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Private Networks for Innovation
Private Networks for Innovation - 7 Dec 2021
The Emergence of Higher Performance Real-Time Private Networking

Until quite recently, “real-time” deterministic networking existed only in unique domains where applications demanded extremely precise timing and sychronization: robotic manufacturing, machine vision, automotive infotainment, smart transportation, oil drilling, space exploration, and the like. The protocals were proprietary and technically difficult and were often fine-tuned specifically to mission and safety-critical applications and industrial machines.

Now with the development of 5G, Time Sensitive Ethernet and related networking standards, precision networking capabilities are addressing new mission and business-critical application opportunities across the industrial, transportation and infrastructure landscape.

Where are real time mission-critical networks heading? We believe it’s heading to many more places than most people imagine.

Why We Need Better Deterministic Networking

Real-time, high performance mission critical networks have existed at least since the 1970s, but until now they have been confined to the “walled gardens” of extremely esoteric, mission and safety-critical domains, such as robotic manufacturing and space exploration. Real-time networking in these safety-critical domains is important because in many human endeavors, a sluggish network connection is not merely an inconvenience, it’s a hazard. If a human worker’s hand suddenly enters the path of a gigantic robotic arm on an assembly line, the robot has to stop instantly—in “real-time”—to avoid harming the worker.

But what exactly does “real-time” actually mean? Does the robotic arm have to stop within 30 milliseconds of sensing the worker’s hand? 10 milliseconds? 10 microseconds? Engineers will tell you that the requirement is always “whatever your specific application needs it to be.” The robotic arm on an assembly line may have the latitude to stop considerably slower—measured in fractions of a second—than a robot used in remote open-heart surgery. In any event, there is always a drive to approach zero latency.

Real Time Mission Critical Networks Are Evolving Within the Patchwork of Overlapping Network Standards

Companies, researchers, and thought leaders are now zealously predicting powerful applications and use-cases, starting with industrial automation and autonomous vehicles and going to the moon from there. However, these visions demand a technology that’s much more agile and precise than anything we’ve seen before.

In the walled gardens of the past, proprietary solutions from players like Siemens and many of their industrial peers allowed signals to travel from the physical connection (usually Ethernet) up the stack to actual applications. Those protocols have worked well enough in the tightly controlled environments of the walled gardens. But they will not meet the requirements of networking in the open world, where real-time connectivity will be central to any number of innovations, including AI at the edge—which will itself control surgical as well as manufacturing robots, and a great deal else besides.

Higher Performance Networking for IoT and Smart Systems Applications

As IoT and Smart System technologies proliferate across every sector of the economy, the attendant wave of automation, data sharing and ubiquitous connectivity brings with it new challenges and risks. This is particularly true for mission critical industries, where the trend of Industry 4.0 creates both new opportunities and new vulnerabilities. Innovative networking technologies represent one facet of a broader strategy to optimize and secure critical operations and information systems.

Cellular 5G, or the 5th Generation mobile network, promises to change the game for wireless networking. Multi-gigabyte-per-second data speeds, ultra-low latency, greater reliability and increased overall network capacity, among other improvements, uniquely position 5G to support the data and connectivity requirements of many thousands of connected systems. Aside from increased performance, the architectural shift to virtualized network functions enables critical services delivery capabilities such as network slicing, which will allow for configured services aligned with customer-specific applications and use cases. This new services delivery model, in conjunction with flexible deployment strategies and enhanced cybersecurity practices, positions 5G as a flexible, reliable solution for the digital enterprise.

Within the fast-paced 5G evolution, a new generation of wireless communications developed specifically for challenging mission- and business-critical environments has emerged. Private LTE and 5G networks represent an evolution of cellular networking technology that allows enterprises to deploy dedicated networks that can cater to the most specific business and IoT connectivity needs. They also introduce an added layer of network security to bolster existing security management around mission critical assets.

This represents a significant break from the traditional carrier (cellular) telephony business model, which has consistently maintained control of the public network and its use. New mission critical and enterprise networks require a management and service delivery model that shifts control to vertically-oriented players, allowing them to deploy and leverage wireless through the use of innovative value-added applications.

The advent of private LTE and 5G networks is finally breaking the lock that wireless carriers have had on cellular networks in mission-critical Smart Systems applications. This development is opening up valuable new opportunities, but deployment and usage complexity persists.

The concept of network effect states that the value of a network grows exponentially with the number of nodes connected to it. Given the evolution of the many diverse types of networks for voice, video, sensors, machines, mobile radios and more, our society is at the cusp of a “perfect storm” of network connectivity. Along with the value we get from connectivity, however, grows the complexity of managing multiple networks, as well as the reliance of people and organizations on these networks functioning properly.

Private LTE and 5G Fill the Gap for Mission-Critical Applications

Private LTE and 5G offer the promise of managing diverse networks to do everything companies need simultaneously, even in operationally intensive environments—from low-power, low-bit-rate sensors to business-critical functions like control of autonomous vehicles, voice communication and high-performance video. This is possible because hybrid networks can be configured or “sliced” via software, which leads to much more pervasive network integration for all connected things.

While mobile network operators have invested vast sums of capital into research and development of new 5G networks, large-scale public rollout remains fragmented. Costly infrastructure, spectrum allocation and management complexity are all stalling 5G deployment and adoption. At the same time, the public carrier networks that will support mobile phones and Internet hotspots are not suitable for the performance and security needs of mission critical enterprise systems.

The key architects of this new Private LTE and 5G network ecosystem will need to understand how to create whole new markets by enabling three critical dimensions:

1) Platforms that address the needs of the many and diverse vertical industries

2) Broad product portfolios that include a wide variety of processing, connectivity, security and interoperability capabilities

3) Diverse alliances and partnerships to enable a wide range of capabilities, including network management, software development tools and vertical application solutions, among others

Predictions of wireless sensors enabling autonomous robots, conveyors, forklifts and much more have been in abundant supply for years now. Deployment, however, has been much slower than expected due to a wide range of technical constraints, conservative buyers faced with unclear ROI, and support limitations that have inhibited integrating devices in mission critical operations at the edge of networks.

Users and customers expect networked devices to be functional, ubiquitous, and easy-to-use. But the first two expectations run counter to the third. In order to achieve all three, diverse networks must be fully integrated, and that’s where the promise of wireless has yet to be fulfilled. Private 5G capabilities achieve this integration by virtualizing network functions that formerly relied on custom hardware—typically installed at the customer’s place of business—into software-defined functions that can run on standard COTS hardware anywhere on the network.

A prime example of this is “network slicing,” which isolates an end-to-end network tailored to the specific requirements of a specific application for a specified period of time. This allows a “slice” to align portions of the spectrum to device-specific performance requirements, such as priority lanes for critical devices, low latency/mission-critical operations, high bandwidth apps, and so on. When a given logical slice of the network is no longer needed, its underlying resources are released back into the available hardware-based pool. The full potential of network slicing has yet to be realized for enterprises, however, due to the complexity of the technology and its management requirements.

By contrast, the existing approaches have proven cumbersome and costly to apply, with many conflicting protocols, incomplete component-based solutions, and poor support. The challenges of using existing WLAN and WWAN networks like WiFi, public cellular, satellite, or even LPWAN for Smart Systems, include:

  • Lack of robust connectivity, creating variable throughput in instances of high network traffic
  • Increasing device density which creates significant strain on macro networks and WiFi, driving increased capital allocation for distributed antenna systems, additional access points, and carrier-based small cell deployments
  • Unreliable network handoff and the significant potential for interference with heavy metal and concrete structures and other equipment prevalent in commercial and mission critical environments, as well as radio interference with the broad array of ISM band traffic

To mitigate these issues, venue owners are forced to increase investment in costly infrastructure, integration, and management of WLAN networks

Traditional public cellular wide-area networks are supported by multiple macro-cell base stations. Private LTE/5G networks, by contrast, are set up like a traditional local area network, using dedicated small cells to support holistic coverage of a site or geographic area. Thus, private cellular networks can offer service-level agreements (SLAs) that guarantee bandwidth and latency for critical communications that are not possible with current Wi-Fi solutions. And because 5G will predominantly run on a licensed band, its service is interference-free, unlike Wi-Fi. For all these reasons, private networks enable greater coverage, flexibility and management to support evolving needs of all types of enterprises and institutions from industrial manufacturing, mining, and oil and gas, to warehouses, ports and smart cities.

Private 5G offers enhanced network performance with cost effective, scalable and secure network capabilities, ultimately improving coverage and capacity. These factors, along with the ever-increasing need for robust connectivity, are contributing to the evolution of network technology toward an ecosystem of shared operational data across human and device networks. Additional features and benefits include:

  • Quality of service and predictable latency, configurable in software
  • Seamless mobility to support service continuity between small cells and other networks
  • The ability to roam between private and public networks
  • Efficient co-existence with other spectrum users such as Wi-Fi
  • Higher performance in terms of capacity and throughput, yielding superior payloads than traditional WiFi, similar to WiFi 6
  • Fewer required nodes while supporting enhanced interference management capabilities, thereby reducing costs with a greater network footprint per access point

Ultimately, adoption of smart connected systems utilizing next generation wireless technologies is no longer a “luxury.” Private 5G is increasingly needed to meet the growing demands of the very competitive arenas that constitute industrial and mission critical domains.

Where to Now for Mission-Critical Networking?

As new higher performance network technology dovetails with other adjacent developments in general networking, it will help enable and accelerate ongoing efforts to bring higher bandwidths to more diverse devices. More importantly, the push to automate network configuration and management—often referred to as Software-Defined Networks (SDN)—and SDN’s ability to enable automated programmatic configuration and management of networks, will remove much of the complexity from using these networks in the industrial ecosystem, as well as in mission-critical commercial applications like autonomous robots and lift vehicles in warehouses within larger supply chains. As real-time networking spreads to non-industrial applications, deploying these capabilities will require, more than anything else, simplicity.

How far and how fast will these real time networks spread? Will wireless become more deterministic over time, and what are the potential impacts of 5G on real time networking?

How should developers of networking technologies think about wireless and real time networking?

To answer those questions, consider the networking that you and everybody else uses every day: wireless local area networking, or Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi “works fine” for your laptop and phone while you’re in your home or office, and if it’s configured correctly, it’s even reasonably secure. But if you think that Wi-Fi is “good, reliable networking,” you have another thing coming. Wi-Fi isn’t even slightly “deterministic”—i.e., there is no guarantee of performance at any level. 5G is a great step, but it’s not going to solve world hunger.

Where is real time and mission-critical network heading? We believe it’s heading to many more places than most people imagine. Of course, real-time deterministic networks will address safety-critical applications before they spread to mission-critical applications. But think about all the real-time problems that occur around us all day—getting accident victims to hospitals, processing multiple data feeds, enabling advertising and wayfinding capabilities for individual consumers, tailoring advertising on kiosks in brick-and-mortar retail locations, and many more applications to be sure. ◆

We will be discussing these mission-critical industrial use cases and more in our upcoming webinar: How Private Networks Drive Value in Industrial Manufacturing. Nokia and Verizon will join us to offer real-world insights and answer all your questions.

Replay our webinar with Nokia and Verizon: How Private Networks Drive Value in Industrial Manufacturing

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