By Said Saadeh, senior director, products and portfolio management, service provider business unit at Netscout
Mobile networks epitomise the saying that change is inevitable. As they have evolved from 2G to 3G and then on to 4G, the operation and management of the network has become quite complex. Knowing whether the network is operating efficiently and reliably has become increasingly difficult, as voice and data traffic traverse the network through potentially different generations of mobile technologies. Further complicating matters, 4G has unleashed a rapidly growing demand for high bandwidth services that are challenging the communications service providers’ ability to ensure a consistent and reliable end user experience.
In addition to explosive data growth in the network, communications service providers are facing competitive pressure from over the top (OTT) vendors running paid services on top of their network, eroding both service revenue and network capacity.
How to remain competitive
To remain competitive, those communications service providers must rollout new services and additional network capacity in a fraction of the time it takes today. Unfortunately, CAPEX and OPEX budgets cannot hope to keep pace with the increasing demands placed upon networks by following the traditional telecom capacity planning and procurement models.
To help comms providers accomplish the seemingly contradictory goals of rapid service and network expansion while holding capital and operating costs to a modest increase, they are looking to network function virtualisation (NFV) as the solution. NFV promises significant reductions in the time it takes to rollout new services and network capacity. Unfortunately, the increase in service and network agility that NFV brings comes at the cost of further complicating the network through introducing another layer of infrastructure into the equation.
For communications service providers to remain competitive and avoid customer churn, the introduction of NFV must not impact their ability to deliver consistent, reliable, high performance services to end users. However, the nature of NFV makes the use of existing network and service assurance tools difficult, if not impossible, to gather the intelligence needed to ensure excellent service.
One of the challenges with NFV is the ability to gain visibility into the traffic between the virtualised network functions (VNFs). To solve this traffic visibility problem the service provider needs to monitor their network in order to track the traffic between both virtual and physical network functions.
Caught between two worlds
Providers have spent millions building their communications networks and the introduction of NFV is not going to entice them to abandon existing infrastructure in favour of a completely virtualised network. Consequently, they will be operating hybrid networks with both physical and virtual functions for years to come.
Network and service assurance tools must provide intelligence across hybrid networks to ensure consistent and reliable end user experiences. The speed and agility of NFV based network and service rollouts demand a real-time, end to end solution to gather the intelligence needed across the physical and virtual infrastructure.
Quality data drives quality decisions, and end to end network visibility can generate high quality intelligence about a network and services. The availability of high quality data not only helps ensure the efficient and reliable operation of hybrid networks and services, but also provides an excellent source of information for big data. Analytics about subscriber behaviour, past service performance, and historical data volumes will help communications service providers drive good decisions regarding when to scale networks or services, predicting subscriber behaviour, targeted marketing based on geolocation, and even assist in the construction of closed-loop, self-healing networks.
A whole new world
Adoption of NFV and the virtualisation of network functions will progress over time. Although NFV is rapidly growing in popularity and adoption, it simply is not feasible or economically sound to convert existing physical infrastructure to virtual overnight. Operating in these hybrid environments highlights the need for network and service assurance tools that understand both the physical and virtual world. Communications service providers must have a high level of confidence that as NFV based networks and services roll out, the exceptional user experience their subscribers are accustomed to remains good or even better than before.
NFV can potentially revolutionise the way providers rollout new services and dynamically adapt network capacity to subscriber behaviour. The agility of NFV, coupled with the confidence provided by service assurance, supplies the means for communications service providers to remain competitive, minimise subscriber churn, and to hold down operating expenses; the trifecta of any modern provider.
Netscout is a provider of business assurance, a combination of service assurance, cyber security, and business intelligence solutions, for service providers, enterprises and government networks.