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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

How Will Cable MSOs Assure Their MVNO Wireless Services?

Cable multiple system operators (MSOs) in the U.S. are evolving their business models yet again by rolling out their own wireless services. Take Comcast NBCUniversal, for example: the company, which once was predominantly a cable TV provider but now does the bulk of its business through broadband internet access, last April launched Xfinity Mobile, a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) subsidiary that delivers wireless access through a combination of their own wi-fi hotspots and Verizon’s network. Charter Communications has plans to launch a similar offering of its own in 2018, leveraging an MVNO deal it has with Verizon.

Even if their intention is not going head-to-head with mobile network operators (MNOs), at least at first, MSOs in the wireless space nonetheless face significant competitive and customer satisfaction pressures. Making such ventures successful requires forging partnerships that once would have been unthinkable (like Comcast and Charter Communications teaming up to expand both their mobile coverage areas) and using a variety of access technologies, including 3.5 GHz unlicensed LTE spectrum, Wi-Fi (which Comcast used as a marketing point in its Xfinity Mobile launch announcement) and small cells.

Cable MSOs running MVNO business units must first and foremost ensure they’re meeting subscriber expectations. One way to do that is apply artificial intelligence for automated service assurance as they are now doing with broadband internet. Even more traditional methods of performance monitoring, though, requires a uniform method of managing the customer experience across a diversity of access technologies. To be able to act on service disruptions and manage quality of experience (QoE) requires accurate granular visibility that is agnostic to specific vendors, topologies, and access networks. Minute delays, microbursts, and micro-losses can have a profound impact on the customer experience.

As Accedian has helped Cox Communications with for their cable broadband and MVNO services (using customer premises equipment/CPE), the only really reliable method of achieving end-to-end service assurance nowadays is to add a consistent instrumentation layer that essentially resides above interoperability issues on multi-vendor networks. Such instrumentation, which can be mostly or totally virtualized depending on the application, works just as well for MVNO infrastructure as it does for DOCSIS-based cable offerings and traditional mobile networks. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

6 Predictions for the Future of Network Communications in 2018

The future can never be predicted with certainty, of course. But every year we like to try. So, here goes for 2018. 

1. CSPs will strive to own the entire end-to-end digital experience of their end-users

As the boundary between communications service provider (CSP) infrastructure and IT vanishes, operators wishing to stay competitive will strive to delight their customers by not only offering the best performing network, but also by owning and assuring the best digital experience of the end-user journey from initial subscription to end-to-end application performance—whether cloud, streaming, or simply web-based—on any device they use.

Related to this, the repeal of net neutrality in the U.S. may lead to more investment in traffic shaping infrastructure. If cable providers respond by requiring services like Netflix to adequately cover their network costs, choke-points will increase at the access network ingress, causing service level agreement (SLA) compliance to become more important. If they can be sure of their ability to comply with SLAs, CSPs can differentially offer new packages and/or increase prices for access to specific services.

2. CSPs will strive to help enterprises on their digital transformation journey

In 2018, CSPs striving to get away from the dumb-pipe commodity stigma, will start offering “digital transformation assurance-as-a-service.” The purpose of such offerings is to help enterprises transition on-premises corporate apps to the cloud (whether private or public) by assuring the performance of these apps before, during and after such transition. In other words, CSPs will strive to not only be the pipe to the cloud, but also the success-assuring gateway.

3. Revenue challenges will significantly change operator business models

The loss of revenue from voice services (thanks to availability of free Wi-Fi and VoIP) and the escalating demand for data streaming are forcing Tier 1 mobile operators to run their businesses differently. The Internet of Things (IoT) is playing a big role in this dynamic, too. Because the network provisioning costs to offer a low-revenue IoT data subscription are similar to the costs of a $100 per month subscription service, CSPs must fundamentally restructure operating costs to match the revenue opportunity presented by IoT—which essentially comes down to using scarce network resources in the most efficient way possible against any particular revenue opportunity.

During 2018, these already-in-progress, revenue-related changes will accelerate. CSPs will look for new sources of revenue from IoT and related services that can be delivered using a lower-cost (OpEx) but better-performing network. Accedian can help by ensuring they get the most out of their existing networks, and prepare for 5G, with cutting-edge but lightweight and affordable performance assurance technology.

4. Virtualized/hybrid SD-WAN will play a significant role in CSP strategies 

In 2018, several CSPs will deploy so-called “hybrid SD-WAN” or “virtualized SD-WAN”, where they will leverage a combination of SD-WAN with their existing Layer-2 access infrastructure to maximize footprint and reach, pool compute resources at mini-datacenters instead of at every customer premises equipment (CPE) location, and offer Layer-2 services out-of-franchise. This will yield lower CapEx and OpEx, improved reliability, and faster SD-WAN install.

5. “Early 5G” will arrive… whatever that means

According to general doctrine, 5G requires a new standalone RAN specification, and use of millimeter wave spectrum (30-300 GHz). But “early 5G”, expected to reach commercial viability over the next year or so probably won’t hit both, or even either, of those requirements. So is “early 5G” really 5G? Is it just 4.5G dressed up as 5G? Maybe. Does it really matter? True 5G is a revolutionary step up to a new kind of mobile, but getting there inevitably is an incremental process.

What can new or upgraded networks and services do? That’s what really matters; the actual technology used to get there is a moving target. 5G isn’t really one “thing” anyway, but instead an increasingly complex root system that must be carefully and intelligently managed to keep it healthy. During 2018, getting as close to gigabit LTE as possible, and reducing latency, remain the big goals for the evolution of mobile. We’ll see significant progress on both fronts this year.

6. Edge computing will earn its rightful place as vital to 5G

As FierceMarkets pointed out, without edge computing 5G is merely a glorified version of 4G, using more spectrum to deliver more bandwidth. True 5G, you could argue, requires fundamental network architecture changes to achieve—among other things—significantly lower latency. 2018 will bring more mobile network and enterprise network edge deployments. Whether you define these as actually being part of 5G yet, it’s a step in the right direction.

As the number of endpoints in carrier networks multiply, CSPs will need very cost-effective solutions to manage network quality. Those solutions need to capitalize on the push to edge computing. Beyond the access considerations, moving compute loads (network functions/slices) through the edge computing network will need to be targeted and dynamically location optimized to ensure required delay characteristics. Players with small footprint, virtual plays are likely to be successful in helping operators with this challenge.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Oh no! SD-WAN means the return of vendor lock?! Help!

In the traditional world of hardware routing, software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) are attractive because they theoretically free operators and enterprises from the constraints of proprietary infrastructure (hardware and software). SDN opens up the control plane, making it possible to cast aside the handcuffs of vendor lock. 

Or does it?

On the access side at the customer premises, operators face the significant challenge of orchestrating all the many virtual network functions (VNFs) involved with virtualized networking. Amidst this confusing new landscape, lack of defined standards to which software vendors can write code, and the struggle to bring IT and network operations organizations together, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN)—which essentially refers to SDN technology applied to enterprise WAN networks—has become the first meaningful step toward software-based network automation. It provides a self-contained, orchestrated environment for these virtualized network functions.

Potential benefits of SD-WAN include the opportunity for operators and service providers to:
  • simplify WANs and positively refactor managed service business models
  • leverage favorable economics of commodity broadband in a hybrid WAN network
  • more easily use combos of private MPLS, broadband, or LTE
  • put integrated intelligence policy engines to work dynamically optimizing cloud app connectivity

With SD-WAN, vendor lock returns on steroids. Each vendor offers its own proprietary SD-WAN controller and management plane as well as edge devices. Oh, the irony. Operators and enterprises are adopting SD-WAN out of need for speed and agility, to reduce OpEx, and to create new revenue opportunities. Hitting all three points requires SD-WAN solutions that integrate with existing systems, for easy management and fault detection. This has led back to vendor-specific solutions. In striving to get away from vendor lock, operators (and the enterprises they serve) find themselves shackled even more heavily than before.

For operators selling managed services, using SD-WAN may offer short term operational advantages, but with the inflexibility of no multi-vendor interoperability, it will threaten the operators with higher costs in the longer term. Why? Once an installed base of a given SD-WAN vendor is deployed, there is no way to introduce a second SD-WAN vendor edge device without deploying the full centralized control and management planes. This is actually not the case today with traditional routing technology. If an operator starts with one vendor and later wants to change to another, or combine more than one, it means refactoring all the operational IT infrastructure. Management, monitoring, control, and other functions are different for each vendor’s technology.

Beyond centralized controllers, performance monitoring and assurance is another challenge with multi-vendor SD-WAN environments. It’s true that each vendor uses software algorithms to measure one link’s performance relative to others, steer applications based on priority, and offer network measurements from end to end. However, SD-WAN is fundamentally an overlay solution by its very nature. Therefore, the underlay network performance cannot be measured with the great accuracy and granularity. Further, no underlay network infrastructure segmentation is available to pinpoint network issues and reduce mean time to repair (MTTR); the overlay network is blind to these.

This is where Accedian comes in. Our SkyLIGHT solution provides a uniform monitoring and assurance platform across the entire SD-WAN infrastructure. It now includes application-aware monitoring, giving full visibility into multi-vendor SD-WAN environments.

So, at least when it comes to monitoring and assurance, there is light at the end of the SD-WAN vendor lock tunnel.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Economist: Mobile Operators Feel the Pinch of Market, Tech, and Regulatory Changes

As of June 2017, there were 7 billion mobile subscribers, representing two-thirds of the world’s population, Economist said in the Telecoms section of its Industries in 2018 report, citing GSMA data.

Let that sink in for a minute. 7 billion. And that’s just people. Let alone Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

You know what comes next… this is both an opportunity and challenge for telecom operators and service providers.

“Resulting financial strains … may prompt a rethink of strategy and investment priorities,” Economist said in its report.

Half Full or Half Empty?
In response to subscriber and data usage growth, Economist expects that during 2018 operators will focus on expanding their 4G coverage in developing markets (like India and Sub-Saharan Africa), and improving reliability in more developed regions.

Overall, telecom will continue to be a buyer’s market, with consumers generally enjoying “a range of cheap data-rich packages.” Operators, however, are feeling the pinch of tight margins, as the “insatiable appetite for mobile connectivity” forces them to make large capital expenditures even as competition forces prices down, resulting in lower average revenue per user (ARPU). Economist predicts that over the next year mobile operator ARPU will fall by 2.3%.

It doesn’t help that the boundary between telecom and IT is blurring, and telecoms are “vulnerable to takeovers from internet players such as Facebook and Google.” Market competition forces really are different now, and will continue to change.

“The days when operators could rely on revenue from a reliable voice and SMS service are long gone,” Economist said in its report. “Competition from over-the-top (OTT) providers such as WhatsApp, Skype and Netflix has backed the telecoms sector into a corner. Now it faces a new challenge from app developers, whose business interests are expanding rapidly.”

Overall, Economist said market pressures mean telecom companies will struggle with revenue challenges, even as subscriber numbers continue to grow.

During 2018, Economist expects “total telecoms revenue in the 60 biggest markets to fall by 2% … This will largely reflect a 3% rise in telecoms investment as operators spend money on connectivity, which they hope will pay off in the longer term.”

Adapting to Change
How can and should telecom operators adapt? Economist suggests three strategies:

  1. Offer new, differentiated OTT services
  2. Enable a wider range of mobile applications
  3. Build greater flexibility into backhaul infrastructure using software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV)

On the bright side, continued IoT growth will create new revenue streams for some telecom companies.

Regulating Change
When Economist’s report went to press, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission hadn’t yet repealed Net Neutrality, but topic did get a mention.

“Were net neutrality to be overturned, it could allow companies such as Verizon and AT&T to reassert their dominance in a market that is already narrowing,” Economist noted.

Meanwhile in Europe, “the elimination of EU roaming charges will bite further into the margins of telecoms companies in 2018.” And, contrasting strongly with the U.S., it looks unlikely that the EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, will ease up on merger and acquisition scrutiny, nor will the European Parliament pursue deregulation, anytime soon, Economist said.

In October, the parliament acknowledged that operators need encouragement to invest in 5G, but “limited the regulatory benefits enjoyed by operators that team up to deliver next-generation connectivity,” and voted that regulators should be “given greater powers to tackle ‘joint dominance’ and oligopolistic behaviour.”

Developing markets are yet another landscape for regulatory forces. Rapid market growth creates intense competition, and sometimes that forces regulators to intervene, Economist noted.

Two examples cited in the report:

  • In Mexico, America Movil’s takeover of Telmex won it two-thirds of the mobile market
  • In India, Reliance Jio has forced competitor’s hands with free and low-cost packages
Other forces at work affecting the telecom market, mentioned in the Economist report, include continuing development of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, struggles around cyber-security, and the availability (or lack thereof) of investment capital for new and upgraded telecom networks.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

SD-WAN Will Really Take Off When It Gets Its Act Together

What’s the appeal of SD-WAN?

Here’s how Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) frames the market forces and problems that SD-WAN is touted as addressing, in its white paper Understanding SD-WAN Managed Services:

The internet has become a global fabric that connects people and machines—an on-demand, real-time set of programmable systems. It now must provide more value than just bandwidth. Particularly noteworthy is the way apps have moved to cloud, becoming “an IT utility for a globalized and mobile workforce,” MEF said in its paper. (Reproduced with permission of the MEF Forum.)

But, it takes too long to get new interconnect sites and clouds (public or private) up and running. To get all sites of a multinational business connected can take many months, for example. Even simple changes like bandwidth adjustments can take weeks.

SD-WAN has the potential to solve these and other problems—bringing value for telcos, ISPs, MSOs, cloud providers, managed service providers, and SD-WAN tech providers. SD-WAN adoption is driven by the need to speed up service provisioning, scale the network on-demand, adjust to market dynamics, dynamically tailor apps, and reduce network connectivity service costs.

What’s holding SD-WAN back?

However, cautioned MEF in its paper, SD-WAN suffers from a lack of standardization around deployment, architecture, and APIs. Even the terminology is inconsistent. Definitions abound, but for MEF, an SD-WAN is an IP-based, secure overlay network that can operate over any type of access network. Other fundamental tenets of SD-WAN, the organization said in its paper, include:
  • Ability to service-assure each ‘tunnel’ in real-time
  • Customer premises, application-driven packet forwarding up to OSI Layer 7
  • Packet forwarding over multiple WANs at each site
  • Policy-based packet forwarding
  • Automatic, centralized configuration of customer premises equipment
  • Use of WAN optimization
Other deployment challenges for SD-WAN include inadequate OSS/BSS systems, lack of integration with legacy infrastructure, insufficient or incomplete standards, and too-high deployment costs.

But, that’s not all. Communications service providers (CSPs) and managed service providers (MSPs) may not be fully committed to adopting SD-WAN, in some cases because they see it as a threat to existing services like MPLS-based VPNs. That’s becoming less of an issue, but is still a factor; 45% see it as an opportunity, 37% see it as an opportunity and a threat, and only 4% see it as solely a threat, according to a MEF survey cited in its paper.

For MEF, SD-WAN managed services are one use case for its Third Network vision of connectivity that’s agile, assured, and orchestrated using standard, open LSO APIs. As the reality of SD-WAN gets closer to that vision, it should prove even more valuable and lucrative for service providers and network operators.


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Two Ways DOCSIS 3.1 is Changing the Cable MSO Market

Now that DOCSIS 3.1 has been out for a few years, it’s becoming more clear how this latest-generation cable modem specification is changing the multiple-system operator (MSO) market. Mainly, of course, the technology allows cable MSOs to to deliver gigabit broadband using existing hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) infrastructure with relatively minimal upgrade investment. Here are two ways that’s playing out in the marketplace.

1. New capabilities lead to new business opportunities
Oddly enough, enthusiasm around DOCSIS 3.1 is more muted than it was for 3.0, given that it’s a major upgrade involving changes that enable 10 times increase in bandwidth. Perhaps not with that much fanfare, however, this capability is nonetheless allowing cable MSOs to expand up-market with sophisticated business and residential services. Support for up to 10 Gbit/s downstream and 1 Gbit/s upstream open up some some pretty interesting business opportunities, such as cloud-based services, enterprise software-as-a-service (SaaS), high-bandwidth branch access to data centers, and over-the-top (OTT) managed services to remote locations.

And that’s not the only benefit touted by founding developer CableLabs, which also include the ability to transmit up to 50 percent more data over the same spectrum on existing HFC networks, and increased modem energy efficiency using advanced management protocols. Together, these and other features have the potential to help cable MSOs position themselves as providers of choice for high-speed internet connections and applications.

The effect of these capabilities will only deepen when a ‘full duplex’ version of the specification—announced last February and still in innovation-project mode—is eventually released. That upgrade allow use of the full cable plant spectrum upstream and downstream simultaneously.

2. QoE features increase the need for service monitoring and assurance

Another notable feature of DOCSIS 3.1 is its use of software-defined (SD-WAN), paired with software-defined networking (SDN) and new quality of service (QoS) capabilities—most notably, its use of active queue management to reduce delay and improve responsiveness for bandwidth-intensive, latency-sensitive applications. These enable new cloud- and software-based managed service opportunities. For example, firewall-secured branch internet connectivity to a public cloud can reduce cost and accelerate performance to corporate data centers. Such services are also the final straw to poach entry-level fiber-based services and legacy MPLS offerings and make MSOs a bigger competitor in the premium business services market.

The trick is, MSOs must be able to commit to guaranteed uptime, bandwidth availability, and rapid mean time to repair (MTTR) if they hope to succeed in the enterprise market. Sophisticated performance assurance visibility is necessary to meet business service level agreements (SLAs), and make the most of the QoS specification. Because cloud connectivity and software-as-a-service applications are operationally crucial, businesses are more concerned about performance and reliability than pure bandwidth. Therefore GbE services must be on par with fiber-based offerings.

But, as great as DOCSIS 3.1 is, cable modems still don’t offer integrated performance monitoring, service turn-up testing, and operations and maintenance (OAM) demarcation. Today, services require a multi-box solution to deliver network services and service OAM (SOAM). Such features must somehow be added, without also piling on a burdensome level of CapEx and OpEx to the equation.

Accedian can help in this area; we’ve been very successful working with MSOs on the use of network functions virtualization (NFV) to deliver network interface device (NID) functionality in a small, programmable module that adds the missing assurance features mentioned above. It’s a lightweight, quickly deployed way to assure the full business services over DOCSIS (BSoD) lifecycle.