by Steve Douglas, Head of Market Strategy, Spirent Communications
Mobile networks are no longer the exclusive domain of wireless carriers as private 5G wireless networks expand rapidly. Private wireless networks have been around for more than a decade using 4G LTE, but the dramatic technological advances provided by 5G make them more appealing than ever. For example, the management consultancy Analysis Mason forecasts the private market will reach $7.7 billion globally by 2027 (Table 1), driven by manufacturing, mining, oil and gas, transport and logistics, and various other applications.
However, the many technologies (e.g., 5G, 4G/LTE, Wi-Fi, etc.), deployment and commercial models, and vendors require a rethinking of Service Level Management (SLM) and the testing strategies required to achieve those new capabilities. Enterprises must enforce not only performance but availability and security as well.
Private 5G Defined
If you’re unfamiliar with private 5G wireless networks, here it is in a nutshell. Although they use the same technologies as their public counterparts and use the networks of the major wireless carriers (as well as unlicensed spectrum), they are owned and operated by a single organization exclusively for its use. This allows the network owner to control and tailor its configuration, management, security, and performance.
The owner can completely or partially isolate end-user devices from the wireless carrier’s public networks, which reduces threats by limiting exposure to public interfaces and personal data, intellectual property, or other sensitive information. A private 5G network can also be reconfigured to allow access at different priority levels to accommodate more important activities, while less critical activities can be deprioritized.
Private networks come in three variants (Figure 1). A network is “fully private” if the organization owns its spectrum and infrastructure, such as base stations. This option provides the greatest control and makes it possible to completely isolate network users from the public 4G LTE and 5G networks. The network can also be either “private-shared” or “hybrid-private.” All these configurations use “network slicing,” making it possible for the owner to have as many network partitions as they want.
The idea of partitioning some of the network for a dedicated purpose arrived with 5G. Wireless carriers have mostly offered this to business customers, and in particular for private networks, with the goal of allowing warehouses, factories or other office spaces to have dedicated spectrum to ensure better overall service, coverage, and performance. The wireless connection can be tuned to run faster or slower based on the organization’s need, which is particularly important for production facilities and other organizations requiring very low latency for robotics that demand real-time response to commands.
The Need for Service Level Management (SLM)
Service Level Management is defined as the process of negotiating Service Level Agreements (SLA) and ensuring that all their requirements are met. The basic components of service level management include service level requirements (SLRs) that customers need for an IT service (in this case, the private network) based on their expectations for the service and service level agreements (SLAs) based on the SLR and negotiated between the service provider and the network owner to guarantee a specific level of reliability.
SLM is important for private networks because it ensures that all its service management processes, operational level agreements, and underpinning contracts are appropriate for the agreed service levels. Information stipulated in an SLA must be measurable and expressed in clear language so it can be used at the corporate, service, and customer levels.
Service providers expect enterprises will pay a premium for the more stringent service levels required to support emerging use cases. Because vertical applications and diverse use cases drive the need for private networking, all private networks require highly agile and automated testing, assurance, and service-level management solutions.
In our recent customer engagements, Spirent has observed how private networking’s network resiliency requirements, complexity, and risk thresholds have introduced new dynamics. For example:
Both applications and network performance must be assured.
The highly disaggregated ecosystem and diverse technologies, deployment, and commercial models necessitate private networks to behave and perform as contracted and expected.
Automation and simplification of testing is essential for deploying and managing diverse private networks and to reduce operational costs. Extensive testing is required throughout the private networking lifecycle, from design and onboarding to deployment and operations.
Use Cases, Drivers, and Concerns
To assess key trends and requirements around private networking adoption, Spirent collaborated with STL Partners in a study of enterprises and suppliers. STL Partners surveyed 200 enterprises in four major markets to investigate demand and planned 5G use cases. The markets included those studied by Analysys Mason as well as financial services. STL Partners also conducted one-on-one interviews with enterprises.
In addition, STL Partners interviewed private networking suppliers in the ecosystem to understand supply-side perspectives. These included mobile network operators, cloud service providers, systems integrators, and network equipment and solution providers. While the STL findings focused on 5G, the identified enterprise business goals can be achieved through various private networking technologies, including 5G, Wi-Fi, and satellite. All four vertical markets emphasized the importance of 5G, with about 80% of respondents saying 5G is “important.”
The research also revealed that each market has its own set of planned use cases. For example, enterprises are pursuing individual journeys and innovating at individual paces. A need for real-time precision monitoring and control is driving manufacturing deployments. Energy and utility rollouts require real-time collaboration and control of remotely operated equipment. Transport and logistics applications demand advanced predictive equipment maintenance and efficient traffic management. Financial services require sub-1-ms latency to ensure transaction speed and real-time fraud detection.
Primary STL Partners Findings
The STL Partners survey identified technical and commercial drivers, challenges, SLA preferences, delivery ecosystems, and buying centers for private 5G networks. The research found various use cases, deployment, commercial, and operational models, even within specific vertical markets. The technologies required to support the use cases are also quite broad. STL Partners identified the following primary findings during its research:
- Key drivers are network security, coverage, and reliability (resiliency).
- Companies will pay a premium for more stringent SLAs, though demands are still nascent.
- Most enterprises seek to deploy hybrid networks. However, they lack the technical expertise to deploy, maintain, and manage them.
- Global systems integrators (GSIs) and cloud service providers are well-positioned to be the lead private network suppliers because they manage complex brownfield use cases. Cloud service providers have IT buyer relationships, security, and IT/OT expertise are important factors when enterprises choose partners.
- Enterprises are trying to shift from Capex to Opex models, as private networks are typically financed with IT budgets.
The range of private networking needs, requirements, and objectives for enterprises in different markets to achieve business outcomes vary. Understanding these priorities is key to successfully realizing each private networking solution as planned. Enterprises want more than just enhanced, customized network quality of service and performance; they demand enhanced security and network resiliency. This is not surprising because network performance degradation will likely disrupt business continuity since private networks directly drive operational and business outcomes. So, it is even more critical for them to adopt private networking SLM to ensure service levels are being achieved.
Private networks must support diverse applications, environments, technologies, and commercial models, which drive up complexity. Hybrid private networks, which include equipment on and off premises, are common. Depending on the coverage, spectrum availability, and technical requirements, they may include diverse wireless technologies, from 4G LTE to 5G, Wi-Fi, and satellite, multiple domains (wireless access, wireline transport, etc.), multiple vendors, and multiple service providers.
SLM is especially critical because of the disaggregated ecosystem of multiple suppliers and offerings tailored to specific use cases. Multi-domain/vendor/technology problem isolation and remediation become very complex. Regardless of which ecosystem constituent is “prime,” enterprises require robust SLM to verify that each partner, whether an equipment vendor or service provider, is delivering the service levels that have been contracted to support application requirements.
Many deployment and operational challenges and risks result from the diversity and complexity of private networking. The enterprise and its partners must carefully manage these.
Private Networks and SLM
For private networks, effective implementation of SLM is essential because it helps ensure the desired business outcomes that are directly impacted by network performance. For example, network failures and business continuity challenges impact manufacturing automation use cases. If latency is too high, network capacity is constrained by congestion, and security compromises overall performance.
SLM priorities include real-time, autonomous control is directly affected by factors like network latency and security and application security is impacted by network/MEC security compromises. In addition, production volume and rates are affected by constrained network throughput, and applications (i.e., Salesforce, SAP, MRP, ERP) availability can be impacted by network performance degradation or congestion when the cloud or data center is inaccessible.
Comprehensive Testing is Critical
To ensure success, rigorous testing is essential at every step of the private networking lifecycle, from network design and validation testing to field and acceptance testing and live network operations and maintenance. The STL Partners survey revealed that the primary challenges when selecting and deploying private networks are efficient deployment and scalability of the infrastructure, achieving adequate security, and validating network changes as expected.
For successful private networking, test plans should validate that each product and domain behaves as expected and mitigate the risk caused by the diversity of technologies, suppliers, applications, and use cases. They must also ensure the private network achieves each use case’s performance and availability levels and continuously exercise security and privacy functions to ensure they behave as expected.
Just as one architecture does not fit all enterprises, one testing approach does not fit all use cases. This makes it essential for service providers to use agile test platforms that can be quickly customized to specific enterprise private network environments and service-level agreements (Figure 2). Automated and continuous testing is needed to validate upgrades before they are placed into the live network and to provide continuous security and performance assessments. Automated network lifecycle testing and service assurance functions rapidly expose problems while keeping operational costs to a minimum.
5G private networks offer new ways of working and changes to cost structures and are emerging as a viable alternative to traditional enterprise networks, offering a wide range of benefits. However, the disaggregated private networking ecosystem, wide range of domains and technologies, and diversity of use cases result in much greater complexity than traditional networks.
Service providers pursuing this opportunity will need unprecedented automation and flexible service level management and testing to address the distinct needs of enterprise applications and use cases. Multi-everything (e.g., domain, technology, vendor, and services) requires a neutral, trusted partner to validate user experiences and ensure that each supplier delivers as expected.
These partner organizations can reduce the risk of private network proposition through extensive testing, validation, assurance, and automation to validate user experience levels and ensure each supplier delivers as expected.