Challenging the limits

Network performance is one of the prime drivers of customer satisfaction
Ericsson, F5, Huawei, Network optimisation, Network performance, Network quality, Networks, Nokia, Oliver wyman, Palo alto, Riverbed, SD WAN, Security, Sonicwall

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Telcos worldwide are grappling with decreasing margins and revenue challenges. Since network activities take up a lion’s share of an operator’s costs, networks are the most likely targets for cost-cuts as well. In such a scenario, it’s essential for operators to prioritise network performance, increase efficiencies to reap good returns on their investments. According to Nokia’s Acquisition and Retention study 2016, 68% of respondents of the study say they would leave an operator over network quality issues. If expectations for quality aren’t met, operators around the world risk losing their customers.

As the market has moved gradually from 2G to 3G to 4G, the benefits have come with their fair share of challenges too. Younes Abad, head of software and network performance, Ericsson Region Middle East says: “Though it’s expected that moving to a new technology usually results in better user experience, according to, unless networks are planned proactively, the technology advantage can sometimes ‘wear off’ quite quickly, especially in data-hungry markets”. So it is essential to look at the ecosystem as a whole and work on both hardware and software as the means to get the most of the deployed technology. “It is very important for operators to employ services and methodologies that increase the utilisation and efficiency of all available technologies and resources in the network, improving the interworking between the networks, in order to provide a seamless experience to end users, while guaranteeing profitable business for the operator,” says Lan Yun, president, carrier network business group (CNBG), Huawei, Middle East.

The right metrics

A network which consistently provides a good customer experience by maintaining superior communications quality has a significant advantage in the marketplace, according to Sari Ayoub, systems engineer at Avaya. The various metrics of network performance include latency; bandwidth or throughput; hardware and software which takes factors such as CPU utilisation, hard drive space and memory use, into consideration.

In the new era where data dominates user services, it is important to measure metrics that reflect the end user experience, according to Abad. Based on surveys conducted by Ericsson covering consumers from five continents, it was concluded that two major metrics affect user satisfaction in a significant way: perceived coverage (right user on right technology) and time to content.

Sean Ettehadieh, head of network planning & optimisation, Middle East & Africa (MEA), Nokia also believes that operators are more and more trying to look to the services they offer to customers. “Service management requires a transformational approach – building from network operations to service quality and customer centric operations. It requires a paradigm shift from control over network elements to managing end user service experience.”

Network performance was historically measured through simple network KPIs, collected either via drive test, or calculated from OSS counters. Both ways would give an indicative idea about network performance from a roads or cells point of view. Yun tells CommsMEA that though nowadays, these are still mandatory, they are not conclusive, as they don’t necessarily map good customer experience. “Thanks to the development of more advanced tools, it’s now possible to monitor performance directly by user, giving an improved insight as seen from the subscriber’s perspective. In the current data-dominated era, it is becoming more important to go one level higher and measure service performance too. As such, the development and standardisation of key quality indicators (KQIs) metrics is becoming imperative.”

Stumbling blocks

Legacy networking technology was designed decades ago and is saddled with unnecessary complexity and protocols- an approach that doesn’t work in today’s application-driven environment. Network planning, service quality and network operations are the main challenges faced in networks.

One of the biggest challenges in the region is the phenomenal growth of data usage. In many cases network capacity is consumed soon after it is deployed. This puts operators in permanent “fire-fighting” mode. Abad says: “At Ericsson, we have been helping our customers to be ‘ahead of the curve’ by taking a broader look at the whole ecosystem, proactively assessing the need, and using predictive analytics to help operators plan accordingly. This has proven more effective in managing user experience and investments.”

Datacentres have become virtualised, along with applications which have moved to the cloud. Networks are next up for virtualisation. The router-heavy, hard-coded, inflexible networks of the past simply cannot support digital services in today’s complex IT environment. Taj ElKhayat, regional vice president, Middle East and Africa at Riverbed Technology, says: “Software-defined wide area networking, or SD-WAN, offers a new and better approach to networking.” According to Ayoub, SDN and peripheral developments are fundamentally altering the industry as value creation moves from traditional networking products to innovative, agile, software solutions.

Making networks perform better

Improving network performance starts by making sure operators “squeeze” the most out of their existing assets. According to Ericsson, one way of achieving this is by implementing a software strategy that delivers the best trade-off between user experience and spectrum/asset usage efficiency. Many cases are witnessed where operators invest in adding more capacity while existing capacity is not optimised. Abad says: “One example is throttling, which many operators used to “punish” heavy users. While this strategy succeeds in that aspect, its side effect is that it lets these heavy users occupy the spectrum longer instead of allowing other users to benefit from it. At Ericsson, we have successfully developed and implemented a process with a few of our customers to optimise software in a way to achieve the best trade-off.”

Another avenue of effective network improvement is through smart capex investments. According to Mark Kremers, Partner in Oliver Wyman’s communication, media and technology practice, aside from upgrading their network technology or acquiring more spectrum, operators can improve performance through densification of networks. “The best solution is driven by the location requirements and often physical constraints. E.g., in urban areas, additional macro sites are often impractical and will not necessarily address the issue in the most cost-efficient way, hence smaller cells are generally pursued to improve network performance. This optimisation work is fairly challenging in a 3G context (e.g., interference issues), but with 4G and the advent of SON (self-organising networks) these challenges are much easier to navigate going forward.” Other relatively recent technology developments include Wi-Fi calling over unlicenced spectrum, which stands to have a small impact in reducing cellular network load and thus improving performance.

Network optimisation contributes to improved network performance. It is basically about three things: data, tools & processes; and people. Andre Sequerah, director product management, InfoVista believes that network optimisation is one of the overlooked areas that can bring about real improvements. The original network plan, once implemented, cannot always cater to the vagaries of network traffic and subscriber movement in a live network.

Based on the root causes, improvement or optimisation efforts are focused on finding ways / recommendations (like changing certain parameters in the network) that will improve the network performance (KPIs). “In Infovista’s own example, we have gone the extra mile to relate Subscriber KPIs to network KPIs, so that network performance is geared towards the people who matter most to the mobile operators, which are the subscribers themselves.”

ElKhayat believes that as the market develops, operators can get ahead of the game by addressing some key networking challenges with related, next-generation monitoring and optimisation solutions. “The most advanced WAN optimisation solutions today ensure optimal service levels of applications across the entire distributed and complex environment, from data centres to branch locations to cloud networks to end users. In addition to traditional WAN optimisation and application acceleration, advanced solutions include cloud-friendly capabilities like QoS and SaaS visibility, and hybrid networking capabilities like path selection and secure transport, which allow IT to prioritise delivery of mission-critical applications over the best available network in real time.”

When more and more subscribers are being added to the network, reliable and consistent data delivery is achievable by optimising the TCP connections that deliver data to and from the subscribers with a solution that sits between the internet and the wireless network. This way it can manage both sides of the connection - the wireless network on the subscriber side and the wide area network on the internet side - ensuring the different performance characteristics of these network technologies are accounted for. A modern approach to TCP optimisation is that can adapt to both sides of the connection.

According to Bart Salaets, head of solution architects EMEA, F5 Networks, “At F5 we are facing up to service provider demands through TCP Express, which is part of our BIG-IP platform. One advantage of this is that the enhancements can be applied to each individual connection, meaning each one is tuned to get the maximum benefit.” He adds that using a TCP optimisation solution of this nature can offer anything between 15% and 100% broadband data transfer improvement. “Those that delay on making the leap with solutions like TCP optimisation will soon feel the heat.”

Nokia EdenNET SON (Self Organising Networks) help to improve Quality of Service (QoS) and lower costs by automating configuration, optimisation and healing. According to Kremers, predictive monitoring is gaining traction, where probes placed in different parts of the network can identify likely network issues before they actually happen. This form of monitoring is also increasingly relying on big data and analytics platforms, which can operate in real or near real time.

Often it’s observed that few sites of the network are underutilised while others are over utilised. How can this be balanced so that every site is productive considering the investment made? Abad advises advanced predictive analytics as one of the ways to achieve the balance. Moreover, he adds: “segmentation is important, when it comes to investment decisions. This allows operators to deploy the “right box” at the right location and using software as a means to “squeeze” more from less.”

Huawei has developed tools that use advanced geo-location algorithms to map the users’ distribution and behaviour together with the services being used by them with high accuracy, which can be displayed for example on “Google maps”. This coupled with the usage of advanced automatic planning tools that employ 3D tracing algorithms, can greatly increase the usability efficiency of sites by accurately and automatically defining the best configuration of each site, that guarantee perfect balance and highest efficiency.

Kremer suggests that any network investment and operations decisions need to be made at the most granular site level – leveraging a deep understanding of expected network usage in that site location. “On top of this, operators can work with dynamic tariffing/pricing: lower prices in areas of low utilisation, and vice versa”.

Network sharing is a key aspect to the balance between user experience and asset utilisation. If done properly it results in a win-win situation for both operators. In the case of passive sharing, operators have the opportunity to get the best of both worlds: i.e. pick the best sites from user experience perspective while reducing their opex. On the other hand, in the case of active sharing, operators are able to optimise their network capacity and hence use of their capex more effectively.

Technology in action

Ericsson recently supported one of its major customers launch LTE and its networks delivered 20-25% better user experience Avaya adopted the Shortest Path Bridging Technology (SPB), which helped in reducing the number of protocols across its various locations and provided improvements on the overall network operation, minimised human errors, enhanced security, and dramatically improved multi-cast and streaming flows across its network.

In one of the use cases, by applying Huawei’s site planning solution, it was possible to identify high value areas that needed network experience boosting, and accordingly these were assigned highest priority for new investment. The result was considerable increase in user experience characterised by an increase of throughput from 150kbps to 1Mbps.

Using Nokia patented methods for interference detection and load simulation its experts were able to reduce unnecessary IRAT (Inter-Radio Access Technology) handovers by up to 20%. As a real-world example of network optimisation, BT has been utilising the Riverbed’s SteelHead application accelerator in its global telecoms network to bolster its cloud of clouds strategy.

Security is not an option

“Gone are the days when achieving a balance between network security and network performance was seen as a dichotomy. Today we are witnessing a convergence of the two”, says Saeed Agha, general manager, Middle East at Palo Alto Networks. He added that “Palo Alto Networks has pioneered the innovative functionality behind next-generation firewalls to safely enable applications and cloud deployments, and allow strong and granular segmentation options based on application, user and content”.

To combat growing security challenges, more and more organisations are migrating away from traditional firewalls. “Next Generation Firewalls (NGFWs) have transformed network security by providing much more robust protection against emerging threats. In addition to traditional firewall features, NGFWs feature a tightly integrated intrusion prevention system (IPS), real-time decryption and inspection of SSL sessions and full control and visualisation of application traffic as it crosses the network”, according to Florian Malecki, international product marketing director at Dell. For example, Dell SonicWALL NGFWs feature SSL decryption and inspection that extends protection to SSL-encrypted traffic, an IPS with advanced anti-evasion technology and cloud-based malware prevention that secures networks from the latest threats.

Software-defined networking can deliver a crucial element of a multi-layered, defence-in-depth security strategy. Reducing the number of attack points, the size of the network attack profile, and obscuring network elements can provide important security benefits

Until now, the offerings of Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have been geared towards mobile broadband and voice packages. However, MNOs are quickly having to prepare for a new third offering: the Internet of Things (IOT).

New use cases for IOT are popping up on an almost daily basis, so the business opportunity for both mobile operators as well as IOT platform providers is very substantial. According to Salaets, MNOs are going to experience a rapid increase in the amount of devices communicating over their networks. This will require a fundamental re-think of the infrastructure enabling these services to run smoothly.

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