End-to-end network assurance: the key to the 5G treasure chest

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Richard Piasentin, Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Strategy Officer at Accedian, explores the role of network assurance in the implementation of 5G.

The mobile industry is gearing up to 5G, and we’re now well aware of the value-added services 5G can and could bring. But these opportunities also come with increased network complexity. Most operators today have a fairly good idea about how they’re going to get to 5G. What’s less clear: how to overcome the challenges that will make 5G a success.

While 5G presents myriad new opportunities for operators, one thing will remain as important as it has been with 2G, 3G and 4G: user experience. Today, failure to properly understand and then fix user problems is the single biggest cause of churn. But ensuring network quality of experience (QoE) and quality of service (QoS) has been no easy feat for operators.

5G won’t magic away those challenges, and its complexity presents a serious management challenge for service providers: how can they assure both their networks and the service layer to deliver a perfect customer experience?

5G network transformation

The opportunities brought about by 5G are set to completely change the definition of the mobile operator. No longer just an access technology, 5G is going to positively revolutionise how humans interact with mobile devices. For operators, these opportunities potentially bring new revenue, but only if they can provide a user experience that is worthy of the 5G name.

Traditionally, operators have turned to test and measurement and monitoring tools to gather insight into what happens within their network. “Fix the network and we fix the user experience,” went the mantra. But while these solutions have proved adequate, it’s time for a rethink.

Not only are 5G networks more complex than their predecessors, they are also completely transformed. 5G will use network slicing to open up the network “as a service” to third parties and their various applications. The majority of these applications will reside outside of the network layer, in the service layer (Layers 4-7). This brings service-level performance and user experience into sharp focus as these applications become inextricably intertwined with their host slice. As a result, traditional monitoring tools designed only for the network layer will be no longer be fit for purpose in this new 5G environment.

In this newly created environment, humans will simply be incapable of managing the interplay and orchestration of the micro services on which applications depend. The ultra-fast orchestration required to react within microseconds to dynamic changes in the network is a key part of maintaining a cohesive, integrated compute experience. Humans aren’t quick enough, or smart enough to be able to keep up. Here, artificial intelligence (AI) will play an important role in orchestration by self-learning from network KPIs to rapidly establish what constitutes “normal” or acceptable impairments, relative to impairments that are affecting end-user applications.

From NOC to 5G SOC

To overcome this challenge, operators are shifting their attention away from the Network Operation Centre (NOC) and toward establishing the Service Operation Centre (SOC). The growing pressure to deliver an excellent customer experience (while reducing churn) means operators are transforming their legacy processes and systems into an architecture that can proactively manage actual QoE in real time. The SOC is key to this approach, helping operators move from reactive to predictive methods of dealing with network downtime.

SOCs are helping to bridge the worlds of network operations, commercial teams, and automation capabilities. For operators, this move away from network centricity and toward service (customer) centricity will make 5G a reality. Without a single, end-to-end comprehensive solution that can span both the network and application/service layer, and monitor activity on a “per slice” basis, operators will find themselves blind to what is really happening across their network.

SOCs are key to getting the real time, actionable insight that goes beyond the network layers. SOCs are focused on monitoring, in real time, all the service components for each customers. This helps operators to prioritise and resolve issues that may impact high value, ‘VIP’ customers or customers at risk of churning. The SOC does this by providing a single view in real time of the subscriber experience across all networks (edge and core, fixed and mobile), devices and services, applications and related domains being used to understand the complete experience of the end-user. Without this level of granular visibility, it will simply be impossible for humans to understand exactly what is happening at any point in the network.

SOC success

Establishing an effective SOC is no easy feat, however, and there are several ingredients that make up a successful recipe. Moving to a customer-centric SOC requires a huge collaborative effort, not only on the technical architecture but the entire organisation to develop a customer-centric culture and organisational process models.

One key aspect of a successful SOC is the provision of timely, relevant, accurate KPIs and key quality indicators (KQIs). These requirements point to the need for a context-based service assurance and service quality management (SQM) architecture. The purpose of this SQM architecture: provide a SOC with the insight it needs to deliver 5G QoE: network, service and application performance perspective; real-time network, service and application monitoring; multi-layer troubleshooting; dynamic and automated network topology awareness for performance management; and much more.

Provisioning these elements depends on having the correct network performance and monitoring tools. The appropriate solution should be interoperable with any SOC architecture, work effectively in an NFV/SDN environment with or without physical instrumentation, and have the ability to feed events and data into the SOC platform to provide a more complete view of the customer experience. The SOC can then take processed data and either perform closed loop actions directly on the network or use the monitoring platform to increase the level of granularity, gaining an even more precise view of performance.

Ultimately, a successful SOC is nothing without the right tools. Performance monitoring solutions must encompass passive and active monitoring; network and application performance analytics and machine learning; and automation APIs to support SDN orchestration. With such tools, operators will be well-positioned to guarantee excellent QoE.

5G’s silver lining

Looking ahead to 5G, the quality of performance data will not only depend on the granularity, precision and accuracy of the performance management system, but also on the ability to dynamically measure network and service slices on-demand ‘per customer’. It will also be vital that operators have the ability to process that data before it is fed into the orchestration model.

Without the right tools, operators will struggle to extend visibility to the performance of services and infrastructure typically outside of their control. This will have a direct impact on how customers view and interact with an operator’s brand. In an age where good service and ease of use are some of consumers’ top priorities, failure to guarantee maximum QoE will inevitably detract from operators’ bottom line.

 

Richard PAs Chief Marketing and Chief Strategy Officer at Accedian, Richard is responsible for our strategic planning process and investment priorities, ensuring we create and develop a consistent brand communications and marketing strategy, and drives our commercialization efforts in the areas of global product pricing, solution marketing, and business development. Richard began his career at Nortel Networks in 1992 as a test engineer for their public carrier switching division. From there, he segued into focusing on the wireless industry, taking on a variety of senior roles at Nortel within sales, operations, and supply chain during his 17 years at the company. After Nortel, he was vice president and general manager for BlackBerry’s North American business, and general manager of Viavi’s Visibility, Intelligence and Analytics (VIA) business unit.

Why assurance and analytics are crucial for 5G and microservices

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Scott Sumner, Director of Business Analytics at Accedian, insists that future telecoms offerings are going to need a lot more management to succeed.

Mobile network operator (MNO) revenues are currently flat, thanks to today’s saturated subscriber markets and mature network technologies. To address this unsustainable situation, MNOs are planning for their futures by transforming themselves into digital service providers (DSPs). According to World Economic Forum estimates, operators intend to grow their digital services from nearly nothing to a quarter of their revenue by 2020.

To do so, they’ll need to take advantage of the disruption offered by 5G’s exponentially faster speeds and bigger bandwidth. In this way, they can go beyond simple data connectivity and voice, and take advantage of the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT), content delivery, and enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) applications.

They’ll build up and grow a wide range of new and diverse digital services; everything from content streaming and broadcast TV, to remote smart home features, to other cloud-hosted services.

The foundation for all of these new services and capabilities will be the mobile network itself and the connectivity and intelligence it contains. The network will be the platform for future DSPs to deliver the new generation of services.

But becoming a DSP is a multifaceted transformation and won’t happen in one fell swoop. So what do operators need to do to evolve?

Network as a platform

If operators are to truly harness the expanded 5G network and service capabilities, they need to move from pipeline to platform provider. This should see operators transform themselves into mobile cloud operators where access to content and applications is provided via open APIs that allow the network to be consumed on demand, and monetized accordingly. This new “cloud native” operator will be able to manage and deliver services over a highly distributed, virtualized, on-demand environment.

In doing this, operator networks will be able to dynamically spin up and tear down resources, reallocating capacity as needed to deliver exceptional quality of experience (QoE) to customers. Ultimately, the network will become multi-tenanted, with secured slices providing virtual, private infrastructure that can be leased out to allow third-parties to plug into the network as they wish. All the while, voice and broadband service will continue to be delivered without interruption.

Microservices

As mobile cloud operators come into their own, the presence and use of microservices will become crucial. Microservices allow large applications to be broken down into small, loose, composable pieces that are able to act independently of each other. These microservices, managed and maintained using emerging network management and orchestration (MANO) solutions, allow for greater agility and better resource allocation and enable operators to meet the demands and challenges of 5G networks.

But while microservices provide great benefits to mobile operators, several challenges come with their implementation. Their deliberately fragmented, multi-tenant infrastructure means that traditional monitoring solutions are incapable of delivering the level of visibility required to bring “awareness” across the entire infrastructure. What’s more, the cloud native infrastructure requires operators to ensure every application has its required level of performance and availability, while converting underutilized capacity into revenue.

While this balancing act may seem like a tough nut to crack, the good news is that many leading operators have already shown it is possible by using real-time analytics to control the network, with performance and QoE measured as a feedback loop. The next step lies in applying this concept to the realm of a consumable cloud platform. This should see visibility extended into the mobile cloud, which is typically outside of the operator’s control.

If operators are to successfully harness their transformation into mobile cloud operators, with open source microservices, they must implement a new, augmented form of visibility to keep up with these cloud-native applications.

Augmented monitoring

Monitoring a cloud native microservices environment requires a revision of traditional monitoring capabilities. Indeed, monitoring should very much adopt a microservices architecture in line with the services it is monitoring. As lightweight agents, capable of being spun up in affinity with new services interacting with each other, new relationships and new resource demands will emerge and so the monitoring of these microservices will need to adapt to the ever-changing applications they assure.

Without total visibility into all consumers of network resources, including their unique demands and quality expectations, would-be DSPs will struggle to successfully choreograph service requirements and share measured service levels with ‘subscribers’ via the same APIs they use to connect to the platform.

Ultimately, the applications will be able to intelligently adapt to the network—in a similar way, for example, to how Netflix changes bitrate according to available bandwidth—while also permitting value-added service level agreements (SLAs). By delivering this assured mobile cloud, DSPs will go beyond competing on price, and towards differentiating themselves based on performance, user experience, and value-added rich analytics insight.

Seizing the opportunity

As 5G slowly creeps up on the operator community, there exists an opportunity to accelerate digital transformation strategies through cloud native infrastructure and microservices. But these new infrastructures cannot come to be value-adding propositions for operators if they are not monitored and assured in a way that guarantees complete coverage and visibility.

Operators need to take on the challenge of designing, standardising, and driving the adoption of monitoring microservices. Failure to do so will see telcos quickly miss out on the added opportunities 5G networks will offer.

 

Accedian Scott SumnerScott has extensive experience in wireless, Carrier Ethernet and service assurance, with over 15 years of experience including roles as GM of Performant Networks, Director of Program Management & Engineering at MPB Communications, VP of Marketing at Minacom (Tektronix), and Aethera Networks (Positron / Marconi), Partnership and M&A Program Manager at EXFO, as well as project and engineering management roles at PerkinElmer Optoelectronics (EG&G).  Scott has participated in numerous acquisitions and industry partnerships, and has authored numerous patents and conference papers on telecommunications technology.