The four strategic investments needed to modernise 4G/LTE networks for 5G success

Adrian Taylor, Regional VP of Sales for A10 Networks discusses the need for strategic investments if we are to make the most of 5G

With almost non-existent latency and speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second, 5G promises to create an unprecedented number of connections and usher in a new generation of truly revolutionary technologies.

While the move from 4G/LTE to 5G is more of an ongoing journey than a set destination, that doesn’t mean that mobile operators who are slow to get on board won’t be left behind by early adopters.

In the coming years, 5G will no longer be optional. Knowing that, it stands to follow that mobile operators who don’t actively plan their 5G migration will soon face a serious disadvantage. By modernising their 4G/LTE network today, mobile operators can gain a competitive edge in a 5G-connected future.

Moving toward 5G doesn’t come at the expense of current 4G/LTE profits, though. By making any of the following four strategic investments, operators can prepare for a smooth 5G transition while also reaping short-term benefits.
Upgrade Network Management

There’s simply no reason for network operators not to invest in upgrading their network management tools. Given that this investment comes with immediate payoffs and also paves the way for fixed-mobile convergence in the future, it can be a boon to all operators.

Namely, operators should focus on management and orchestration (MANO), an NFV framework designed for managing and orchestrating network functions and software components.

MANO facilitates the deployment and connection of services as they are decoupled from dedicated physical devices and moved to virtual machines. Because network components can be deployed extremely quickly in virtual environments, MANO can reduce operational expenses by managing and orchestrating both resources and virtual network functions.

MANO works with both physical network functions (PNFs) and VNFs, which will be the case during the transition period. Network operators should consider this upgrade sooner rather than later to reap the OpEx benefits of more efficient management and orchestration.
Consolidate Network Functions

Today typical Gi-LAN consists of an intricate mix of physical appliances which each perform their own individual network function. By consolidating some of those functions into a single converged firewall, operators can not only add value to their current 4G/LTE networks but also prepare for a successful 5G transition.

Before going forward with Gi-LAN consolidation, it’s critical to first select a solution that can be deployed in multiple form factors. This way, the physical functions can one day be transferred to bare metal hardware or virtual form factors.

Virtual machines as high as 100 Gbps are available today and are going much higher soon. Multiple vendors are working on both integrated and validated solutions.
Boost Security at Key Protection Points

While it’s easy to focus on the benefits of 5G, it’s also important to recognise its risks: With lower latency, faster data speeds and more connections also comes quicker, larger and more aggressive DDoS attacks than ever before.

After all, 5G won’t just enable smartphones to make stronger, faster connections — it will do the same for IoT devices like cameras, sensors, thermostats, and even cars, all of which can provide hackers with potential entry points to the network.

Given that Gartner predicts there will be 20 billion connected IoT devices by 2020, it’s clear that malicious actors will have no shortage of weak points to choose from (click here to learn more about the connection between IoT and DDoS).

By increasing security at vital protection points, operators can not only defend their current 4G/LTE network against attacks but also ensure that their future 5G network is as secure as possible, too.

The necessary security upgrades can be distilled into four broad categories: Firewalls, RAN security, DDoS protection and 5G application layer security.

• CGNAT can only provide security for specific scenarios. It was not designed as a firewall or security function, and some protocols are not serviced by CGNAT at all.

• While the concept of GTP threats has long been acknowledged, recent incidents show that they are becoming a reality. GTP attacks continue to increase in frequency and devastation, requiring network operators to deploy countermeasures such as firewalls at the GRX/IPX interface.

• Control plane security is equally important as user plane security because a successful attack on the control plane can bring down the entire network.

Signalling storms can also occur on the control plane, often due to a faulty stack. Plus, some narrow-band IoT protocols use the control plane exclusively, which only increases the risk of DDoS attacks.
Virtualise Network Functions

By virtualising network functions from the core to the edge, operators can monetise their investments in current 4G/LTE infrastructure while simultaneously modernising their network in time for the arrival of 5G.

To accomplish this, software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualisation (NFV) are both key. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, however: Each form factor must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

For example, PNFs are often ideal for use cases that require higher-scale, consistent latency and low costs, such as enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB). By contrast, VNFs are usually a better choice for use cases that require both flexibility and portability, such as MEC.

The specific requirements of individual use cases and network architectures must be considered when assessing which functions to virtualise.

Different types of network adapters and kernel stacks often have specific latency and performance characteristics that must be supported by the VM. Operators must also understand the entire ecosystem to ensure virtualised functions are performing at peak levels.

While the transition to 5G is sure to be a long one, it doesn’t necessarily have to be messy. Simply by planning ahead, smart operators can make the most of their current network while also preparing to win in the world of 5G.