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Examining network functions virtualisation

25 Apr 2016  | Said Saadeh

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Operators are well acquainted with change. From 2G to 3G and on to LTE, each significant milestone in the mobile lifecycle has increased the complexity of managing the network. 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 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 long faced the challenge of reducing operating costs while increasing the speed of service delivery, especially in the modern IP-based mobile environment. They are currently experiencing the two-pronged attack of price pressures along with managing demand for network capacity to support next-generation services amid the rigidity of the telecoms landscape. Progress is slow. This had led operators to take an alternative approach – revolutionising the mobile network through Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV).


Form and function
The biggest benefit 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.

The increased agility of a virtualised environment means mobile operators can adapt their networks quickly, and new operator-branded services can be added in minutes rather than days. There still exists the complexity of running and troubleshooting a network. But this new agility adds another set of variables to the equation. The criticality of having best-in-class service assurance is paramount. Furthermore, there is an increased potential for service disruption to occur, which has made the shift to NFV a double-edge sword. Although operators can improve user experience by being able to deploy new applications and functionality closer to the network edge, subscriber churn or reputation damage is bound to happen if said operator delivers anything less than stellar and consistent performance.

This challenge is partly driven by today's industry landscape. The increasingly competitive mobile environment demands total service uptime, meaning that every NFV mobile experience must be of the highest quality – rapid, responsive, and without disruption. With this in mind, there's no avoiding the fact 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 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.


Service assurance: In plain view
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.

Operators are already accustomed to having full visibility of activity across their legacy and all-IP networks, yet the same cannot be said for new virtualised assets. There's also a greater degree of complexity that must be managed in the case of NFV-enabled networks. This is because many of the virtualised functions that make up a virtualised network are absolutely critical to service quality, including authentication services, routing and switching functionality, and domain name services. If operators cannot view the performance of these elements in real-time, it is highly likely that the end user experience will suffer.

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