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January 15, 2009

Mu Dynamics Focusing on IPTV Deployment on Top of IMS

By Tim Gray, TMCnet Web Editor

As networks have become more essential to the operation of businesses worldwide they are becoming more complex. This increased functionality drives complexity and makes it harder to manage, less robust or resilient, and contain an increasing number of security vulnerabilities.
And while companies like Mu Dynamics help address these issues through analysis solutions designed to improve the reliability and uptime of networked products and IP business services, they are also proactively addressing robustness and resiliency factors before systems are deployed in production environments. 
This week the Mu Dynamics team is attending at the IMS Forum Plugfest in an effort to learn more about IPTV (News - Alert) deployment on top of IMS.  IPTV is an important application for the 2009 revenue of top operators and their vendor ecosystem.
The NGN IMS Forum, the only industry association dedicated to interoperability and certification of IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) and Next Generation Networks (News - Alert) (NGN) applications and services.This figures into important changes in NGN testing btw at all the world's leading operators and their vendor ecosystem.
IMS/NGN Forum is a global non-profit industry association dedicated to the advancement of IP Multimedia Subsystem (News - Alert) applications and services interoperability.
IMS/NGN Forum’s mission is to accelerate the interoperability of IMS applications and M-Play NGN services, enabling enterprise and residential consumers to quickly benefit from the delivery of quadruple play voice, video, internet and mobile services over broadband via wireless, cable and fixed networks.
Thomas Maufer, director of Technical Marketing for Mu Dynamics, presented his thoughts on IMS Adoption vs. NGN Application Growth. The results are an interesting insight into the space from where to find the revenues to the technical difficulties involved in deployment.  The results are below.
 For an idea of the pace of technical innovation in the phone network in the 1960s and 1970s, the biggest technical innovation exposed to end-users in the 20 years prior to AT&T (News - Alert) being broken up were touch-tone dialing and direct-dialed long distance service. For the time, these were significant achievements since the phone switching network still had significant non-digital switching, including in-band signaling (it wasn't that long ago that making long distance calls required an operator's assistance). Fast-forward 25 years after the break-up of AT&T in the US, and long distance service isn't even metered anymore, provided you don't exceed the number of included minutes in your calling plan.
The breakup of AT&T also coincided with the birth of the Internet which leveraged the plummeting cost of raw bandwidth. Coincidentally, the PC arrived at about the same time as the Internet and the natural "center of gravity" of application development shifted further away from the telephone network. The early Internet was a very simple client-server paradigm -- simplistic application services were hosted on servers and clients talked directly to these servers, whereas the original wireline phone network "application" concentrated all the network's intelligence (including human operators!) within the network, and the phones on the edge contributed essentially no intelligence. The only application was the phone network. Period. Today's cloud computing paradigm is a set of loosely coupled cooperative services that use the browser as a front-end execution environment/user interface. Today's network, of which voice calling is only one application, is still smart but -- collectively speaking -- the edge is much smarter now.
IP Multimedia Subsystems (IMS) were originally conceived for this new world. A network architecture for the 21st-century, including intelligent apps, requires packet-based (IPv4 or IPv6) transport and acknowledgment that the center of gravity is rushing to applications growing on the edge of the network. The other reality of the nascent 21st-century is that mobile networks using IP transport are quickly becoming the default means of communication. In this environment, IMS is more about extending the logical partitioning of functionality within GSM packet networks to support the transition toward the all-IP world than it is about enablement of specific applications. Carriers are already receiving revenue from a scalable [wireless+wireline] network, so they have no interest in jettisoning a model that works. In fact, given extensive capital invested prior to the tough economic climate of 2008-09, operators need to capture extensive portions of their revenue from their existing deployed mobile networks.
Anyone might be asking: "Why do applications need to be enabled by the network in the first place?" Well, even for "simple" voice applications there is a myriad of complex interactions between various gateways, the client devices (phones), billing systems, user-specific parameters stored in configuration databases (i.e., their phone number(s), voice mail servers, related application configuration data) that the network must know in order for the user to access the network and send and receive calls. The most important aspect of the service-enabling layer for the operator when offering any service is that the usage must be billable. Nearly every intelligent network application has similar requirements. A key insight related to IMS is that the logical service-enabling functions that have been built for GSM mobile networks over the years can be generalized, especially in light of several simultaneous, disruptive mega-trends:
Mega-trend #1: IP over Everything
The operators are preserving much of their legacy GSM network functional architecture.
Operators are exposing "standard" interfaces to their platform that promise to offer a wide variety of services.
Mega-trend #2: Moore's Law
Improved application CODECs deliver more bandwidth at the expense of more (exponentially cheaper) CPU cycles.
Improved intelligence in the network endpoints (i.e., smart phones, set top boxes) and their applications.
Both of the above are changing rapidly which is driving costs down.
Mega-trend #3: Wireless Application Intelligence Skyrocketing
More users squeezed into less over-the-air bandwidth, partly as a result of Moore's Law that can pack more signal processing intelligence into an ever-smaller form factor.
Wireless becoming the de facto means of communication rather than wireline.
Any new communications network should treat wireless and wireline equivalently since carriers still want to sell as many applications to as many customers as possible.
Mega-trend #4: Incredibly Smart Applications on the Existing Network (e.g., iPhone (News - Alert) and other Smart Phones)
The iPhone is the first proof point that applications can thrive on the endpoint without IMS but also that they can't be separated from the network. The "pre-IMS" mobile network (GSM packet data) on which the iPhone depends is in fact what inspired IMS.
The service-enabling features should be invisible to the end-user/customer.
The operators aren't necessarily providing any value-added service to any specific application, which may "just" need to access the Internet. Remember: Even this "commodity" is valuable to consumers, despite it being typically sold as a flat-rate service.
At the end of the day, carriers have to avoid being commoditized and IMS could offer that barrier. In order to build customer loyalty and avoid expensive customer churn, operators must move beyond simply building and delivering new applications (or enable developers to leverage their network) -- these applications must be of a higher quality and be highly reliable, available and secure. So the carriers have to find a way to extend their voice infrastructure, which already supports wireless and wireline, into a world that can talk to (and eventually become) IP-based. Applications live in the IP world.
Even with operators already delivering NGN applications, IMS networks are being built that are independent of extant carrier 3GPP deployments: The GMI event in the second half of October proved this. Moreover, GMI's usage of IMS wasn't just VoIP. GMI 2008 was about IPTV over IMS -- an interesting hybrid and perhaps best of both worlds approach. GMI testing found the IMS Core worked well with some components from multiple vendors and had reliability or security issues with others. GMI proved IMS is ready for prime time as a companion to robust IP applications like IPTV but not necessarily as a parallel and costly buildout for its own sake. The biggest lesson from GMI was that IMS worked well enough as an application provisioning back-end that it was hardly noticed. Users interact with applications. Users make purchasing decisions based on metrics like "coolest apps," "fewest dropped calls," "most reliable" and "fastest."
Is an all-IMS network the "smartest" network? No. The key selling point will be the operator's ability to build/deploy applications and the rate of delivering new applications for which users are willing to pay. So: What's the big deal about IMS? If IMS isn't an application on its own, what is it? Application enablement sounds boring, but carriers need a rock-solid foundation for multiple revenue-producing applications over a shared IP network. If that core is reliable, available and secure, the carrier will have lots of happy, satisfied customers and reduce their very real customer churn numbers.
The questions now are more about engineering than physics: Operators have proven they can design such a network, but can it built to the scale of existing GSM networks and offer the reliability and availability that users have come to expect from their mobile devices? The right questions to ask now are more about ensuring robustness of the exploding IP application intelligence at the network edge rather than asking about whether such an architecture is feasible.

Tim Gray is a Web Editor for TMCnet, covering news in the IP communications, call center and customer relationship management industries. To read more of Tim’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Tim Gray

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