When will the 5G hype become reality, and what impact will it have on the data centre?

Written by Phil Alsop, Editor, DCS Europe Published 2019-03-28 09:36:14

The good news is that, where 4G networks have tended to underwhelm in terms of what they have delivered, there seems to be serious momentum behind the development of 5G networks and the promise of some game-changing services and applications to be run across them.

First up – why all the hype? Well, 5G networks promise speeds up to ten times faster than 4G – speeds of up to 10 Gb/s. Hand in hand with this faster speed comes lower latency – one millisecond or less, as opposed to 40 to 50 milliseconds with 4G. 5G networks also have greater capacity than comparable 4G infrastructure – as much as 1000 times more. Just for good measure, 5G networks are also promised to be more reliable. Easy to be bamboozled by speeds and feeds, maybe, so what does 5G actually mean for the user?

Here’s one simple example: right now, using a 4G network, it takes something like 10 minutes to download an HD movie. Using a 5G network, this download time shrinks to 10 seconds. Yes, just 10 seconds.

Time-wise, although the big mobile telcos are already making plenty of noise about 5G, the reality is that it’s going to take two to three years at least before this mobile networking technology gains what we might call ‘critical mass’. Yes, there are already trials out there, and numerous vendors have impressive roadmaps as to what they will be doing. However, building out 5G networks that are reliable and which offer the necessary bandwidth and performance quality to make an enterprise infrastructure step-change, will take time.

Gartner research suggests that two-thirds of organisations have plans to deploy 5G by as early as 2020, with the Internet of Things (IoT) communications and video being the most popular, immediate use cases. There’s on slight snag, as Sylvain Fabre, senior research director at Gartner, explains: “One major issue that 5G users face is the lack of readiness of communications service providers. Their 5G networks are not available or capable enough for the needs of organisations.”

As Gartner details, that’s because, to fully exploit 5G, a new network topology is required – including new network elements such as edge computing, core network slicing and radio network densification.

So, the message for end users is, do be excited at the prospect of 5G, but don’t expect an overnight transition from 4G networks. Pervasive 5G implementation is going to take time.

5G - a twofold impact on the data centre

In terms of 5G’s likely impact on the data centre, well, there are at least two obvious phases to such impact. Most immediately, as network and telco providers of all shapes and sizes roll-out their 5G infrastructure, end users are going to need to re-think their data centre strategies. There’s a lot of noise about edge data centres right now – micro facilities dotted all over the place to send and receive data close to the end user. Undoubtedly, there’s a place for these.

More importantly, end users need to re-evaluate the size and location of their entire data centre infrastructure. The likelihood is that a hybrid infrastructure - both in terms of in-house and colocation outsourcing, and centralised, regional and more local facilities – will be the result of such an undertaking. Strategic locations – those best positioned to serve the needs of an organisation and its customers – will be vital. For example, locations with large, dense populations (with London being the most obvious example) are going to be best served by a data centre located close by (inside or adjacent to the M25 in our London example).

Returning back to our HD video example, the emergence of 5G networks is going to change end user expectations when it comes to the speed and quality of content delivery. Data centres - edge, regional and more centralised facilities - are going to have to adapt in order to meet these expectations.

And then, of course, there’s the whole world of IoT which 5G networks enable. Any and every moving or stationary object, or, indeed, human being can be fitted with one or more sensors which are constantly measuring and monitoring a variety of performance parameters. Some of this information will need to be processed in real-time, some of it can be processed in a couple of hours or so, and some of the data can be returned to a centralised data centre for more detailed analysis to help with longer term planning. And, of course, there’s going to be something of a data explosion thanks to the IoT revolution. Data centres, wherever they are located, will need to be able to process every bigger data sets at ever faster speeds if they are not to become bottlenecks.

Of course, the ultimate, flexible network, would be entirely wireless. That’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Yet, whenever existing, hard-wired networks are due an upgrade or to be replaced entirely, there may well be more and more cases where the idea of wireless networks offers significant benefits. Imagine a data centre itself where there were no wires at all!

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