AlcaLu Tackles Wireless 'Blind Spot'

Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) has developed a mobile data performance analysis tool that, according to analysts and at least one carrier, breaks new ground in the way mobile operators can manage and optimize their networks -- a capability that's increasingly important as data traffic volumes ramp up. (See AlcaLu Unveils 9900 WNG.)

Although 3G networks have been up and running for several years, only now is the volume of data traffic running across mobile access networks becoming significant -– and growing at a very fast pace.

The introduction of the iPhone, for example, has had a notable impact on data traffic volumes at the carriers offering the Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) device, while greater use of mobile broadband data cards and the introduction of flat rate data tariffs and price cuts that encourage greater data applications usage are having an impact on mobile operator networks. (See iPhone Data Booms at T-Mobile, Flat-Rate Day, T-Mob Cuts Data Roaming, V'fone Cuts Data Roaming, Telstra Touts 3G Usage, and Data Growth Pumps Up Vodafone .)

Mobile data pain
That's giving mobile operators some network management headaches.

Why? Because while they can monitor the performance of the wireless access networks (spectrum usage, signaling resources) using OSS tools, and, separately, identify the data packets running over their networks using IP traffic management (deep packet inspection) technology, they don't have a system that can assess to what extent individual data applications, such as mobile email or a VPN connection, utilize mobile network resources and affect performance.

"Existing tools are blind to parts of the network –- radio tools are blind to IP traffic, and IP tools are blind to RF [radio frequency] issues," states Michael Schabel, general manager at Alcatel-Lucent Ventures, an in-house "incubator" that helps take new technologies developed by the vendor's R&D hot-house, Bell Labs , to market.

This grey area –- or "blind spot," as AlcaLu calls it -– could "lead to severe network degradation," adds Schabel.

Heavy Reading senior analyst Gabriel Brown agrees it's an area that needs to be addressed. "There are no standardized mechanisms to map what's happening in the radio access network [RAN] to the data core. As mobile data grows, operators are looking at tools from the IP world to manage it, but enforcing policies for DPI [deep packet inspection] in the mobile core isn't sophisticated enough. There's a gap there, and it's a massive area for innovation."

Brown adds that wireless data volumes are "going nuts. 2007 was the breakthrough year for wireless data –- it's growing massively. Data traffic volumes in 3G networks grew by between four and eight times last year. And flat rate data packages will only push this on further. The price per wireless megabit has plummeted," states the Heavy Reading man.

A view of the 'blind spot'
To address the "blind spot" issue, Bell Labs developed the 9900 Wireless Network Guardian, which not only acts as an access network monitor and IP traffic manager, but also maps the impact of specific data applications on wireless access network resources.

AlcaLu believes it's the first commercial product that "connects IP layer behaviour and wireless access behaviour," and says it's already been put through its paces by three carriers.

The 9900 Detector sits between any wireless access network (UMTS, CDMA, WiMax) and the operator's packet core, monitoring IP traffic, the usage of airtime, bandwidth and signaling, and the exchanges between the network and the AAA (authentication, authorization, and accounting) servers. This feeds information to the 9900, which provides views of the impact on the access network of individual applications, subscribers, and devices.

The product, though, is only reactive, and not proactive, providing a historical view of the networks and data flows rather than alerting to any potential or upcoming network events. As a result, the main use of the 9900 is for better network planning and more fine-tuned optimization of network resources, though it also could influence the marketing of specific applications by providing a cost-impact analysis of promoting particular applications or making certain types of services available.

Schabel lead the team that has seen the 9900 through the "commercialization process. The research into this area has been going on for about three years, but the process of turning it into a carrier-grade product has taken about 12 months," says the AlcaLu man.

He notes that AlcaLu research conducted with carrier customers concluded that "every IP application has a significantly different impact on the [wireless access] network." As a result, the operational cost of provisioning specific applications varies dramatically and does not correspond to the data capacity that each service uses.

That's very important for mobile operators because their access network resources -– spectrum, RF channels, signaling -– are limited, and are vulnerable to data application overloads that can affect service quality and operational costs.

For example, while peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic -- the volume of which is growing fast on mobile networks -- may be a broadband capacity hog, its impact on RF channel usage, for example, is limited as it's "a single network event," notes Schabel. A VPN connection from a mobile device, however, "ties up a lot of network resources, using, on average, about 10 times as much airtime as a typical user, but can actually have very little impact in terms of data volumes."

Signaling resources, meanwhile, are over-utilized by mobile email applications that are constantly requesting connections to check on any new messages, and malfunctioning or infected devices, he adds.

"The real cost to the network operator is the cost per minute, not the cost per bit," states Schabel.

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