Security needs to be core to the future of mobile networks (Reader Forum)

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The coming of 5G networks represents a major advancement for the digital age—and it is coming rapidly. As of August 2020, 92 commercial 5G networks have been launched in 38 countries, according to the GSMA. Mobile data traffic is expected to quadruple by 2024, with 25 percent of that traffic running over 5G networks, making 5G the most rapidly deployed of any generation of mobile networks.

With its massive increase in traffic throughput, dramatic reduction in latency, greater coverage and increased flexibility in delivering new services and meeting the needs of consumers and businesses, 5G is a game changer. It promises to unleash a new wave of innovation, applications and use cases, along with greater business opportunities for carriers across enhanced mobile broadband, (eMBB), fixed wireless access (FWA), massive Internet of Things (IoT) and critical IoT uses like connected cars, smart cities and Industry 4.0.

The early deployments of these networks have been designed with non-standalone (NSA) 5G. They leverage the evolved packet core of 4G LTE networks and will be used primarily for enhanced mobile broadband. The bigger revolution will take place with the implementation of standalone (SA) 5G, with its cloud-native network core and capacity to deliver even greater performance, ultra-low latency, network slicing, and far more flexibility and speed in delivering new services. Indeed, standalone 5G is essential to the most advanced IoT and industrial use cases anticipated under 5G.

Standalone 5G is already here with more coming soon. In August, T-Mobile announced the launchof its 5G standalone. In fact, some 47 mobile carriers in 24 countries already have begun investing in public 5G standalone networks in trials, planned or actual deployments. At least 12 operators are expected to launch 5G SA during 2020.

Given the speed of network transformation and the requirement for a superior subscriber experience, service providers should be thinking about replacing legacy network cores. The best approach will combine evolved packet core (EPC) and standalone 5G core network functions into a common cloud-native platform that meets the needs of an efficient, flexible and programmable network. This approach leverage existing 4G investments, offer dramatic TCO savings, and provide the service-based core infrastructure with cloud-native network functions for standalone 5G when carriers are ready. 

As operators roll out their 5G networks, they also need to rethink their approach to security. As we all know, cyber threats and attacks are on steep rise. DDoS attacks increased more that 540 percent between the fourth quarter of 2019 and first quarter of 2020. IoT devices were commandeered by cyber criminals to perpetrate most of those attacks.

5G, of course, will bring a tremendous rise in network traffic, along with explosive growth in IoT devices. Next-generation IoT devices will have the capacity to create up to 20 gigabits of traffic per second. While this growth and acceleration represent a major advance for the digital age, they also mean the volume and size of cyber threats will increase, as well.

Just as worrying to operators, advanced and highly critical IoT uses cases, such as connected cars and smart cities and factories, will raise new levels of security concernand vulnerability. In fact, a survey of operators conducted by the Business Performance Innovation (BPI) Network and sponsored by A10 Networks found that 98 percent of respondents believe that security is a greater concern for carriers with the advent of 5G.

Today’s security landscape is deeply fragmented, with companies using as many as 70 different vendors. Some of these security solutions require their own dedicated network functions to operate. The result is a complex security environment that is increasingly difficult and costly to manage. In addition, dedicated security solutions increase latency, diminishing one of the critical advantages of 5G networks.

What is needed now is a new approach to security—one that eliminates security fragmentation, reduces TCO, maintains low latency and provides greater security for both the network and its users. Mobile carriers could benefit greatly by adopting a consolidated security firewall embedded in the user plane at the core of their network. This tightly integrated, cloud-native security architecture would reduce latency, while monitoring all packets flowing through the network and providing millisecond mitigation of threats and protection of 5G service to the edge.

Next-generation mobile security will need to be highly automated and leverage advanced machine learning to reduce the need for human intervention and keep pace with the increasing traffic and cyber threats facing mobile networks. By consolidating user plane security and other advanced security functions in a single cloud-native network function, carriers will be able to proactively and cost-effectively protect against and manage internet, roaming and access threats and effectively address security in mobile broadband and IoT-to-the-edge use cases.

A consolidated, cloud-native security function is more compatible with the design and intent of the next-generation 5G core and its software-defined, microservices-based architecture. From reducing OpEx, CapEx and operational inefficiencies, to being faster to deploy and support new services and business opportunities, integrated core security will be the best approach for 5G.

The future of 5G networking begins at the core. Service providers should get started now and choose a dual network core that both supports existing investments and fully meets the promise and requirements of their future standalone 5G networks. As they do so, integrating a consolidated, cloud-native solution into the core that combines data plane security with other advanced security capabilities will be a smart approach.

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