The “Softwarization” of Telecommunications Systems

Drivers include 5G technology and open-source software

3 min read
Illustration of the word 5G amidst circuit board visual.
Illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTEGet ready for a radical change in the way telecommunications systems are designed and operated. Software-defined networks (SDNs), network function virtualization (NFV), and cloud computing are part of the “softwarization” trend. Softwarization is expected to impact all stages of network development.

SDNs decouple hardware from software and execute the software in the cloud or in clusters of distributed IT servers. NFV applies CPU virtualization and other cloud-computing technologies to migrate network functions from dedicated hardware to virtual machines.

The new “Towards 5G Software-Defined Ecosystems” white paper from the IEEE SDN initiative provides an overview of the main drivers steering the softwarization of the telecommunications industry, including 5G technology and open-source software. The report also discusses security concerns and the future of the telecom industry.

5G

The paper predicts that 5G will transform the industry because the technology is expected to be able to handle much more mobile data—1,000 times the current wireless capacity, in fact. Also predicted with 5G are data rates up to 100 times higher, as many as 100 times more connected devices, and 10 times greater battery life for some of those devices.

What will differentiate 5G networks, the authors say, will be “the ability to address varying degrees of requirements” in delay, throughput, and the types and quality of devices.

The technology will lead to the evolution of components being used in the current generation of mobile networks, the paper says, adding that the technology will usher in revolutionary components, too, that will enable energy and spectral efficiency as well as a new resilient framework for services.

The authors say 5G will require a complete revamping of the end-to-end architecture, and rethinking interfaces as well as management and control frameworks.

According to the report, for deployments of 5G telecommunications systems to occur in 2020, most of the research and innovation needs to be conducted soon so that large trials and testing can be completed in time.

“This can be realized only through global collaboration and investment in key technologies and related fields,” the authors say. “Since the required set of capabilities is very broad, mobile and wireline ecosystems need to be established that will allow global participation through open frameworks.”

OPEN-SOURCE SOFTWARE

There are many benefits of open-source software, the authors say. Operators and vendors can agree on requirements, for example, and quickly develop prototypes. Experimenting with open-source software such as KVM, Linux, OpenDaylight, and OpenStack lowers the barrier for those who want to build a telecom network. Open-source is the easiest and fastest way to fuel innovation, according to the report. With 5G networks, the authors expect open-source code to be tested with virtual machines and enhanced on the fly.

SECURITY

Many of the security functions required for full softwarization are complex. Seemingly minor mistakes in implementation could have far-reaching impact. Operators planning to deploy open-source software have the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that due diligence has been performed, particularly when the software supports core security functions.

“Softwarization brings new challenges, or at least complexities,” the authors say, but they add that those can be addressed with existing techniques or new approaches.

Security remains an area of active research within SDN and NFV, the paper notes.

THE FUTURE OF TELECOM

It seems likely that traditional telecom services—as a separate industry sector—are going to disappear, the authors say. Traditional services will be packaged with others “such as voice with Internet access and premium TV” channels, they predict. There also is likely to be some merging among suppliers of traditional telecom equipment and IT hardware.

Because many service providers are global, they will begin expanding, the paper predicts. The cost of entering a new country is relatively low, assuming the infrastructure is in place, and SDNs and NFV will further lower the costs, the authors say. Softwarization is making it possible to be present in an area without any physical infrastructure at all.

“Technology is going to become accessible to all enterprises in any part of the world on an equal basis, further reducing any competitive advantage due to location,” the authors say. “Hence, the real differentiator will be the capacity to innovate continuously.”

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
Vertical
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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