The race to deploy 5G has begun around the world and it promises to make data access faster and more efficient. But, as mobile network operators (MNOs) such as AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile scale these networks, how do they maintain the visibility needed to manage performance? Unfortunately, 5G is pushing line speeds toward 100G. As a result, network, application, and SIP monitoring solutions just aren’t prepared to capture the influx of the additional traffic (and upgrading those solutions is often cost prohibitive). This lack of visibility can lead to vital traffic being missed, which means sub-optimal performance from visibility tools, and ultimately the potential erosion of the user experience. Fortunately, there is simple solution to the problem of increased traffic due to 5G – using new network packet broker technology to load balance traffic across lower link speeds.

While 5G promises to make life easier for the end user, we’re only now beginning to see how stressful it will be for MNOs. Even ignoring the competition between MNOs, to be able to scale existing 4G networks and transition into 5G, while also remaining profitable, is a tough challenge for carriers. Which is why we’re seeing 5G in select cities and for certain purposes only. Much of the uncertainty around the commercialization of 5G is based on the complex nature of its architecture. As data leaves the radio to the network, it’s front-hauled to a Baseband Unit (BBU) then backhauled to wireline networks. There’s likely to be many more smaller cell sites in 5G architecture than its 4G predecessor. This small cell backhaul requires many more high-speed links connecting cell sites to the wireline network. All wireless data, emails, file transfers and other information generated by 5G devices will travel over these wireline links. These links need to be monitored and protected.

In order to ensure that demand is met for visibility into the growing volume of traffic and links, packets must be consolidated and mapped into manageable segments. This traffic can then be sent to the appropriate monitoring tools. It’s simply not practical or cost-effective to put monitoring tools on every link. Leveraging visibility solutions that are affordable, scalable and offer high port density can help MNOs efficiently manage network traffic for quality, availability and security as they roll out new 5G architectures.

However, when operators increase the speed of their network, they need to ensure that the monitoring solutions can keep up with these changes in network technology. This is where packet brokers (the unsung heroes of network infrastructure) can deliver the flexibility to manage existing monitoring tools, while also allowing for the introduction of new technology. As the bandwidth of MNO’s networks increases, the scalability of the packet broker becomes more and more important for cost-effective growth.

Network packet brokers need to be able to manage the traffic through to the monitoring tools in an efficient and effective manner. Imagine a single road, full of traffic all following each other at the same speed. A single accident, breakdown or malfunction would quickly lead to a blockage that lasts for hours. Now imagine you have the same amount of traffic, but rather than one big road, you have lots of little roads defined by the vehicle type. This way each road can be easily managed, and if something happens on one road it doesn’t disrupt everyone. This is the service that packet brokers provide to the MNO.

It all comes down to the capability of the packet broker to efficiently manage traffic to the monitoring tools. When existing roads are blocked, packet brokers can often provide alternative routes in order to keep traffic flowing and availability high. This efficiency can lead to not only lower network costs, but also a reduction in churn for the MNO’s.

What should network operators be thinking about when evaluating how their packet broker technology fits with their 5G transformation? Here are some tips to consider:

  • Don’t disregard the importance of a TAP. It acts as a fuse between the live network traffic and whatever monitoring tools being used. Network TAPs provide the intermediary function that delivers a fail-safe connection that protects live traffic. It connects to the packet broker, which then provides many advanced functions for brokering traffic between the TAP and the tools.  
  • Load balancing is the 100G workaround. Look for a packet broker that offers non-blocking Terabit throughput, which allows it to manage traffic from high speed 100Gbps ports and distribute it across lower speed tools connected to four 25Gbps output ports or, perhaps even, ten 10Gbps ports.
  • Given the size and scope of 5G commercial deployment, the intelligent redeployment of legacy tools can save carriers millions of dollars in CAPEX on new monitoring, performance and security tools. Here’s where the packet broker load balancing feature has another important benefit for network operators – it allows lower speed legacy tools to be adapted for continued use with 5G.  
  • Look for packet brokers that “scale out” not “up.” What does that mean? Historically one of the challenges faced by MNOs is that they may purchase a packet broker to meet their immediate requirements, only to find that rapid network growth means additional ports are required, which often leads to the need to purchase additional, larger packet brokers. When deploying 5G it’s vital to deploy solution that can scale quickly, without requiring hardware to be pulled for upgrades or swapped out with larger units. Look for solutions that simplify the upgrade path (for example, appliances that have a “mothership unit” with modular add-ons for additional port density).
  • Many of the advanced features such as load balancing, port mapping, and filtering are not a standard inclusion in today’s packet brokers. Be sure to identify solutions that deliver this functionality in the core product (and don’t require constant license updates).
  • Finally, be aware of the movement toward hybrid cloud environments. You will need to consider how you plan to deliver data to your tools in this case. You can deploy a physical packet broker on-premises, use a software-based version of a packet broker on a white-box server, or leverage the basic data-sharing settings in a cloud-based service. There are multiple ways to deploy a packet broker, but its key functions are what help your monitoring tools work more quickly and accurately.

Whether we see wide-scale rollout of 5G in 2019 or 2020, its success overall will likely be tied to it being rolled out in a profitable way by MNOs. They can do this by having maximum visibility across their network. This allows them to manage traffic efficiently by identifying problem areas and correcting anomalies quickly. Packet brokers play a vital role helping deliver this visibility.

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