16 Feb 2016

Service assurance in virtualised networks

Ravindra Chittimoori, from NETSCOUT looks at the changing role of service assurance in virtualised networks.

From 2G to 3G and onto LTE, each significant milestone in the mobile life cycle has increased the complexity of network management. The shift to 4G has unquestionably had the biggest impact to-date, applying extra pressure on operators to deliver a consistent Quality of Experience (QoE) for a user base now heavily reliant on data services.

This is having a direct impact on the way operators want to approach new service rollout, and also service assurance. Operators are making plans to phase out physical network hardware to make way for virtualised alternatives that are designed to simplify operations and improve network functions previously performed by proprietary hardware. But they are also realising that making this a reality will not be straightforward.

As is the case with any significant industry shift, operators are currently faced with a series of challenges associated with the move to network functions virtualisation (NFV), most notably in terms of service assurance. The same can be said for the tools needed to monitor and analyse the subscriber experience. This has become all the more important at a time when the mobile environment is on the brink of a complete overhaul as operators move into this huge evolution.

NFV in modern mobile networks

NFV promises to virtualise legacy infrastructure and create an environment far more agile and adaptable than today’s infrastructure based on physical systems. When operators first introduced the concept in November 2012 as part of the ETSI ISG, hardware-related CAPEX and OPEX reductions were considered the main drivers behind the shift to virtualising traditional network functions. However, the applications and potential value of NFV have grown considerably since then.

The problem operators’ face, and part of the reason NFV has become so important, is that legacy networks are notoriously difficult to modify or upgrade. With operators still looking to recoup the costs of their significant investment into LTE and with subscriber data demands higher than ever before, it’s hardly surprising that existing physical infrastructure is being stretched to try and accommodate this need. Especially when you consider the importance of maintaining a consistent subscriber experience to reduce churn in order to preserve revenue.

Maintaining the subscriber experience in the modern mobile environment is a major challenge, and data demands are only increasing. The fact that OTT applications are software-based and therefore capable of running on top of an operator’s network means they can be rolled out almost immediately, creating a steady stream of data- intensive applications capable of stripping network capacity and instigating new peaks in demand. Operators require a more adaptable approach to ensure mobile networks can live up to subscriber demand in 2016 and beyond, which has put service assurance at the forefront once more.

Importance of service assurance

There has always been a heavy reliance on network monitoring and troubleshooting tools to support legacy networks and quickly identify where subscribers are encountering issues. This approach has been streamlined in recent years to the point where problems on a physical network can largely be identified and resolved before the end user even becomes aware of them.

Monitoring and optimising performance in a virtualised environment, particularly in response to ever-increasing data traffic demands, will be more challenging. Traditional networks are simpler to manage in this regard because the physical hardware and network functions are tied together, whereas with NFV, network functionality can be focused on areas of need. NFV offers to the operators a far more flexible approach to new service and network functions rollout. However it also creates a huge challenge to the operations teams within the service providers who are responsible for network/service/customer assurance. Adopting effective service assurance tools that are capable of operating across both the legacy physical and the new virtual networks is vital to ensuring subscribers do not experience anything less than stellar performance on the operator’s network.

Historically, operators have introduced physical network infrastructure accompanied by considerable periods dedicated to testing and validating what has been added to the network. The pace is much faster in a virtualised environment, as new services and capacity requirements can be changed on the fly to meet demand, but are quite risky to the subscriber’s QoE if managed incorrectly.

Operators not only need a horizontal view of all network activity (from the RAN, to the EPC, to the IMS), but also a vertical view, covering the full network stack. To avoid the risk of service disruptions, increased churn rates, and damaged reputations when moving to software-based network architecture, it’s essential to have access to powerful tools capable of giving a real-time, end-to-end view of subscriber activity across both the legacy physical and new virtual networks. Getting it wrong will have devastating implications for subscribers and could potentially undermine NFV as a solution to the very problems it’s expected to resolve. Fortunately, the introduction of NFV has paved the way for easier handling of service assurance.

Improving QoE in a virtualised network

Being able to deploy network functions as software rather than hardware through NFV means the network can be easily scaled in response to subscriber demand. Given the costs associated with either scaling in /out the network, it is imperative the network re-sizing is done in the most effective manner. It is heavily dependent on having the right information in the right place.

It’s for this reason that service assurance can no longer be taken in isolation, particularly not for a virtualised network. Being able to ensure that an operator’s network does not falter during peaks in traffic, and to guarantee that subscribers do not face issues like dropped calls or a loss of data packets, relies on having a view of what is going on across the board. This approach requires operators to pull data from all four corners of the network, helping identify trends and predict where problems are likely to occur.

Automating virtualised networks

This approach to service assurance mixed with big data analytics has an important role to play for network functions virtualisation to become mainstream. It’s where the true OPEX savings are for operators and represents the future of network management. Granted, moving to a virtualised environment will come with its own operational expenditure benefits, which operators have been aware of for some time. However, by making better use of network data, amassing and collecting it, then processing this information into tangible insights, operators will see the biggest reward from their shift to NFV. Network data can be used to inform and adapt the day-to-day running of the network. This will improve the QoE and reduce subscriber churn. Plus, it will have a dramatic impact on network management across the board.

By capitalising on tools that provide a real-time view of the entire network environment, spanning legacy and virtualised hardware, operators will have access to a broad range of meaningful network data and subscriber information. This data will let them predict peaks in traffic and put processes in place to ensure that high-value subscribers consistently get a quality experience.

This is particularly important when you consider the other considerable challenge that operators still face in relation to NFV – the social implications of revolutionising network design. Virtualisation represents an organisational challenge as well as a technical one. Once widespread adoption occurs, it will lead to a fundamental change in the way networks are controlled, which in turn will require a fresh approach to employee management. Network engineers and support teams used to working with a physical infrastructure will need to redesign their existing processes.

It’s inevitable that there will be a period of adjustment for operators, creating a highly challenging environment for maintaining a consistent QoE and handling any issues that arise. Using big data analytics to help automate network management, however, will alleviate some of these concerns.

NFV in 2016 and beyond

The move to fully virtualised networks won’t happen overnight. Although some of the leading North American and European telecoms operators have started to shift in the right direction, we will continue to see a mix of new virtual and legacy network infrastructure in the near term. These two very different network environments will need to operate side-by-side, meaning it’s vital to work with a service assurance provider that can keep up.

By adopting the right approach to NFV, operators can automate the process of collecting valuable data, analyse it, and identify key pressure points across the network, resulting in an automated change being triggered to address the problem far quicker and in ways previously unachievable. There will be obvious OPEX savings with this approach. It also demonstrates the role of NFV in creating mobile networks of the future, alleviating the QoE and network management problems its introduction created.

To make all this a reality, operators must adopt service assurance tools that are as dynamic and capable as the services they are looking to launch and the network changes they are planning to make. To make NFV adoption and automation a reality, they must also partner with the right solutions provider that can offer real-time end-to-end assurance solutions combined with big data analytics.

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About the author

Ravi Chittimoori is currently Senior Manager, Product Line Management, for NETSCOUT’s Service Provider Business Unit. Ravi has an MBA from the University of Texas and a background in computer science and engineering. Prior to joining Tektronix Communications, Ravi was a software design engineer for Inet Technologies.

NETSCOUT SYSTEMS, INC. (NASDAQ: NTCT) is a market leader in real-time service assurance and cybersecurity solutions for today’s most demanding service provider, enterprise and government networks. NETSCOUT’s Adaptive Service Intelligence (ASI) technology continuously monitors the service delivery environment to identify performance issues and provides insight into network-based security threats, helping teams to quickly resolve issues that can cause business disruptions or impact user experience. NETSCOUT delivers unmatched service visibility and protects the digital infrastructure that supports our connected world.

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