12 Mar 2018

Smart data – giving operators the edge

John English, Senior Product Manager, Service Providers, NETSCOUT looks at the role of edge computing and smart data in mobile network architecture as 5G and IoT come to the fore

The Internet of Things (IoT) is everywhere. From smart buildings and automated traffic management, to wearable fitness trackers and connected fridges, digital transformation initiatives across the globe mean the IoT now touches practically every aspect of our daily lives.

Its growing popularity has led to much discussion recently around edge computing, in which the vast volumes of data generated by the myriad of connected devices is processed immediately at the edge of the network, closer to where the data is produced, rather than having to backhaul traffic to and from a remote data centre. Reliant on the cloud, due to the speed, agility and scalability it offers, edge computing significantly reduces latency; an increasingly important factor in the success of the IoT as expectations of instantaneous information rapidly become the norm.

Edge computing is also set to play an important part in fulfilling the promise of 5G and unlocking its benefits. The connective tissue of IoT applications and services such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications, public safety, and the networks of sensors deployed across smart cities, will all significantly gain from utilising 5G technology to achieve truly ubiquitous, reliable, scalable and cost-effective device-to-device connectivity.

Moving cloud, compute and processing power to the edge of the network makes it possible to support the ultra-low latency requirements of 5G and IoT applications such as connected cars, which require real time information at all times, while significantly improving the efficiency of devices.

The potential of 5G was a major talking point at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which took place in Las Vegas in January; in particular the transformative opportunities that its high speed and low latency would offer to a range of industries, from manufacturing and healthcare to transportation and building management. While 5G has yet to be fully defined, Nokia’s chief business development officer, Chris Stark, described the next generation wireless technology as being “a departure in terms of network architecture”, and one in which “we will see more functionality at the edge, with massive speeds, low latency and a large number of connectivity points.”

As 5G and the IoT become more pervasive, there will be an increasingly urgent requirement to support the new data loads and unpredictable traffic patterns being introduced, along with the growing demand for reduced latency and increased compute efficiency. It’s little surprise, therefore, that service providers are now beginning to move network infrastructure to the edge.

With IoT solutions underpinning a growing number of aspects of our lives and businesses, it’s crucial that operators have assurance that their connectivity remains ubiquitous, consistent and reliable. But as with any burgeoning technology, there will always be a new set of challenges to face, and dealing with these will require complete visibility across the entire IoT lifecycle.

Intelligence and insight

The benefits offered by edge computing have seen it gain a lot of traction recently, with both established operators and new entrants to the market launching a range of new cloud and server technologies designed to effectively move data centre functionality to the edge of the network. As organisations virtualise network components and functions for greater agility, speed and cost-savings, so they will leverage this new NFV architecture to deploy a range of C-RAN (cloud-based RAN) and SD-WAN (software-defined WAN) solutions to better support the increase in their customer’s data traffic.

South Korea’s largest mobile operator, SK Telecom, for example, partnered with Nokia to become the first to commercially install cloud-based, software-defined RAN, or C-RAN, at the end of 2016. Virtualising its radio unit resources, it effectively laid the foundations for the country’s 5G infrastructure. Elsewhere, global service providers including Vodafone, Verizon and BT are among many to have launched managed SD-WAN services to minimise customer concerns around the management of their infrastructure.

Managed correctly, the data generated by virtual solutions such as these will provide operators with much needed intelligence that will enable them to gain actionable meaningful insights and inform their network policy and traffic management systems. Over time, this flow of information, and the intelligence derived from it, will lead to networks becoming automated and self-optimising. This will then allow operators to allocate capacity to areas where it’s needed most: whether to manage peaks in network demand or, in the case of IoT traffic, to manage the demands of sophisticated smart city deployments, autonomous cars, or ‘smart’ automated factories.

Use cases such as these are largely unknown territory, however, and the level of data traffic they will generate is unprecedented. Visibility is therefore crucial if operators are to effectively manage their networks. This is particularly the case with the IoT, where operators will be required to report on the status of any mission-critical systems. With IoT technologies underpinning a growing number of critical applications, such as disaster monitoring and military situational awareness, the need for assurance around security and service delivery is paramount.

For example, while it may be frustrating that a problem with the network may result in a user being unable to access the Netflix server on their mobile device, the stakes are considerably higher when a similar network problem affects the performance of a remote heart monitor in a hospital. So, while it makes absolute sense for an operator to reconfigure a network to account for the increasing demands of 5G and IoT services, it must be possible to derive some meaningful insight from the data being produced. If not, it will offer no visibility into what’s happening on that network, and this could lead to very serious consequences.

In simple terms, a frustrated Netflix subscriber unable to watch the latest episode of Stranger Things can contact the customer service centre. Automated machines on a production line, however, will not be calling into customer service to let anyone know if they’re experiencing issues with connectivity, which could have a knock-on effect throughout a business’s entire supply chain.

The oil that fuels the networks’ engines

Delivered at speed from a wide variety of disparate sources, much of the huge volume of data generated by the IoT will be unstructured, and won’t translate into actionable insight, even when advanced analytics are applied. Essentially, without being normalised and correlated in the context of service delivery, operations and business performance, the quality of business insight, and the value this data delivers will be worthless.

The application of edge computing is only set to only add further layers of complexity to this situation, and traditional network monitoring and assurance tools may no longer be sufficient for providing operators with the window they need on this new environment.

The only way to gain the insight required for full and effective infrastructure management is for operators to employ a smart data solution which will maintain visibility throughout every aspect of the IoT lifecycle, from the testing phase, through the monitoring and analysis of live traffic, to network orchestration and automation.

As computing moves closer to the edge, smart data will quickly become the oil that fuels the networks’ engines. Real-time, scalable meta data imbued with user experience derived from network traffic, smart data offers unlimited scale, across all aspects of the network, both physical and virtual. Once an operator is able to access and analyse this data in real-time, they will be able to gain valuable new insights into how the connected IoT devices and machines on their network behave, how they interact with the network, and the type of traffic patterns they produce. Ultimately, with access to smart data, operators will be in a better position to make more informed decisions about how to optimise their networks, where to allocate capacity, and how to boost performance.

Furthermore, the visibility enabled by smart data can also enable operators to identify anomalies within the network; significant changes that could indicate issues such as network congestion, which could potentially affect hundreds or thousands of connected devices. Actionable intelligence of this type is worth its weight in gold to an operator and its enterprise customers, who rely on the network to provide a communication backbone to support their IoT deployments.

Ensuring that everything is connected

Edge computing may currently be a nascent space, but the benefits of capacity, low-latency and scalability it offers represent great potential for the success of next-generation technologies. As operators prepare for a 5G rollout over the next five years, edge computing will become a critical element of mobile network infrastructure. And with the number of connected devices predicted to reach more than 30 billion by 2020, it will soon be adopted by ISPs, cable companies and a range of other service providers too.

As the industry continues to move network infrastructure to the edge, harnessing NFV and cloud technology to deliver new, faster, more efficient services, the need for visibility across these new-look, complex networks becomes abundantly clear if operators are to make the most of their new investment.

Only by employing a smart data solution will operators have the ability they need to monitor the sheer breadth and depth of the IoT ecosystem, and ensure that everything is assured, and every device connected.

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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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