The 5G build-out happening now has been described by VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger as “potentially the largest capital build-out of the remainder of our careers.” But more than that, it has the potential to touch our daily lives in all sorts of exciting ways—many of which we haven’t even dreamed up yet—with the rise of new 5G open source projects.
Believe it or not, it was only 10 years ago when we got the first iPhone that was truly useful on mobile networks (the iPhone 3G). Since then, mobile connectivity has become essential to many of us. As cloud adoption grew and network speeds increased, the capabilities of our mobile devices grew exponentially. We can now access a technology platform just as easily from our mobile devices as we can access applications from our desktop computers. In fact, 2016 mobile internet usage surpassed desktop browser access, and the cost per megabyte of data has dropped by 99.7% since 2006.
Just as 3G changed what was possible then, 5G sets the stage for the next big evolution of mobile networks, and it has some high bars to meet. We’re aiming for speeds up to 10Gbps, latency dropping from 50ms down to 1ms, up to a million connections per square kilometer, and costs that continue to be driven down.
We’ll get there in part by expanding the networks to many more edges—both classic big towers and small cells—and by expanding compute capacity out from the central data centers to many of those edges. Edge computing enables a lot of processing that used to happen many miles away to happen much closer to where people are located. By hosting servers in cell towers—which is made possible by software-defined networking functions—we reduce the need to transfer data to the cloud, cutting the latency present in various applications as well as cloud computing costs.
A ubiquitous network with these characteristics will bring many benefits, including:
- Control of critical systems in real-time from afar
- Truly useful and immersive AR and VR solutions
- Transportation innovation
- Entire fleets of systems managing themselves without us by communicating with each other
- Internet of Things smart devices
- Replacement of Wi-Fi networks
- Access to high definition media anywhere.
All of this is important because the way we use the network is changing fast, too. The computer you use every day is no longer just your laptop, tablet or phone. Your car has powerful computing capabilities and is a mobile computer on wheels (I literally have a service appointment for mine next week due to a software bug!). Airplanes are basically connected computers with wings, with tons of connected computers inside showing movies to passengers, connected to even more computers on the ground keeping them safe and on time. Most of us consume our entertainment through connected devices. Even our power grid can increasingly be thought of as a network of computers that also happens to transmit electricity. All of these connected technologies will be touched by new generations of telco networks.
Much of the 5G buildout’s promise rests on a fundamental shift from special-purpose hardware to software-defined infrastructure. To quote Pat again (hi boss!) on the subject of projects pushing forward 5G: “We’ll have two types: those built on NFV, and those that won’t work.” The shift to software and virtualization is already moving the needle on flexibility, speeding up deployment and delivery while enhancing both quality and manageability. And it’s all being built with an amazing array of open source technologies!
Much of the technology that we’ve used to pool together resources into clouds under common APIs is now moving out to widely dispersed telco networks that arc across continents. Even if you may not be personally bringing up infrastructure with OpenStack, orchestrating nationwide deployments with ONAP or running edge sites with Kubernetes, you’ll soon be taking advantage of those and many more open source projects without even knowing it. That’s because network service providers are taking an ecosystem approach so their technologies work on the same sort of underlying platform. That enables a consistent experience across all different footprints, which is important as cloud native applications move from the cloud to edge over time. In many ways, then, we owe much of the eventual impact of 5G to the open source community.
Yet as amazing as the 5G buildout is shaping up to be, it’s my belief that all of this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s the thing: if we do this right, the biggest changes are yet to come. If we build it with the right mix of software; if we successfully deploy in virtual network functions; if we can keep a lid on architecture complexity, it’s my belief that we may see the next generation of mobile networks arrive a lot sooner than the 10-year cycles we’re used to seeing. They might not even arrive as a big-bang event—in many cases, new functionality that we can use every day might simply land as a patch or as a part of typical lifecycle management operations.
“Carrier grade” is the new bar for software. At VMware, we believe that “Open Wins When Open Works. Open Works Here.” And 5G open source projects have proven themselves to work. It will be fascinating to watch open networking develop and power 5G’s deployment and future.