Opinion: NETSCOUT’s Fran Tang looks at why VoIP is shaping up to be a telecoms success story.
VoIP is proving to be a telecoms success story. Having already achieved significant market penetration, especially among enterprise users, it is now expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 9.7 per cent up until the end of the decade, at which point it will be worth an estimated $137 billion per year. VoIP, therefore, represents a huge growth opportunity for network operators as they look to expand their service offerings.
However, as increasing volumes of voice traffic translate to IP, operators are under renewed pressure to deliver consistent, high-quality service. When it comes to voice calls, dropped packets, jitter, and latency on the network can all render a session unfit for purpose, which ruins the customer experience and drives churn. The move to VoIP brings with it an imperative for operators to manage the customer experience in real-time as a result, to ensure continued high-quality service and to maintain their subscription base. Yet, historically, getting access to the real-time information needed to make this a reality has been a challenge.
As we’ve read in CBR before, in the world of technology and telecoms ‘real-time’ seldom means real-time. Quite often, a technology vendor will offer a product or service billed as ‘near real-time’ or indeed fully ‘real-time’, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. This is a problem across the board, but is especially challenging when it comes to delivering customer experience management for VoIP. Here, there can be no room for such marketing hype; real-time absolutely must live up to its name, which has become a catalyst for change within the industry.
Managing customer experience ‘on-the-fly’
Access to network data in this way is imperative for VoIP session management. To guarantee customers experience a high quality VoIP call each and every time, operators must have end-to-end visibility of the traffic flowing over their network. They must also be able to identify VoIP traffic and analyse it ‘on-the-fly’ to accurately recognise any network pressure point where a fault may occur. If an issue is discovered, operators must then be able to triage VoIP traffic to establish the nature of the fault and fix it as soon as possible, ideally before customers are impacted.
This is where the importance of real-time comes in. Delivering real-time customer experience management is challenging enough for operators, and service interruptions are both expensive and time consuming to resolve. Yet disruption is inevitable and all operators face this at some point. When it does happen, and when it happens in relation to VoIP, having access to real-time information from the network can make the difference between solving a problem in mere hours or days.
NFV and service assurance
At present, there is only one sure means of achieving this: combing network monitoring tools through big data analytics with the benefits of advanced network automation technologies. After all, in a true real-time environment, the network itself must do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to fault identification and resolution.
To ensure the customer notices no drop-off in service while a fault is fixed, the entire process, from analysis to resolution, must happen at lightning-fast speed. The network itself must have sufficient ‘intelligence’ to monitor, analyse, identify, and solve issues before the customer notices, relying on only minimal oversight from the operator’s engineers. With this in mind, it is becoming increasingly clear that such an approach can only be cost-effectively delivered through Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV).
By virtualising core network functions, operators can build greater agility and automation into their networks, making it easier for operators to deploy and upgrade their VoIP services. Compared to the rigidity of physical networks, virtualised environments give the ability for changes to be made in minutes rather than days. Moreover, by using software-defined solutions that run on industry-standard commodity switches, servers, and storage equipment, fault repair becomes easier as many service issues can be fixed remotely – either automatically by the network itself, or by an engineer at a remote Network Operations Centre (NOC).
Service assurance with big data analytics
NFV is therefore a necessary first step towards real-time customer experience management, but it’s not a sufficient one. Ironically, while NFV brings the level of automation necessary for real-time big data analytics and service assurance, the migration to NFV itself can cause service assurance challenges for operators.
This is because while NFV brings with it greater flexibility and performance, it is also inherently more complex: NFV-enabled networks are intricate patchworks of different and ever-changing network functions, each one absolutely critical to the overall running of the network as a whole. Moreover, operators are not going to adopt NFV in one clean migration; elements will co-exist with legacy hardware-based network elements that must work seamlessly together in a heterogeneous network.
The good news for operators is the same approach to service assurance that enables real-time customer experience management can also bring about a smooth migration to NFV. Once again, visibility into network traffic is crucial: operators must be able to draw from network traffic data in real-time no matter where it resides – on virtualised equipment or legacy hardware – and analyse it immediately for the intelligence they need to deliver exceptional levels of customer service.
To enable this, operators should look to work with a service assurance provider capable of offering a suite of monitoring and analytics tools that bridge both physical and virtualised assets. By doing so, operators will be able to unlock the operational and commercial benefits of NFV without damaging their bottom line.
Enabling future services
VoIP is one of many significant revenue-generating opportunities for operators. Over the next few years, everything from video and gaming to virtual reality will provide profitable avenues for operators to explore, and the key to success in all of them will be this ability to manage the customer experience in real-time.
By taking the right approach to NFV, operators can enable real-time approaches through the automation of network traffic data collection and analysis; identifying key pressure points on the network and automatically easing them before a fault occurs.
Fran Tang is Senior Director, Products and Portfolio Management for NETSCOUT’s Service Provider Business Unit. She leads the company’s product initiatives for core network, service monitoring and big data analytics, including VoIP.