As service providers eye network upgrades to satisfy new demands for 5G, there are several important decisions to ponder. One of the biggest questions is whether to build onto your existing 4G network as a Non-Standalone (NSA) or jump in with a Standalone (SA) network packet core to position yourself as an industry leader well into the future. From a cost perspective, this isn’t an easy choice, but the return on investment could be the difference-maker.

We all understand that 5G is about new use cases and enterprise, but if you want to deliver more and better services you need to consider making the move toward the 5G SA core to meet the new requirements and stringent Service Level Agreements (SLAs).

In the world of 5G evolution we immediately think of New Radio (NR) transforming our access, and lower latency service delivery, but we tend to forget how essential the core is in developing the SA network. Service providers are just starting to plan for this, so it’s important to examine your options carefully, even if you aren’t ready to commit to full-scale deployment just yet.

How Did We Get Here?

As an industry, we have spent more than a decade optimizing how we deploy, operate, and evolve networks. Virtualization was the first step, which largely focused on building adequate data centers and management framework without fully redesigning the network functions. The Evolved Packet Core (EPC) was standardized before Network Function Virtualization (NFV) was invented, and while it evolved over the years (adding Control Plane User Plane Separation (CUPS) and virtualizing the packet core) those efforts were hindered by inadequate underlying capabilities.

The 5G core is an opportunity to enable a fully disaggregated architecture with network functions designed as microservices, exposing distinct network function services via well-defined APIs. With native self-discovery, we gain the flexibility to decide on the placement of the workloads to meet service requirements at a lower cost.

Right now, most 5G deployments are NSA, meaning the 5G NR is controlled by the legacy EPC offering little service innovation opportunity at the core. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards defined 5G SA with new capabilities and 2020 saw the introduction of the first 5G SA mobile handsets giving service providers the opportunity of adopting this new technology. We already see early movers such as T-Mobile in the United States. They achieved the first End-to-End (E2E) data session on a multi-vendor, next-generation radio and core network with the Cisco 5G SA solution.

How does Cloud Native Impact 5G?

The industry is adopting a new development framework and moving quickly to a cloud native environment with virtualization, automated deployment, instantiations, and upgrades. This affects not only new services delivered by service providers, but also represents new ways for enterprise customers to consume those services.

The four pillars of cloud native – DevOps, microservices, containers, and continuous delivery – are all in play as we leverage open source technology. In cloud native we are splitting the application into individual microservices and focusing on decomposition when it brings value.

Containers, which allow virtualization and management of these microservices, can be deployed very quickly. They have an operating system that meets all the requirements so it may take only a few seconds to deploy applications versus what would have taken hours. The fast up-launch and healing capacity are really changing the way we view application deployment.

Cloud native applications are deployed as a set of containers with the majority of them being stateless. The only stateful layer in the cloud native software architecture design is the database layer. If one container malfunctions for some reason, you simply launch another one…easy. It allows you to reach continuous delivery, the Holy Grail of the software environment, and our solution packages all your services into one so you’re not stuck trying to mix and match from different vendors.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits inherent in each pillar of cloud native:


• Modular, loosely coupled software services
• Individually deployed and lifecycle managed


• Virtualization and management of microservices
• Highly portable to different deployment targets

Continuous Delivery

• Automated continuous integration, validation, and availability of containers
• In-service software upgrades with automated testing


• Automate and manage rapid deployments
• Isolate production changes and deploy once validated

Some of the other benefits of cloud native for service providers include:

• Built-in automation and orchestration
• Fast application launch and healing

Why Consider a 5G Standalone Network?

Whereas cloud native for 5G is very agile and flexible in how it’s deployed, whether it’s on Telco Cloud, in a traditional data center, or on a single server in a closet, non-standalone is a hardened solution. It is important to understand the key drivers to move to 5G SA.

First, 5G SA is the target architecture to deliver edge cloud with CUPS, for example in the case of gaming architecture or collaborative applications like autonomous manufacturing with the need to monitor and strictly manage latency. In that case, managing latency requires moving the core as close to the user as possible. Second, 5G core brings built-in network slicing, which is key to delivering strict SLAs as requested by customers to satisfy their specific use cases and requested SLAs. Third, the 5G core gets rid of the old protocols and is instead introducing an API-based communication paradigm that can be used to connect to external systems. For instance, this is expected to ease the interconnection of an enterprise policy server (e.g. Cisco DNA-C) with the mobile core delivering a consistent experience across different domains.

Many years of experience developing packet cores leaves Cisco best positioned to provide secure and open 5G infrastructure and automation while delivering on the above-mentioned capabilities which are key drivers for 5G SA deployment. We offer an innovative, end-to-end, highly secure system with security at the heart of the solution design. This is complemented by multi-domain automation and orchestration, rendering a complete lifecycle as well as cross-domain slicing.

Learn More

The future is here, and we are fortunate to be a part of building it! Cloud-native implementation is a decision we’re making to unlock the next generation 5G packet core. We’ve taken service-based architecture to the heart of communication between the different containers of our solution.

I hope you’ve found this information useful in your journey to understand and deploy a next-generation 5G standalone core network, capable of delivering the most innovative services. If you would like to learn more about our all-in-one core solution, visit our Cisco Ultra Cloud Core and Unified Domain Center page.


Eric Hamel

Senior Systems Architect

Service Provider IoT solutions