over the first two decades of this century, and today the art and science for complex and mission-critical applications can now be applied across fixed and mobile networks. Now in this new decade, Network Slicing can now be more elegantly deployed, and more broadly implemented, supporting new business models which will be fundamental to future Extranets across industries and ecosystems supporting both fixed and mobile services in high definition.