If you like virtual private networks – VPNs – you are going to love what they’ll become once 5G networking takes hold. 5G’s combination of harmonized networks and virtualization are going to enable “network slicing,” which will make connections almost effortless.

The VPN has always been thought of as a single thread through a physical network, on which you maintain your own space between and among points on the network. It is like having your own lane on the expressway, a lane no one else can enter or even know is there.

Network slicing takes that concept and expands it. The virtual segment of the network that you will use will be able to do more things for you. It will be able to think. It will be able to analyze data.

Your very own private slice of network may also involve other networks joined to it, such as a macro network enhanced by WiFi or other mesh networking capabilities. It will be an amalgamation of information gathering and computation.

How will you use it?

Your company and another might have your own shared network slice that you have put together for a specific business purpose. It could link you to a customer, a supplier, or a partner, and to their network. When an individual signs on to this slice, he or she could be authenticated on both networks at the same time, something possible today only with complicated permissioning.

Some network slices might have a vertical use across more than one network, with the slice singly designed for a specific purpose, such as to monitor equipment, report on information, or execute programmatic capabilities.

Enterprises aren’t the only ones looking ahead eagerly to the capabilities of network slicing. Service providers see slicing as a way to significantly boost carrier efficiency. They see the potential in repurposing fixed assets to do more for enterprise users or for any communities that want to be joined via their own network.

Advantage for any industry

There are myriad ways that enterprises can leverage these capabilities. Suppose you’re a huge big-box retailer. Right now, if you want to expand business you do it in familiar ways – advertising, aggressive pricing, reaching customers through social media, etc. But with network slicing capabilities, you could create customer communities, either geographically or demographically, and have customers in a region, or with some other common attribute, all linked via your network slice.

This becomes a new retail channel. Instead of charging a fixed price for toys or clothes or sports equipment, your community could function as a buying pool, with items bid on auction-style. You could let the market set your prices.

A manufacturer could slice up a virtual supply chain community, linking everyone from the suppliers of raw materials to the eventual buyers.

In K-12 education, every class could be on its own network slice. Or in college, where every year has a different matriculation requirement, your network slice could link sophomores into a community, for instance, or connect people with common majors.

Ledger technology such as blockchain, which we’ve discussed previously, could be part of a network slice. If an organization needs to create a ledger for a certain business initiative, for tracking inventory, supply chain management, copyright protection, or serial numbering, those capabilities could be part of the slice itself, relieving the organization from having to invest separately in the technology.

Why 5G?

The concept of network slicing, either in the form of VPNs or other task-specific network segments, isn’t entirely new. But the difference as we move forward is that this slicing is a virtualized capability. It can be thought of as a VPN with “knowledge VPNs” on each end. The connection may not have changed, but the knowledge at each end is far more sophisticated.

Because of the need for virtualization to accomplish this, we are looking to 5G, and the controls that NFV, network functions virtualization, can offer. When you combine 5G with hypervised states, we gain the capability to maximize the efficiency of selective network slicing.

With these capabilities, organizations can rapidly set up ad hoc networks to accomplish tasks, link to partners or others, or expedite business expansion. And when the task is complete or the need for the slice goes away, it can be just as rapidly disassembled. All with no need to add or change existing physical assets.