Foundations: 5G, smart data and network visibility


By John English, senior manager, service provider solutions, Netscout

Digital transformation (DX) continues to sweep across all industries, driving the shift from physical to digital assets. Underpinning DX is the transition to an information-driven economy where data is the new currency and almost all aspects of business are rooted in software. Nowhere is this more applicable than in telecoms, particularly when you consider the sheer amount of network and subscriber data that operators have access to. Yet the reality isn’t quite that straightforward.

Faced with the issue of slow business growth and ongoing disruption to core services by over the top (OTT) players and new market entrants, managing mobile data explosion and network expansion, while also providing a consistent subscriber experience, has created a disconnect between the investments operators have made into 4G LTE and their subsequent decline in revenues. And despite the countless benefits DX stands to hold for mobile subscribers and network operators alike, it presents a new set of challenges that must first be overcome.

New challenges and demands

Part of the problem is that physical infrastructure is already being pushed to its limits in the attempt to meet growing subscriber capacity demands, and yet updating or expanding existing architecture is a difficult and costly process. A related challenge is the sheer amount of network data that operators now need to process, manage, and otherwise deal with to cater for this growth. This is something that was supposed to be made easier by the move to 4G but instead only contributed to the problem.

4G networks, like 3G to a large degree, are completely IP-based. However, unlike 3G, 4G networks also use IP for voice data. This common platform for all network traffic was supposed to make things run smoother. Instead, complexity increased and the volume of data operators had to deal with grew substantially.

The industry is looking ahead to 5G to help alleviate capacity demands, but with it comes added pressure to deliver a heighten quality of experience in an environment that forever demands more data throughput and lower latency or faster response times. The volume of network data that operators need to deal with will also increase substantially.

Fortunately, there’s light at the end of the tunnel in the form of the broader digital ecosystem and new commercial opportunities, but this too brings greater expectations from the network and new challenges for operators in reaching the next stage of their digital transformation journeys. To meet these expectations, and create an environment where mobile operators can embrace new business models and truly innovate to deliver new services, a new approach is needed for network design. This also stands to drive DX efforts, but only if operators approach it correctly.

Facing a virtual future

When it comes to supporting 5G; the deployment of this technology will be enabled through network functions virtualisation (NFV) and software defined networking (SDN). After all, it’s already recognised that NFV and SDN holds the key to cost effective operations, increased automation, and the enhanced flexibility and agility of existing systems by creating a ‘safe to fail’ environment where new business models can be set up and running in minutes rather than days or weeks.

All hail virtualisation? Not just yet. While costs are reduced and capacity increased, network visibility isn’t. Network virtualisation means that services and core network functions will be disaggregated across compute resources running on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. While performance increases, this will also increase the volume of data being created, which means visibility of the network will be more critical than ever.

Operators have always relied on network monitoring and troubleshooting tools to identify issues affected subscribers but it is even more essential within a virtualised environment, particularly if operators are looking to introduce new services. An inability to identify problems on the network and address them before the subscriber is affected can cost them dearly.

A data-led solution

Information and data is key to addressing this challenge, yet simply having access to big data is not enough. Business analytics that rely on a dataset that has not been normalised and correlated in the context of service delivery, operations, and business performance, is not effective. The quality of business insight is therefore contingent on having smart data. Smart data is well structured, contextual, available in real time, and based on end to end pervasive visibility across the entire business leads to great big data analytics.

When you consider this, it’s clear that network monitoring and service assurance are the drivers for DX success, providing real time and historic insights needed to power those decisions, not only for assuring overall service delivery to customers, but also ensuring the validity and competitiveness of that operator’s internal business operations.

When 5G arrives and the IoT becomes ubiquitous, there will be even less margin for error than there is currently. From a server in a data centre to a physical base station or virtualised network function, all aspects of the next generation mobile network need to be accessible and capable of being monitored at a granular level to keep track of digital service performance. And taking actionable intelligence from this disparate set of resources depends on having the right tools in place to begin with, using service assurance technology to unlock the smart data that’s contained in the network to drive internal and external business success.

Netscout Systems is a provider of application and network performance management products. 


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