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5G, cloud embolden network outsourcing and ultimate virtualization

Could the cloud, 5G, small cell technology, BYOD and carrier-provisioned networks completely virtualize network infrastructure? Well, maybe not today.

A few years ago, I proposed the idea of extreme virtualization, or EV, as a way to reduce organizational IT infrastructure to just the essentials, such as access points, Ethernet switches and a WAN interface to connect to the internet. Everything else -- from servers to storage to management -- is in the cloud.

However, some technical roadblocks impede this vision. Most notably, the connection performance to the internet service provider (ISP) could be a hindrance. Still, I think this level of network outsourcing and virtualization could be the future of IT in many organizations -- even for some very large organizations.

Nowadays, the cloud provides reliability, scalability, cost advantages and other networking benefits. As WAN speeds continue to improve, extreme virtualization seems certain within a decade or so.

Extending extreme virtualization even further, I envision something called ultimate virtualization, or UV, which involves no IT infrastructure at all. That's right -- no organizational LAN, wireless or otherwise, and no premises-based IT facilities whatsoever, beyond what users bring to work.

In this possibility, we would use the cloud as we would with extreme virtualization, with processing, storage and applications on the server side of the link. And we'd eliminate the LAN as we know it today. And what replaces the LAN? Carrier-provisioned networks based on 5G directly serving BYOD.

Network outsourcing shifts cost structure

Ultimate virtualization is not as nutty as it sounds at first glance. 5G is all about small cells and gigabit-class throughput, which pretty much defines the contemporary 802.11ax-based wireless LAN (WLAN).

So, suppose an organization contracts with a carrier to place small cells in or around its facilities in whatever combination makes sense to provision sufficient capacity. The arrangement of cells would need to accommodate per-user throughput with the minimal latency required to keep users, their devices and applications productive.

So, we replace one gigabit-class wireless network with another. But what's really important is we convert the capital expense to provision the WLAN into operating expense by outsourcing networking and communications to a carrier or other managed service provider (MSP). Essentially, we're following an existing IT trend -- outsourcing -- and applying it to the organizational network.

As crazy as network outsourcing might sound, it's hard to think of any showstopper objections to impede this vision.

Wireless carriers as managed service providers

Many organizations might survive with no in-building infrastructure. Instead, they'd use outdoor-only carrier cells, both 5G and Wi-Fi.

In this virtualized setup, the WAN connection to the ISP could also be wireless, as we expect millimeter wave point-to-point and mesh connections to reach 100 Gbps within a decade -- and at very low prices. The only concern is whether a carrier could provision sufficient capacity using only small cells and their available licensed spectrum, but this really isn't a problem.

Because we're outsourcing the network, the carrier could deploy some number of 802.11ax access points and operate licensed and unlicensed services as a single network image. Think of the carrier as an MSP applying various technologies transparently, and this concept becomes easy. This setup could also solve the problem of end-user devices operating on another carrier's network.

Moreover, we've categorized 802.11ac and 802.11ax as in fact being 5G for some time. Who cares what spectrum is involved? It's always about the results, not the tools or vehicles involved. And many organizations might survive with no in-building infrastructure. Instead, they'd use outdoor-only carrier cells, both 5G and Wi-Fi. 

Everything as a service

For some time, carriers have sought a way into the enterprise, enabling them to move beyond the big dumb pipe and consumer services into real business services with stickiness. The idea of ultimate virtualization may be the key that unlocks this potential.

And fear not: Competition will curb costs and create some attractive values. Moving in this direction will enable IT dollars to be reassigned to other organizational objectives, such as marketing, sales or staff benefits.

Understandably, ultimate virtualization won't become the norm anytime soon. But, consider this: With BYOD now the dominant device-provisioning strategy in most organizations, and with many of those devices already part of a cellular data plan, and with 5G eventually offering WLAN-class performance with wider availability, it's more a question of how organizational networks -- as we know them today -- will survive. And my guess is they won't.

Networking nirvana? Everything as a service? Really, why not?

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