Virtual networks, real challenges: a consistent customer experience

Written by on May 11, 2016 in Guest Blog with 0 Comments

journeyFrom 2G to 3G and on to LTE, each significant milestone in the mobile lifecycle has increased the complexity of managing networks. The shift to LTE has had the biggest impact to date, putting additional pressure on operators to deliver a consistent quality of experience to a user base now heavily reliant on data services. At a time when OTT applications are capturing subscriber attention and are having a direct impact on traditional operator revenue streams this has become a highly complicated issue, even if it’s not a new one.

Operators have faced the challenge of reducing operating costs while increasing the speed of service delivery for a long time, which is especially true in the modern IP-based mobile environment. To solve this problem, operators need to increase revenue by creating new services in an agile manner and reduce cost simultaneously.   This had led operators to opt for an alternative approach – revolutionising the mobile network through Network Function Virtualisation (NFV).

Form as well as function

NFV, however, is not without its own challenges. Although much has been said about the benefits of virtualising networks and the impact this will have in helping operators to quickly launch new services and reduce operational expenditure in the long run, few have considered the short-term implications for the subscriber or, indeed, business customer.

The biggest advantage of NFV is also its Achilles’ heel in terms of maintaining a consistent Quality of Service. Through NFV, mobile operators are finding themselves in an environment that’s increasingly software-defined. Just as enterprise IT has gone through a process of virtualisation, where functions such as storage are controlled via software rather than hardware, mobile operators are now looking to virtualise network node functions such as session border control, firewalls, and encryption. This increased agility found in a virtualised environment means that the mobile network can be adapted quickly. But, unsurprisingly, it also increases the potential for service disruption to occur, which has made the shift to NFV a double-edged sword.

Service assurance: in plain view

This challenge is largely being driven by the current industry landscape. Today’s increasingly competitive mobile environment demands total service uptime, which means every virtualised experience must be of the highest quality – rapid, responsive, and delivered without disruption. With this in mind, there’s no avoiding the fact that an operator’s ability to maintain a consistent subscriber experience during the shift from a physical to virtualised network design will make or break the overall success of NFV initiatives. Real-time tracking and monitoring of network resources, therefore, is even more important in a virtualised environment, helping to flag network issues and allow operators to resolve problems as they emerge, long before the end user even becomes aware of them.

For operators, this may feel like a temporary step backwards. In the physical network environment they have streamlined hardware performance over the past decade, with great success. Through ‘on-the-fly’ analysis of network data, operators can identify root causes of issues immediately and rapidly restore service levels. Such analytical approaches are fundamentally important to understanding network and application performance, and are vital to assuring the quality and continuity of services delivered over virtualised networks.

Working with the right service assurance provider will become a necessity as a result. Not only to retain the end-to-end visibility operators have come to expect, but to help them unlock the valuable commercial driver that NFV represents without damaging their bottom line in the process. By doing so, operators will also be able to pre-empt service issues or network degradation by constantly monitoring and adapting network performance in real-time, thereby extending the role of service assurance beyond troubleshooting and issue prevention into an end-to-end resource management capability.

A secure future for mobile operators

Big data will also have a key role to play in making this a reality. In addition to working with an advanced service assurance provider, operators will need to get a handle on the wealth of information residing on their networks for the purpose of predictive analytics. This will help identify trends, patterns, and subscriber behaviour, which will be infinitely useful when it comes to maximising network performance and thereby improving QoE. Taking an approach like this will also give operators the insights needed to dynamically scale resources to cope with unexpected changes in network traffic. Combined with network automation, through a system fed by big data pulled from the network in real time, operators can truly make their networks work for them.

Ultimately, the migration to network virtualisation will be a gradual process. Although some implementations are already in place and interest in NFV has ramped up significantly in recent years, both physical and virtual assets will continue to exist side by side for some time. Yet this only goes to show how important service assurance and real-time monitoring software that’s capable of supporting a hybrid network design will be for operators going forward. With virtualised networks representing a patchwork of different and ever-changing network functions, it’s now imperative that operators consider how to best maintain the quality of subscriber experience at all times. The key to the success and rewards of NFV deployments will depend on the quality and serviceability it delivers to the operator and the subscribers, through a reliable service assurance visibility layer.

 

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Said Saadeh

About the Author

About the Author: Said Saadeh is senior director of products and portfolio management with NETSCOUT’s Service Provider Business Unit. In this role, he currently leads the company’s virtualisation-solution programs. Said has been with Tektronix Communications, recently acquired by NETSCOUT, for more than 15 years. He was previously the VP of engineering at Novatel Wireless/Enfora, a M2M wireless module provider. .

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