As 5G networks promise to provide significantly higher bandwidth than traditional 4G networks, the 5G market has been growing leaps and bounds. A critical driver of 5G growth is its abundance of service offerings supporting traditional fixed access, wireline access, enhanced broadband mobile services with high-speed – ranging from a few megabytes to gigabytes – to additional services such as IoT (Internet of Things) and low-latency-specific applications across industries.
While this trend is underway, telecom organizations face ongoing resource reductions to control costs, all while the complexity of requirements for validating 5G networks expands exponentially.
An unprecedented explosion of devices is appearing on the market, while the widespread demand for acceleration triggers new relationships with hyperscalers. This all leaves too many organizations caught in the middle, struggling to identify the best way forward.
The 5G journey begins with recognizing the fundamental challenges in achieving faster deployment at a lower cost without service degradation. They include:
Expanded network complexity, especially in deploying cutting-edge cloud-native 5G
Increased number of vendors and volume of software releases
The requirement to take ownership of vendor interoperability
Increase in the lab validation times
Inconsistent tools and methodologies between Development and Operations
Inherently slow network on-boarding and activation cycles
Significant time to identify, isolate and resolve faults
These factors must be addressed so that issues occurring in one area do not impact other areas. An essential aspect of this requirement involves having the right testing strategy in place.
5G testing strategy requirements
A comprehensive testing strategy for 5G domains should provide holistic validation capabilities such as those found in a state-of-the-art lab and test automation solutions for all the 5G subdomains aligned within the service provider's environment. The 5G subdomains are typically divided into the following:
RAN: A series of network components collectively called radio access network (RAN) includes the traditional RAN and the evolving Open RAN (ORAN) architecture. The overall ORAN ecosystem consists of cell sites, switches, radios, and components or functions called radio units (RU), distributed units (DU), and central units (CU).
Core: Most of the mobile functions consist of over 20 different network functions (NF), from basic authentication to validation and provide advanced services that reside in the Core.
E2E: The end-to-end network is where the RAN and the Core run on a cloud platform (unlike the traditional network). Alternatively, it may operate on a platform where the software runs on a white box with cloud software that can scale horizontally and vertically to support the requirements of the network application. It is important to note that the end-to-end services ride across this network.
Devices: The increasing number of devices, variations of those devices, and the associated traffic generated by those devices must be accounted for. Devices are tested as part of the end-to-end service testing.
A service provider's testing strategy should target an approach that accounts for the challenges in these four areas. The strategy should be supported by knowledgeable expertise to break the network down into components with a detailed understanding of what testing approach provides the most comprehensive solution to deal with the complexity of all these domains.
The operational objective of each of these domains is to deliver faster time to market while ensuring the service quality and lowering costs. To achieve this, it is essential to have state-of-the art test automation built into the solutions so regression testing can be performed continuously, from the lab through to live network deployment.
Leveraging next-gen test automation
Comprehensive test automation performed at the test suite level first requires setting up the appropriate network functions and equipment to emulate real-world scenarios in the lab environment. This cloudification of the lab (sometimes entailing a consolidation of numerous labs, often on a global basis) involves optimizing the management of a combination of physical equipment with virtual software running on it.
The entire automation suite is managed and synchronized to follow a lean manufacturing model, eliminating waste in processes, where the vendor's software is deployed, tested, and verified in the lab environment with all possible success and failure scenarios. Once it goes through the approval process, it is released and deployed in the live (production) network using ETSI MANO (management and network orchestration) framework. This process is repeated for all aspects of the network: the devices, RAN and Core.
Comprehensive test automation performed at the test suite level first requires setting up the appropriate network functions and equipment to emulate real-world scenarios in the lab environment.
This testing automation process across the domains involves a progressive approach within each domain:
Nodal: Individual components are tested at the functional level. This is also referred to as unit or component testing.
Adjacency: Once the component testing is complete, adjacent testing is performed. This testing of associated network functions to ensure they work together seamlessly is performed for various use cases defined by the service provider.
End-to-end: Service level testing is performed across the domains to verify all the components within the domain interoperate seamlessly for the service the carrier is planning to offer.
5G technology testing requirements
Service providers require a testing strategy that provides a wide range of technical capabilities to help achieve the 5G network rollout on time:
Testing of advanced RAN architecture, especially ORAN, including the SDN controller and network functions (NFs)
Testing of control and user plane architecture
Testing of cloud-native 5G Core network where the network functions are in the form of virtualized network functions (VNFs) or container network functions (CNFs).
Virtualization of the complex 5G network
Network slicing of 5G network where the same physical network is partitioned as a different network
Automation with CI/CD process
In this context, a successful 5G testing strategy entails several essential qualifications:
Established expertise in the 5G area in a wide range of scenarios
Industry-recognized expertise in test automation, especially with CI/CD and DevOps process proficiencies
Worked extensively with 5G service providers worldwide and draw from established best practices
Experience delivering turnkey validation solutions from lab set up and test planning to execution in the lab and support of deployment in the live network
A vendor-neutral approach to the customer requirements
To explore this topic at a deeper level and gain a deeper understanding of the testing objectives for each domain, read the white paper Accelerating E2E 5G Network Deployment from the Lab Environment to the Live Network. For a real-world example of 5G Core test automation success, read the case study.