Operators Awash in Network Data

BTR_Feature_Art_Drowning-9-30_13 The cable industry's networks are talking to them. The advent of DOCSIS 3.1, software-defined networks (SDNs) and IP platforms are accelerating that backtalk. The question is whether operators understand what is being said clearly enough to put the chatter to good use.

The scene is shifting rapidly as the pipe grows, standards change and traffic becomes more bidirectional. "The volume of data crossing networks is far too large now for service providers to deal with it in the ways they have been," said Scott Register, the senior director of product management for Ixia.

The challenges are manifold. In the past, Register said, the idea was to look at each stream. That no longer is possible due to sheer volume. In addition, IP networks are non-deterministic. Sessions are not "pinned up" with definitive terminal points. Instead, sessions are composed of packets that take any number of paths through the network. Consequently, it is more difficult to determine the optimal place to deploy probes and other types of monitoring assets. Register suggests that service providers are on the cusp of the era of smart sampling in which sophisticated algorithms are used to determine where to place equipment and how many packets to actually examine.

Adding to the change is the advent of quality of experience (QoE) as a key metric. The goal of QoE is to recreate what a subscriber is experiencing as closely as possible. That requires procedures, such as deep packet inspection (DPI), that are deeper and more intense than traditional quality of service (QoS) measures that focus more at the network level. QoS only makes sure that the packet is arriving and doing so on time.

A third factor making this Tower of Babel even more intense is the move of cable operators' commercial businesses to more demanding larger businesses and, especially, as backhaulers for wireless carriers. All in all, it is quite a change. "It is going to drive more polling of the network, more analytics and a greater need for content inspection technology," said Rob Marson, the strategic marketing manager at JDSU (NASDAQ:JDSU), adding that the era in which operators could reasonably expect to access and assess every stream is ending.

The good news for cable operators is that the explosion in complexity is occurring in an era in which big data - which can be shorthanded simply as very intelligent and very heavy duty number crunching - also is occurring.

There are two reasons that big data is big news to the industry. The first is obvious: It helps them dig though the haystack of what is coming into their headends and hubs to find the needle of data they need. The other is a bit more subtle but intriguing: The information generated by these tools can be monetized.

OTT companies likely will be willing to pay for information about the how their applications and services are performing. Indeed, in the future, operators - who have quite an advantage in owning the network infrastructure - could provide OTT tenants with the opportunity to control their own networking. For instance, an OTT company may want to fluidly add bandwidth if a product is hot.

Those opportunities may be a bit speculative at this point. What is certain is that the more usable data operators collect, the better off they will be. They can figure out what to do with it later. "For cable operators, first of all the key is to get as many data points as you can and keep them for a while," said Stephane Bourque, the president and CEO of Incognito Software.

The heightened need for test, measurement and analysis extends to the middle of the network as well as the distribution portion. Bruno Giguere, an advisor to the office of the CTO for EXFO (NASDAQ:EXFO) said reverse path bandwidth and the Metro Ethernet Forum's MEF 30 and MEF 35 are being added to the support structure surrounding Carrier Ethernet.

This is vital, he said, as the networking technique becomes a more important service offering for cable operators - and as businesses become more insistent on service level agreements (SLAs).

"One of the capabilities is to troubleshoot and look at performance management," he said. "You have some of that functionality with SONET that MEF 30 and 35 bring to Carrier Ethernet, but you also have measurements not available with SONET. For example, there is frame delay, frame variation and frame loss."

The bottom line is that the conversations that cable operators' networks are having with them - from the last mile through the distribution networking and to the core of the network - are far more intense than ever before. Operators seem to be listening.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at carlw@pennwell.com.

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