Wholesale backhaul and the switch to carrier Ethernet: InfoVista one-on-one

It is quite apparent that the mobile backhaul industry is in a transition from legacy TDM transport network infrastructures to that of carrier Ethernet.  This transition is fueled by the increased use of data-hungry devices that demand more bandwidth, as well as the advantages of deploying carrier Ethernet services (i.e. scalability, flexibility and cost). TelecomEngine got a chance to speak with Juan Prieto, Product Marketing Manager at InfoVista, about the perspective from both Mobile Operators and wholesale providers transitioning to carrier Ethernet transport.

It is quite apparent that the mobile backhaul industry is in a transition from legacy TDM transport network infrastructures to that of carrier Ethernet.  This transition is fueled by the increased use of data-hungry devices that demand more bandwidth, as well as the advantages of deploying carrier Ethernet services (i.e. scalability, flexibility and cost). TelecomEngine got a chance to speak with Juan Prieto, Product Marketing Manager at InfoVista, about the perspective from both Mobile Operators and wholesale providers transitioning to carrier Ethernet transport.

TelecomEngine: What is driving Mobile Operators in deploying Carrier Ethernet in their backhaul?

Juan Prieto: The migration towards Carrier Ethernet backhaul is happening as a consequence of a mixture of trends that came together to storm the business model of many mobile operators worldwide. The unlimited mobile data model approach adopted by many operators a few years ago, combined with the evolution in the capabilities of mobile access devices -such as tablets and smartphones- has transformed the traditional mobility usage patterns. Today’s subscribers have moved from making and receiving a few calls and texts per day to a new breed of ‘always-connected’ individuals needing to access a fast-growing suite of content-rich Web 2.0 services such as social-networking, on-demand video and music streaming and online gaming.

The current ‘always-connected’ usage pattern of mobile subscribers is putting massive stress in the infrastructure and cost model of Mobile operators struggling to protect their service margins whilst keeping this new “breed” of customers satisfied with quality and cost of their services.  

Carrier Ethernet is allowing Mobile Operators to cost-efficiently tackle the transport bottleneck occurring in legacy non data-friendly backhaul architectures based on ATM and TDM.  These technologies –originally designed for Voice and SMS driven networks- do not scale commercially-viably enough for Mobile Operators to sustain a profitable business.  A few years ago, the MEF (Metro Ethernet Forum) identified this need and has since put a lot of effort in adapting traditional Ethernet into a Carrier-grade, reliable and scalable technology suited for current and future mobile data-driven mobile technologies such as HSPA+, LTE and WiMax.

What are the advantages and disadvantages for Service Providers in deploying Ethernet instead of additional TDM-based capacity?

JP: Interesting question. When it comes down to advantages and disadvantages I always like to consider both the financial and technical perspectives.  In terms of financial advantages, Carrier Ethernet based transport is more cost-effective than legacy ATM and TDM. How much cheaper was recently quantified in study carried out by Infonetics Research, which estimated that carrying cell-site traffic over Ethernet is six times cheaper than over legacy technologies.  This figure represents a massive saving opportunity for mobile operators when we consider the size of their mobile transport infrastructure typically comprised of tenths of thousands (in cases hundreds of thousands) of connections.

From a technical advantage perspective, Carrier Ethernet is a layer 2 technology developed with IP in mind. Its data-friendly nature adapts perfectly to the demands of today’s traffic-intensive Mobile services and to future mobile architectures such as LTE.  In addition, Carrier Ethernet offers greater levels of flexibility, bandwidth granularity, scalability, and traffic segmentation than its legacy counterpart technologies. 

Curiously enough one of Carrier Ethernet’s main weaknesses is exactly the key advantage of legacy technologies – and that is reliability.  TDM and ATM were designed to transport fixed-bandwidth services such as voice.  This fixed-rate nature and non-shared circuits approach has made it easier for mobile operators to ensure quality of services over the last few years.  In addition, TDM and ATM are perfect technologies for carrying sensitive network synchronization information- a critical operational aspect of mobile networks.

On the other hand, Carrier Ethernet has been designed with variable-bandwidth and shared-bandwidth capabilities in mind. This design approach enables some of the key advantages of this technology, but also represents a potential risk for Mobile Operators new to the technology. Also, in all IP backhauls synchronization information would have to be transported over carrier Ethernet as well, which has proved to be a challenge.  However, there have been developments, including the release of standards such as IEEE 1588v2 and SyncE, as well as standards from the MEF and other organizations attempting to fight these potential obstacles. Right now, the trend seems to be that more and more carriers are starting to move away from hybrid TDM- Ethernet to rely on full Ethernet backhaul architectures.

In the competitive Carrier Ethernet market, how can wholesale providers differentiate their service offerings from their competition?

JP: The cheaper price-per-Mbps nature offered by Carrier Ethernet based transport has fueled a “price war” amongst service providers trying to capitalize in the Mobile network Operators need for more affordable backhauling capacity. This fierce price competition is rapidly starting to negatively impact the service margins of providers looking to ensure a more profitable business model than that of legacy transport services.

In an attempt to stay clear from this commoditizing battle, we are seeing how services providers have implemented different service features to try to augment the perceived value of their offerings. Some of the key strategies include obtaining MEF approval on their services, offering standard and advanced managed SLAs, offering more granular Classes of Services (CoS) and offering VLAN tagging capabilities.

Even though these strategies have been successful for many providers, InfoVista believes there is an untapped opportunity for wholesale providers looking to further differentiate and monetize their infrastructure and services. For the last couple of years, -coinciding with the adoption of leased Carrier-Ethernet backhauls- Mobile customers have told us they are struggling to assure and troubleshoot the end-to-end quality of mobile services across third-party Ethernet backhaul connections. A common phrase we have been hearing is that of feeling “blind” when it comes to understanding the performance and quality of their leased Ethernet transport services and the impact it may be have in their wireless subscribers quality of experience. (QoE). 

This is why at InfoVista, we believe there is an “untapped” opportunity for wholesale providers to tackle this challenge by leveraging their infrastructure and service performance data, tailoring it and offering it on top of existing services.  This can enable their customers with a portal of premium dashboards and reports that provide the visibility their customers need to assure and troubleshoot their E2E quality of service.

One revenue stream wholesale providers can take advantage of is a service and quality visualization-reporting portfolio.  What does this portfolio consist of and what approach does InfoVista use in deploying it?

JP: That’s right. A Service Qualify Visualization Portfolio consists of a set of customer-tailored, self-service and actionable service performance dashboards and reports that provide key stakeholders within the Mobile Network Operator with the right level of visibility needed to assure the quality of services that transit across third-party transport networks.

Infovista’s Service Quality Visualization (SQV) Portfolio also includes internal interfaces, which aims to improve the service and interaction between the wholesale provider and its customers. The internal portfolio includes tailored views that empower key stakeholders with better service and customer visibility to guarantee and monitor network quality, providing better customer support, and more efficient account management. The external customer interfaces allow wholesale providers to enable their customer’s portal with tailored, actionable and real-time service quality and SLA performance views for the Mobile Network Operators Network Engineers and Operations end users.

The portfolio can be commercially offered in a variety of ways. Some of our customers have been very successful offering their tailored portfolio on top of existing offerings as service options –creating a new source of revenue-. Others have preferred to offer this premium performance visibility as value-added services, including them as standard in the existing services.

InfoVista developed a framework for deploying a portfolio that meets the providers and customers need.  At a high level our SQV framework consists of a multi-step approach to ensure the portfolio’s alignment with the Customers market and operational strategies achieved by assessing the different services, cataloguing their key metrics, and offered SLAs options and finally mapping and tailoring the visibility and accessibility of these service quality metrics to the different internal and external end-users profiles.

How does InfoVista’s Lifecycle-Awareness Performance Assurance Solution monitor and troubleshoot real-life quality of service issues that span multi-vendor and multi-topology backhaul infrastructure?

JP: At InfoVista, we understand that backhaul networks are undergoing a massive technological transformation and hence we have shaped our performance assurance solution to meet the different needs of each phase of the Lifecycle.  The “ready-for-service” lifecycle of Ethernet backhaul networks generally consists of three basic stages with multiple stakeholders involved in the process. The typical stages include: Deployment, Assurance and Maintenance/optimization.

To support new deployments and prevent costly outages and lengthy service disruptions, transport engineers need the ability to centrally monitor, visualize and be alerted in real time on the availability of devices, interfaces and physical/virtual connections associated with each cell site being migrated. During the assurance phase, service quality engineers need the ability to quantify the potential impact of new and existing backhaul connections on the end-to-end QoS level perceived by mobile subscribers.  Finally, in the maintenance and optimization stage, network planning and optimization organizations require forecasted utilization trends to understand future areas of expansion and optimization. For network planning engineers, the ability to monitor current and forecasted traffic loads versus capacity becomes paramount in order to proactively identify backhaul bottlenecks and evaluate their current and future impact on QoE.

The concept of centralized lifecycle-aware performance assurance solution is designed around the reality that different functional groups -which play a critical role in assuring each stage of the lifecycle- have different visibility needs of the service metrics that affect their area of reasonability. By aligning our dashboards to the MEF, tailoring our performance analytics and graphical dashboards to the different users needs we have helped our customers to improve operation efficiency by enabling them to eliminate the silo-oriented service management practice that was unavoidable before the unification of layer 2 technologies to Carrier Ethernet/IP.

Our performance assurance platform has been upgraded to support a large variety of Ethernet backhaul equipment vendors such as Alcatel, Cisco, Adva and Ciena; allowing our existing customer base to expand their current performance and service quality visibility into both fixed and microwave Ethernet transport network entities including Ports, Interfactes, Ethernet Virtual Connections (EVCs), Pseudowires, CoS Queues, Ethernet OAM statistics, Cisco IP SLAs, VLANs etc.