Affirmed Pushes Network Slicing Ahead of 5G


By: R. Scott Raynovich

Mobile platform startup Affirmed Networks isn't waiting for advanced, high-bandwidth 5G mobile networks to exist before it deploys a virtualization technology known as "slicing" -- it says that operators want it now.

The Acton, Mass.-based startup announced today that its Virtual Slice Selection Function (vSSF) will enable virtual slicing across today's mobile networks. Slicing enables operates to segregate mobile bandwidth into different virtualized channels that can be used for separate functions, for example saving one channel for business applications and another for social networking activity or gaming. The technology will be important for carriers to manage costs and develop better service for higher revenue services.

The announcement is significant because many large mobile equipment suppliers, such as Ericsson and Nokia, have talked about network slicing primarily in the context of the arrival of 5G, the high-bandwidth networks expected to arrive in the 2019-2020 timeframe, despite the fact that the standards have not be finalized and some operators have sent out mixed messages about what 5G entails and when it will arrive.

Affirmed say that its operator customers, which is says now number 50, are asking for the technology now, so that they can more efficiently allocate bandwidth and resources on mobile networks.

"It's a real pain for operators right now," said Angela Whiteford, VP of marketing at Affirmed. "They can slice now with APNs (Access Point Names) — but it’s a blunt instrument. To edit an APN you have to touch 5 elements."

Using a virtual slicing technology such as that being offered by Affirmed, the idea is that operators can create separate lanes of traffic across the network and provision those with software, without having to configure individual elements using APNs, as Whiteford explained.

Affirmed vSSF enables the operate to allocate network resources by device type, service type, customer ID, location, time-of-day and other attributes, giving operators flexibility and control in assigning network resources assigned to specific services. Affirmed delivers this functionality in its virtual Evolved Packet Core (EPC) technology, which deploys mobile control and management via software -- a trend known in the industry as Network Functions Virtualization (NFV).

Network slicing so far has been promoted in the context of 5G, for example this 5G Americas whitepaper from 2016. It's also the source of endless streams of information panels, debates, and marketing hype, such as this Ericsson presentation of network slicing for robotics, in which it says it demonstrated "the world's first 5G network slicing solution with multiple slices on the same device in cooperation with NTT DOCOMO, INC."

Affirmed is one of the brighter startups in the operator equipment space, which is a tough market. The company was founded in 2010 and now has about 350 employees, according to the company. The company has raised a total of $163 million in funding.

I recently moderated a panel at the Rutberg Future Mobile conference, in which Affirmed Founder and CEO Hassan Ahmed described service-provider technology as being in the "dark ages."

"In the longer term the bigger driver is to create a bigger diversity of services," said Ahmed on that panel.

Some other comments from Ahmed from that event:

"The first driver for the adoption of [network functions virtualization] was cost. We are way past that. The good news in our market, we haven’t had to do any evangelizing. In our conversations with providers, the reason is no longer about cost. That’s table stakes. It’s now about flexibility and services for their customers. It’s about the data that the network generate and how to use it in a closed-loop fashion. That’s exactly what you couldn’t do in the old infrastructure."

The mobile equipment startup is now pushing the envelope and highlights the fact that too many of the incumbent mobile equipment providers may have been resting on their laurels and waiting for 5G. It will be interesting if this startups move to provide slicing technology in today's networks kicks competitors competitors including Cisco, Ericsson, and Nokia, into more action. It also calls out one of the industry's great questions: Why does everybody sitting around at conferences talking about when 5G arrives, rather than focus on today's challenges.

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