Not Just Another G: What Exactly is 5G?

We have all heard about 5G, but what exactly is it?

5G is simply defined as the fifth generation networks. It’s not just another G. Yes, this wireless system upgrade delivers data to our mobile phones at remarkably fast speeds. But while 5G will indeed make our smartphones faster, it will also play a large role in the development of other kinds of wireless technology including but not limited to artificial intelligence, drones, IoT, TeleHealth, Autonomous vehicles etc. Uber is considered the ‘app that 4G built’ so what will 5G build? The possibilities are endless with so many use cases.

The raw speed of 5G comes from using parts of the radio spectrum that have larger capacities to encode data, and thus provide higher capacities. This part of the spectrum also enables larger bandwidth to the end-user device, like a cell phone. The distance limits of this new mmWave spectrum is leading to densification of cells i.e. deploying lots of small cells closer to the end users. It enables more users, lower latency and expanded coverage. This increase in number of wireless cells is leading to next generation wireless radio infrastructure.

In current 4G deployments, radios are installed at the top of the tower closer to the antenna and a separate digital Base Band Unit (BBU) is located at the base of the cell tower. The BBUs are purpose-built embedded platforms containing DSPs, FPGAs and specialized ASICs to process the radio traffic and send ethernet traffic upstream. With densification of cells, it is becoming cost prohibitive to have a BBU per cell location. Instead it is leading to a new architecture where in most of BBU processing is centralized serving a larger number of cells. This is called C-RAN (Centralized RAN). It does minimal processing of radio signal at each cell site to reduce the amount of data that needs to be sent to the centralized C-RAN unit. The C-RAN unit can be 20km away from the cell sites. This leads to intelligent ways of identifying distribution of processing between the cell site and the centralized C-RAN location. 3GPP industry standards group and ITU (International Telecommunications Union) are working on standards specification for this processing split between cell site locations and C-RAN location.

Centralized processing of radio signal enables easier transition of radio signal across cell sites as users move from one cell site to another cell site, called Co-ordinated Multi-point (CoMP). This signal hand off between cell sites becomes more important with densification of cells. The centralization of radio processing enables leveraging standard x86 server architecture as compute nodes. Any specialized processing is done using emerging hardware accelerators (FPGAs, SMART-NICs) that plug-in to standard servers. This is leading to hybrid architecture containing standard x86 server coupled with hardware accelerators (FPGAs and SMART-NICs) for high speed processing of network traffic and enabling features like network slicing.

Use of standard server-based platforms for C-RAN is also creating opportunities to build a service delivery platform called MEC (Multi-Access Edge Compute) where 3rd party service providers and consumers can host their applications. Multiple industry collaborative efforts are underway to standardize the MEC architecture and ensure inter-operability (see ETSI MEC). Applications that traditionally ran in a backend cloud or data center can now move to the MEC platform to be closer to network’s edge. The centralized Telco Core services (called EPC or Evolved Packet Core) will also move to the edge, leading to a distributed virtual EPC at the Network Edge.

There are infinite possibilities from Edge to Core to Cloud.

Starting from a solid foundation of industry-leading server, storage, networking, and platform software, Dell Technologies is spearheading the way in this emerging mobility service architecture of 5G. With the emergence of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, we are also delivering platforms that enable anywhere from 1 to 10 high power FPGAs and GPUs in  server platforms. We are building new components, enabling new software and hardware layers in the market faster and cheaper than the competition, and building deep relationships with the service provider ecosystem that focuses on the true goal of 5G – to give end users what they want.

At Dell Technologies we are thrilled to become a leader in the 5G space and help networks transform. Check back in July for the second installment of our ‘Not Just Another G’ series.