For network slicing, service assurance can’t be an afterthought

5G is coming faster than most expected, and in this race, not a single corner can be cut especially when it comes to network slicing

Virtualized assurance gives visibility of the network edge

Let’s say a customer needs an ultra-low latency network slice for a particular application like augmented reality or connected vehicle guidance. 5G makes it possible to dynamically create network slices where core network functions are pushed to multi-access edge computing (MEC) nodes, significantly reducing service latency.

But how do you ensure the new slice will work after it is instantiated? 5G service assurance will need to deploy virtualized test functions (called Virtual Test Agents) to MEC nodes. These VTAs will then pretend to be users or other parts of the network and perform tests on distributed network functions to make sure they will deliver the low latency or other critical performance needs of the end user. Once the service is up and running, the entire network slice can be monitored to ensure end-to-end performance SLAs are continuously met.

5G designs must incorporate automated, virtualized assurance from the start

The dynamic, distributed nature of 5G makes traditional manual, “bolted-on” service assurance useless. By the time a problem is detected with a traditional approach, the 5G network configuration will already have changed. What’s more, traditional approaches simply don’t give visibility out to the network edge – a key need for 5G distributed architectures. But a network designed from the ground up with automated, virtualized service assurance can dynamically assure new network slices right out to the edge of the network. This approach also overcomes a key limitation of telemetry, providing visibility of the end-to-end performance of 5G services from the customer’s perspective.

5G needs automated assurance, but many providers are still working out their broader operational automation strategies. Key enablers of operational automation such as ONAP (Open Network Automation Platform) and cloud-native networks are highly complex, and most providers aren’t ready for comprehensive, network-wide deployments yet. So how do we automate 5G assurance when all the automation ingredients aren’t quite ready?

5G automation use cases for early deployments

We recommend getting started with a basic set of automation use cases that lay a foundation for broader automation initiatives, but don’t require all elements to be in place:

Service turn-up and activationAutomated validation of new services, network slices and network functions before they go live. To automate these workflows, virtualized service assurance systems must feature a cloud-native design that allows rapid integration with network management and back office systems. 5G VTAs need the ability to accurately mimic real-world network functions and devices, so they can test new functions, slices and services in advance of actual users. Applying this type of automation for 4G has been proven to accelerate turn-up and activation by a factor of ten for tier one providers. We expect a heightened importance in 5G since manual techniques are no longer viable.

Change managementAutomated validation of all network changes and upgrades to ensure new services and features meet performance targets without degrading the quality of existing services. In 5G, this will require VTAs that can surround a new or upgraded network function, emulate the rest of the network and verify performance before the switch to go live is flipped. One key goal of this automation is to avoid “micro” network or service outages where the provider is unaware an issue has occurred until a customer complains. When a tier one mobile provider applied this approach to 3G and 4G networks, undetected issues were reduced by 85 percent. Because one of the key selling points of 5G network slicing is unprecedented latency and speed performance, we expect providers to require even lower levels of undetected issues, particularly for critical applications.

Service quality monitoring and fault isolationThe ability to proactively and continuously test service quality and performance across the end-to-end network and automatically isolate issues to specific network functions or infrastructure. In 5G networks, we will see an explosion of applications that send traffic only at specific times or when certain conditions are met (e.g., alarm systems, IoT sensors, business applications, etc.). Virtualized service assurance systems need to be able to proactively test these services and underlying network slices to ensure they work when called upon. The systems also must be able to test any part of the network, including the radio interface, to rapidly isolate issues. Automation of these processes for 4G is already saving tier one providers millions of dollars annually in the form of reduced SLA penalties and operational troubleshooting expenses. With the increased complexity of 5G network slicing on top of legacy networks and new IoT and business use cases, we expect an even greater need for automation in this area.

5G is coming faster than most expected, and in this race, not a single corner can be cut—especially when it comes to network slicing. Next-gen mobile technologies will set the stage for operators to make bold promises to their customers. Service assurance is what will mean they can keep them.


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