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Storage and 5G: Big impacts likely as wide-area topologies evolve

Enterprise 5G will boost the need for storage generally. It will also push capacity needs closer to the edge and create new locations for processing and storage

5G will have a big impact on enterprise IT, and that includes storage. In fact, storage will be vital to upstream and downstream data in 5G deployments aimed at consumers or enterprise users.

5G holds the promise of a much more extensive digital transformation than so far – with huge bandwidth in an extensive geographical spread – where everyday processes are digitised and new frontiers in data emerge.

That could mean, for example, movies delivered to travellers waiting to board flights at airports, or passengers in self-driving/assisted vehicles. It could also mean smarter manufacturing processes – so-called Industry 4.0 – with the potential to intensively track processes and supply chains hitherto unthinkable.

Similar effects are likely in retail, agriculture, energy and remote healthcare. Almost any business process where there are sensors and data collection, or where data will be delivered to endpoints, will be enabled by 5G.

At the same time, artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) will allow enterprises to gain insight and value from all this data.

In short, the impacts on storage will be that will be more of it, to handle much increased (largely unstructured) data volumes, with bulk storage scattered in new network locations at the edge. Meanwhile, security and durability needs will increase in these locations, and performance requirements will dictate use of flash and NVMe.

What is 5G and what will it deliver?

5G is the latest generation in mobile network technologies. It’s a set of standards that brings big changes to how data travels wirelessly to and from endpoints.

Specifically, and simplifying greatly, it uses much higher frequencies and much shorter wavelengths than previous generations of mobile technology.

In terms of performance (the speed and amount of data it can potentially deliver), we’re talking a step change up from 4G. That could be as quick as 20Gbps, with latency of under 1 millisecond.

While those numbers won’t be achieved for a while, with full maturity three or four years away, the implication is that 5G will be the first mobile technology that’s suited to use in enterprise applications.

At the same time, the change at the level of radio technology brings implications for hardware infrastructure, including storage. That is because 5G’s millimetre wave delivery mechanism demands a much higher density of hardware infrastructure in terms of base stations, but also in local processing and storage capacity.

Meanwhile, some network economics work against each other. While to store and process data decreases in cost as data moves from the edge to the core, there are likely to be new locations for storage for specific use cases where smooth traffic flows and local processing – analytics, for example – are needed.

5G for the enterprise

5G is probably most visible as a mobile provider technology, but roll-out so far is really only in the UK’s larger cities. By the end of 2021, 5G only accounted for 3% of mobile data traffic, with 4G dominant with 91% of traffic.

Where 5G will make potentially tectonic changes is as a transport for enterprise applications, which could include internet of things-driven deployments in vehicles and retail systems, advances in manufacturing and distribution, and consumer-facing delivery of content.

But while 5G does potentially offer incredible mobile transmission rates, that just means new bottlenecks in as yet un-deployed parts of the topology because the increased volumes of data will not suddenly flow from core to edge unimpeded by network economics.

All of which means the private enterprise and public sector deployment of 5G will likely be very significant – and with its own characteristics – in terms of total data volumes and in its impacts on the architecture of that delivery. 

5G WAN architecture and storage impacts

Specifically, the contours of 5G-enabled wide-area networking architecture are likely to include:

Endpoints – These could be consumer-facing or with the enterprise, including industrial, vehicle, retail, personal, receiving and collecting and transmitting data. Endpoint storage capacities will increase and rapidity of performance with it.

Cell-site and street locations – To maximise throughput and minimise latency, some local processing and storage will be needed. Such locations will be where data is retained either as part of the delivery process or collection, governed by the fact that a direct route between core and edge may not always be desirable from an economics or performance perspective.

These could be sites from which local content is delivered, which could mean sizeable files being delivered to consumers. It could be as a collection point for personal health, retail or vehicle data, as a staging point to the core, an analytics location, or both. This is potentially a new location for storage that doesn’t currently exist and that for environmental and security reasons needs to be durable and encrypted.

Campus or “edge cloud” – In private 5G networks, there are likely to be campus- or location-level sites where data needs to be staged. Here we’re talking data staging again, up and down, but perhaps the environmental concerns are lower. This is more like a local cloud datacentre.

Cloud, the core of the network – The most economical place to store and process data.

The cloud core will be pretty much as now, topologically speaking. The major change will be an increase in storage capacity, of the required performance and for unstructured data, to service downstream demand and upstream data collection.

Storage for 5G

To sum up, storage for 5G will include:

  • Much increased capacity, at the core and edge.
  • High-performance for streaming and analytics.
  • Ability to deal with unstructured data.
  • Storage and processing in new locations, such as street cell-sites.
  • The “edge cloud” as a new location for storage and processing.
  • Possible form factor changes, as well as a need for environmental durability and security. 

Read more about 5G and infrastructure

  • How 5G could change cloud computing. The major cloud providers have embraced the push for 5G in the cloud with partnerships and offerings. Learn about the benefits and early limitations of 5G in the cloud.
  • An introductory overview of 5G network capabilities. In this Q&A, author William Stallings discusses 5G services, such as network slicing and QoS, and other topics covered in his book, 5G wireless: A comprehensive introduction.

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