By Ravi Chittimoori, senior product manager and lead on network virtualisation and NFV at Tektronix Communications
Operators are feeling the pressure. For decades they’ve balanced the thorny issue of maintaining the subscriber experience with growing their bottom line. But in today’s app-centric mobile environment the situation has become far more challenging. Subscribers are making fewer calls and are sending less texts, turning to IP-based apps like WhatsApp and Skype due to the convenience and cost savings they offer.
Subscribers are happy, but, understandably, operator revenues have taken a hit. This poses a problem and has encouraged the industry to shift towards network functions virtualisation (NFV) on the promise of increased agility.
Operators already see NFV as a prime opportunity to recoup revenues lost to app-based competition by launching their own operator-branded services. But there’s an important consideration that needs to be taken into account before they do so; how best to maintain a consistent subscriber experience during a period of considerable change.
Much has been said about the benefits of NFV for operators and the impact this will have in terms of improving the day-to-day running of the mobile network, but few have considered the implications for the end user or enterprise customer. NFV’s biggest benefit is also its Achilles’ heel in terms of maintaining a consistent subscriber experience. The added agility offered in a virtualised environment means the network becomes far more flexible, making it possible for new services to be added in minutes rather than days. But while this does offer a range of benefits for operators, it also increases the potential for disruption to occur.
It must be recognised that the transition from hardware-based to software defined networks represents a double-edged sword for operators. One the one hand, it’ll give them a platform to redesign themselves, moving away from being engineering-led, network focused organisations towards service-centric businesses. But on the other hand, in doing so, it will lead to a fundamental change in the way networks are controlled and managed, which complicates the matter.
As moving to a virtualised environment makes network management far more challenging than before, operators will need to work with a service assurance provider capable of keeping up. There has always been a heavy reliance on monitoring and troubleshooting legacy networks to identify where subscribers are having issues. This approach isn’t going anywhere, particularly as it’s been streamlined in recent years to the point where network problems can often be resolved before the subscriber even becomes aware of them.
However, adopting effective test and measurement tools is arguably even more important in a virtualised environment to ensure subscribers do not experience anything less than stellar performance, particularly if operators are looking to sign subscribers and enterprise users up to new branded services.
Horizontal and vertical views
To make this a reality, operators not only need a horizontal view of all network activity (from the EPC to the IMS), but also a vertical view, covering the full application to infrastructure stack. To avoid the risk of service disruption, increased churn rates and damaged reputations when moving to a software-based network architecture, it’s essential operators have access to a powerful set of tools capable of offering a real time end to end view of subscriber activity across the network.
There’s no doubt NFV is now recognised as key to unlocking a mobile network’s hidden potential. It’s got an important role to play in helping operators escape being branded as data transporters or dumb pipes and discover new and innovative ways to take advantage of the service agility NFV offers.
But at the same time the operator’s core needs and the environment in which they need to manage the services and the network has become more complex. They need to work with trusted vendors to ensure that they have the necessary tools to quickly diagnose and troubleshoot problems to ensure the highest possible level of customer experience. It’s imperative that the operators consider how to maintain the subscriber experience at all times to ensure the risks associated with NFV do not outweigh the reward.
Tektronix Communications delivers real time insights for network operators and equipment manufacturers around the globe.