Karl Triebes is the Chief Technical Officer at F5 Networks; he is responsible for overseeing the company’s technology roadmap and engineering team. Prior to joining F5, Mr Triebes was CTO and Vice President of Engineering at Foundry Networks in San Jose, where he was responsible for the strategic direction of corporate product architectures, including the technology roadmap. Karl Triebes received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from San Diego State University.
Today, mobile network Operators (MNOs), increasingly offer high-speed, 3G, wireless broadband. Devices such as the iPhone, and the services they make possible, are among the chief drivers of demand for mobile broadband. Although broadband generates significant revenues, for mobile operators it also creates network capacity and performance challenges that operators must meet to maintain their quality of service and retain their subscribers. LTE, a 4G technology, will provide broadband speeds of up to 100MBPS, 20 times faster than DSL connections.
The world’s gone wireless Once considered an expensive luxury, access to high-speed broadband was limited by reliance on fixed networks. Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), long envious of the lucrative broadband services offered by their fixed network counterparts, can now get their piece of the pie by taking advantage of high speed wireless 3G networks. According to the GSMA, investment by MNOs in this huge potential market will absorb the lion’s share of the £549 billion telecoms operator infrastructure spending over the next five years1. This investment reflects a remarkable shift in data consumption, one where consumers can now take advantage of high-speed browsing on the move. Two points are worth highlighting: • by 2014, two billion of us will have access to mobile broadband, a lucrative market valued at £94 billion by Ovum2; and • by 2013, Forrester has predicted that 125 million Europeans will access the Web through mobile devices3. Mobile broadband hotspots Improvements in mobile consumer devices drive much of this growth. It seems easy to overstate the importance of the iPhone, but it is a visible example of the change now underway. Just as dongles running at 3G speed revolutionised laptop access to the Internet by removing the need to be near wireless hotspots, the iPhone made the user experience for hand-held mobile Web browsing acceptable or even pleasurable. Asia is a key target market for operators to penetrate. By 2014, China is predicted to have just 52.5 million laptop users versus 325 million handset users. With 40 per cent of mobile users expected to originate from Asia Pacific, global adoption of mobile broadband will largely follow handset growth in the region. The Middle East growth will lead to nearly 50 million mobile broadband users by 20124. Underpinning this surge are operators, such as Etisalat, offering High Speed Packet Access (HSPA+), luring consumers with download speeds of up to 28.8MBPS and upload speeds of up to 18MBPS5. Front-end fun, back-end headaches Whilst worldwide consumer demand for mobile data services is creating unparalleled revenue opportunities for MNOs, by dint of the consumption shift detailed above, it is also creating network capacity and performance challenges. To continue to provide rich content, and maintain high levels of Quality-of-Service to subscribers, without over-taxing network resources, MNOs must examine alternatives in service delivery infrastructure. Mobile broadband presents a number of infrastructure-related challenges driven by consumer demand for large amounts of wireless data through a multitude of mobile devices. MNO requirements centre on seamless delivery, scalability, availability, and performance for complex applications in very large-scale networks, with traffic flowing through multiple data centres. Under-performing networks quickly expose latency and downtime issues, both of which severely reduce service levels and directly affect ARPU. Tapping into more cost-efficient technologies to serve, optimise and consolidate applications on the network is one way to meet this growing demand, overcoming infrastructure challenges by adopting a more intelligent view of data, both on the network and in terms of the devices that connect to it. In order to keep up with the demands of 3G and the performance offerings of future 4G networks, performance and scalability must sit at the core of the MNOs’ service delivery business models. Better use of legacy infrastructure One aspect of addressing this problem includes examining bandwidth control solutions. Many MNOs have legacy infrastructures, built typically using Cisco and Nortel equipment that is nearing the end of its life. This makes available bandwidth a critical issue. On one hand, mobile operators realise network traffic is growing rapidly, and at the same time cost reduction and cost efficiencies are imperative. This is driving a real desire to use existing resources in a more intelligent way. In order to scale networks intelligently to handle greater volumes, application traffic flowing through the network must be interpreted correctly and routed via the optimal service path, dependant on specific parameters. Application performance is affected by many network and application logic-related factors that must be addressed in order to achieve satisfactory application performance levels. At the network level, application performance is limited by high latency (the effect of physical distance), jitter, packet loss and congestion. Operators have historically perceived application traffic optimisation as complicated and expensive, requiring multi-tiered deployments of application delivery controllers (ADCs). However, developments in the ability to both consolidate the infrastructure and add real Layer 7 (applications layer) intelligence allow Tier 1 operators to have more control over the traffic on their networks. This has driven a growing recognition that networks can run more efficiently through closer management of applications and application traffic. One successful route that MNOs have taken uses ‘context-awareness’ in their networks. Advantages of this approach include recognising device type (mobile, laptop etc.), identifying the pay plan users are on and therefore the content they should be served, as well as how much of the ‘pipe’ (transmission capacity) they can use. These factors allow operators to attribute a much more meaningful value to each end user, and identify which users they want or need to keep. Where is it all going? Innovations in mobile broadband opened doors for other technologies to emerge and revolutionise the way users connect to the Internet. Some expect the growth of IPTV, social networking sites and Web applications for Internet access to be the catalyst for the death of television in Europe. According to Microsoft’s report, Europe logs on: Internet trends of today & tomorrow6, consumers will increasingly use mobile devices as a “natural port of call for Web browsing, social networking, and other dimensions of their digital lives”. Widgets, applications and mobile video already access the Internet through a burgeoning number of mobile devices. Consumers now pressure operators not only for competitive pricing, but also for bulletproof service with zero latency. Long-Term Evolution (LTE) provides a broadband bridge between the mobile and consumer electronics worlds for devices such as digital cameras, smart phones, portable games consoles and notebooks. Aimed at providing consumers with a home broadband experience in a mobile environment, LTE is set to transform the world of mobile broadband with technologies such as HD (high definition) available on the move. LTE will provide widespread access by 2012, offering broadband speeds of up to 100MBPS, five times faster than the current mobile broadband services, and 20 times faster than DSL connections. Juniper Research estimates that LTE mobile broadband-based revenue will be £48 billion by 2014, with Europe and the Far East set for initial rollout7. Achieving ROI intelligently The commonality between environmental changes and technology advances is the need for MNOs to transform them into profitable services. Better content delivery services, including tools that address fair-use policy, have this fundamental need underpinning them. Operators seek infrastructure augmentation using application delivery controllers for exactly the same reason. Tele2 and Telenor’s recent announcement to jointly build and own a 4G LTE network heralds more partnerships evolving globally in the near future. LTE will lure many companies to move towards an IP Multimedia System (IMS) infrastructure and, as well, will add functional support for new features such as Message Based Load-Balancing. Latency and long haul costs will drive investment in technology to reduce latency and transmit fewer bytes. As we move forward into this content-driven era, the technology decisions MNOs make will be characterised by their need to build agility into their infrastructures.