29 Mar 2017

Data Driven Networks: managing mobile’s digital transformation

John English of NETSCOUT looks at the transformation of mobile networks from hardware driven systems to software driven systems as data becomes the main driver.

What’s the biggest challenge faced by mobile operators today? Go back a decade and most would’ve said network coverage and call quality. Some of the more progressive players may have even mentioned new service delivery.

But after the shift from 2G to 3G and onto LTE, and with 5G fast approaching on the industry horizon, the challenges from all those years ago have never felt more out of touch with the issues presented to operators in 2017.

Sure, keeping up with subscriber demand for consistent and reliable mobile internet access is still a growing concern, but it’s also morphed into something new: the complexity associated with managing all this data on the network and, more importantly, taking advantage of it to improve the subscriber experience and drive new revenues in the age of network virtualization and digital transformation.

The current state of play

Part of the reason it’s hit the forefront of operator considerations is that data is becoming the new currency of big business. Capturing, transforming, analysing and monetizing network data is the game today. There’s no escaping how traditionally hardware-focused companies are shifting towards software-based models en masse, leading to this unstoppable wave of digital transformation across the board. It’s also resulted in service providers around the world scrambling to tighten the grip they have over what’s happening on their networks.

Many big names in computing have entered the fray in recent years, including IBM and Oracle, each hoovering up application and cloud-focused technology players to offer end-to-end services for their customers. However, it’s Cisco’s recent $3.7 billion acquisition of AppDynamics from earlier this year that’s the biggest example of this trend, becoming the latest in a long line of tech brands betting big on application and network management technology in the age of IP. What’s perhaps most interesting about the Cisco acquisition, though, are the many implications it holds for the telecoms industry.

The sector is waking up to the implications of digital transformation in data. Granted, it’s not a new concept, as mobile has been experiencing its own digital transformation for some time. But now, for what is the first time, it’s become widely recognised that the data in this new economy has become the currency, with almost all aspects of business starting to become rooted in software. The shift experienced by the telco industry thus far has included the move to 4G, which supported and encouraged data-hungry applications and high-bandwidth traffic. It’s great for the end user who’s able to experience much faster speeds and better connectivity. For operators, however, it’s posed the problem that’s at the very heart of what’s led to this new data economy – handling all the data that goes with it.

The new operator challenge

In recent years, operators have faced dual challenges of slow business growth and on-going disruption to their core services by OTT players and new market entrants. They’ve been forced to manage this explosion in mobile data and network expansion to sate subscriber expectations, while simultaneously providing a consistent subscriber experience at all times. It’s a situation that’s created a disconnect between the very significant investments made into 4G LTE and the overall decline in revenues they’ve seen thereafter.

Fortunately there’s light at the end of the tunnel in the form of the broader digital ecosystem and the new commercial opportunities that are opening up to operators, but this brings with even greater expectations from the network. Virtualization has become the go-to answer, yet it only compounds the problem further.

Virtual networks, real problems

Physical infrastructure is already being stretched in attempts to accommodate subscriber capacity requirements. Yet updating or expanding existing architecture is a difficult and costly process for operators. Although the industry is looking ahead to 5G, this comes with the added pressure to deliver a consistent quality of experience in a setting that demands a higher data throughput. In order to meet these expectations, and to create a setting where it’s possible for mobile operators to embrace new business models and innovate in the use of this technology to deliver new services, a new service delivery approach is needed.

Yet proprietary hardware alone is simply not capable, or economic, when it comes to supporting 5G. Instead, the deployment of this technology will only be enabled through network functions virtualisation (NFV) and software defined networking (SDN). After all, it’s already recognised that NFV/SDN holds the key to simplified operations, increased automation, and the enhanced flexibility and agility of existing systems by creating a “quick to fail” environment where new business models can be set up and running in minutes rather than days or weeks.

All hail virtualisation then? Not exactly. Making this type of environment a reality depends on the automation of network management. Traffic data must be mined in real-time to deliver accurate and actionable information as a feedback loop for continuous network operation. However, while costs are reduced and capacity increased by virtualisation, network visibility – and valuable insight into the very information that’s driving the new data economy – is compromised. Operators have always relied on network monitoring and troubleshooting tools to identify issues affected subscribers but it’s all the more essential within a virtualised environment from the start, particularly if operators are looking to introduce new digital services.

An inability to identify problems on the network and address them before the subscriber is affected can cost operators dearly. Quality of service is impaired, obviously, resulting in subscriber dissatisfaction and tarnishing the reputation of the service provider. Along with the inability to deliver on business-level SLAs for new commercial services deployed across the network is a more pressing issue, the potential for cyber-criminal activity on the network, causing untold problems and financial damage.

This is particularly important when you consider how operators are logical partners for new health, home automation, energy, financial, and digital services. But these depend on operators being able to deliver reliable and consistent access to the network and having full visibility into the data crossing it.

The relationship between data and security

The security concerns associated with the expected deluge of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and services also stems back to the growing need for operators to get a better grip on the data on their networks. All players in the IoT ecosystem, but especially operators, need to consider the bigger picture of what’s going to happen when something goes wrong. Operators can help to address the security implications at the same time as the delivery challenges associated with IoT by using network visibility and service assurance technology to better understand IoT traffic flowing over wireless networks, identify potential security threats in real-time, and close them down immediately.

It’s even more important in virtualized environment when the capability to scale on the fly and push even more data through the network is enabled. Bringing this back to security issues around the IoT, since cyber threats are not static and instead constantly evolve in size and scope, a service provider’s approach to network security must be to adapt. Real-time visibility into both physical and virtual networks, combined with the scalability to handle the explosion of IoT devices, the increase in virtual and physical nodes with 5G, and growth of data on service provider networks, has therefore become vital for making the data economy a reality.

Addressing the problem

It’s clear that network performance and subscriber experience needs to be running at peak levels at all times. To ensure this, monitoring and service assurance also needs to be continuous, providing the operator with both real-time and historic network insights. From a server in a data centre to a physical base station, all aspects of the network need to be accessible and capable of being monitored at a granular level to keep track of digital service performance. Everything is interconnected, and when 5G arrives and the IoT becomes ubiquitous there will be no margin for error. These connections must be continuous and network performance must be faultless.

The challenge, therefore, is to get in front of network problems before they become major issues. This depends on having the right tools in place, and brings us full circle back to the M&A activity we saw earlier this year prior to MWC. We can expect more of the same as we look ahead to the rest of this year, too, with more players than ever crossing the divide between the enterprise and mobile sectors and addressing the network visibility and intelligence challenges that are commonplace between them.

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About the author

John English joined the Marketing team at NETSCOUT after 7 years as the Senior Product Line Manager for the Service Provider Business at NETSCOUT. Prior to joining NETSCOUT, he managed similar service provider performance monitoring products at Empirix and Tekelec. John has over 25 years of telecom experience covering 4G/3G/2G mobile technologies as well as SS7/TDM/Circuit/VoIP/IMS/VoLTE technologies in product management, including roles at Lucent, Ascend Communications, and Verizon. He holds an MBA from Boston College.

NETSCOUT Systems, Inc. was founded in in 1984, and is a provider of application and network performance management products. Headquartered in Westford, Massachusetts, NETSCOUT serves the enterprise community, government agencies and telecommunications service providers.

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