The network platform is characterized by meeting any application needs

The future network will evolve into a platform that is characterized by its capability to meet any application needs and offers a wide range of capabilities

The rapidly evolving digital transformation has given rise to a new paradigm across a wide range of industries. This includes an ever-increasing number of highly successful digital companies that do not deploy their own infrastructure.

The ability to support other industries is a major challenge for communication service providers going forward. Different needs apply to different industries as they go digital. Entirely new business models will be possible through advances in connectivity, software, mobile devices and cloud. The term user will be seen from the widest context, it can be anything from a person to an actuator, a sensor, a data center, a content creator, etc.

The future network will need to evolve into a network platform that is characterized by its capability to instantaneously meet any application needs and offers a wide range of capabilities to all its users. It provides a seamless universal connectivity fabric with almost unlimited, scalable and affordable distributed compute and storage. Sensors and actuators can be attached anywhere throughout the network. Latency can be optimized by interacting with the control of access, compute and storage. Embedded into the platform is a distributed intelligence that supports users with insights and reasoning.

The addressability and reachability capabilities make it possible to connect anyone or anything regardless of location and time. Together with the inherent security and availability, the network platform can also meet communication needs relating to secure identification of users and networks. It also provides the scalability to automatically adapt to the exact needs of individual users and applications.

The network platform offering is consumed through an automated digital marketplace. Network services and data are available through consistent and open business interfaces for the applications (APIs). Data, such as location, connectivity conditions and user behavior, can be made available from the network platform.

The vision is of a future network, built on hardware controlled by software, that requires very little, if any, manual intervention. Most task will happen automatically supported by artificial intelligence that is guided via policies that describe the business priorities, and the control software finds the optimal way of achieving it. Technology evolution will take small steps towards this future vision and there are several challenges on the way.

The figure below is an illustration of a model of the future network:

Figure 1 High-Level Network Architecture

Figure 1 High-Level Network Architecture

Starting from the bottom, in order to lower manual intervention, software defined networking (SDN) is used to manage the transport networks, optical switching will reduce the need for higher layer networking in the access networks and, in parts of the network, white boxes are slowly changing the routing and switching hardware. During the transformation, there will be a mixture of new and legacy equipment, so initially much of the new intelligence will be located to the management part of the network.

The cloud has come to transform how networks, network functions and applications are built and managed. From the initial centralization of the cloud infrastructure there is now an increasing focus on solving the performance challenges through distribution of workloads across the network to where it makes sense to have them. The distributed cloud will span across the network and support many types of workloads. It is important to have a clear separation of concern regarding managing the basic infrastructure and managing the workloads running on top of it. It is however quite possible to create a homogeneous exposure of both workload APIs and cloud resources to other tenants. The data pipeline supports all network domains with collection, storage, distribution and processing of data.

When considering the access-mobility-network applications layer, many of the earlier vertically integrated function are now being transferred to virtual machines and containers, but during a long transition period these will exist in parallel. Moving to 5G will have different migration paths, either based on Evolved Packet Core (EPC) or based on a newly defined core network architecture, 5G Core. New functions will in a flexible way be deployed where it is optimal from commercial, performance or other reasons and the future network will enable this. There will however be parts that for a foreseeable future will remain as native/vertically integrated deployments, e.g. the antenna near parts of the radio functions.  Network slicing will be used to realize specific and dedicated end-to-end services to build logical networks on top of a common and shared infrastructure.

The management and orchestration will be where much of the network intelligence will initially evolve towards the zero-touch vision. The network capabilities will be exposed in an efficient and automatic way to other industries. The exposure and monetization will have to attract developers, tenants and the service providers and all will have to be able to innovate fast and make money. The architecture needs to provide simple and stable API that makes the whole network appear like a programmable entity. For the management and orchestration part, ONAP is now gaining momentum and will influence the evolution of this layer.

The future networks will utilize artificial intelligence to become a fully autonomous network with closed loop control and policy governance for dynamic behavior. The automation loops will exist on all levels of the network, from the extremely fast radio loops where the analytical data gets old in milliseconds to the cross-domain optimizations that predicts network traffic and load over long time periods.

Energy efficiency will be vital in the networks of the future. The closed loop automatic optimization on the different layers of the architecture will not only be used for performance but also to save energy and cloud resources. Predictive analytics will forecast the need and take measures automatically to move workloads or power up and scale out when needed.

The open and cloudified networks will be more exposed to threats than the closed systems of today. Open source as well as the exposure of the network resources to multiple industries will open for attacks and there is a need for an even higher degree of security considerations. The componentization and horizontalization of network functions and infrastructure resources moves part of the security handling from product characteristics to deployment choices. The importance of analytics and artificial intelligence will increase for both detection and automatic remedy of security incidents.

All-in-all; Networks are moving towards a hardware agnostic and software defined architecture that will support full automation, short TTM and exposure of the network as a platform for innovation.