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IMS: When Will the Hype Become Reality?

By Grant F. Lenahan

IMS Magazine

In the 1990s the industry hyped “broadband,” “the Internet,” and “next-generation networks.” Around 2000, we hyped 3G. Now it’s time to hype IMS, the 3GPP’s IP Multimedia Subsystem. So, is this just more hype, or is IMS real? What will it take for IMS to succeed? Let’s start by looking at history a bit more fairly. Most technological and economic development is, in fact, a series of hyped bubbles followed by sober re-examination and, more often than not, success. For example, speculation around railroads was far ahead of its ability to deliver real services and profits but, ultimately, the industry boomed, crashed, consolidated, and then enjoyed an era of dominance until it, too, was dethroned by the next generation of transportation — namely, automobiles and then airplanes.

Our own communications industry has experienced a series of similar hype cycles around broadband, the Internet, dot coms, NGNs, and 3G, leading many to question the next buzzword, IMS. But several factors indicate that the time is right for next-generation IP networks to mature and become the foundation of communications infrastructure for decades to come. Critical broadband technologies are more mature. Service capabilities are in place and being proven in the market and the industry is investing again. Together, all this says that our industry needs to transform exciting — but incomplete — IP technologies into a viable platform for commercial success, which where IMS comes in — and that’s why the time is right.

The first thing to keep in mind is that no single technology — IP, NGNs, IMS, dot coms, broadband, and 3G — is sufficient enough on its own to deliver commercial value. Rather, each is a necessary component in a larger economic ecosystem and value chain that delivers services to customers. A delivery network without services or vice versa offers little value. Architectures like NGN or IMS are effectively the network middleware to bring services, transport capability, customers, billing, and ease of use together in a standardized, user-centric, commercially viable manner. Therefore, IMS may be the capstone that holds together the technologies and services that have been developed over the years, as well as the solution that makes them economically viable.

We are now seeing, for the first time, maturity in services, access networks, IP technology, and NGN/IMS specifications. Broadband access is becoming commonplace, reliable, and affordable. IP-based content is becoming rich (although hard to access, charge for, and personalize). Core IP network architectures are maturing. It is worth pointing out that, while IMS is the industry buzzword, it really is a catch phrase for at least three similar, yet distinct, architectures: 3GPP has IMS, 3GPP2 has MMD, and Cable Labs has PacketCable 2.0 MultiMedia. Each of these is slightly different, reflecting the unique transport technology, legacy, and market needs of the constituent network operators that support them. Yet 3GPP, 3GPP2, and Cable Labs are all working to harmonize them so they interwork and support similar services. This truly is a breakthrough.

So why is IMS — in its broadest sense — ready for commercial success in the near future? And why IMS, rather than some future standard? Quite simply, the business drivers exist to support it, and practical reality has made IMS the de facto selection in addition to being the technology du jour.

The business drivers are in place

IP networks, based on widespread dial-up and broadband Internet connectivity, have demonstrated their viability. Everything from music to blogs to VoIP to chat to news is delivered and consumed via the Internet today — most voraciously by younger generations who will become the adult majority very soon. Broadband IP networks have also demonstrated that they can deliver a mix of news, voice, chat, e-mail, video, music — anything, really — at a very minimal incremental cost per additional service. This means that IP networks, combined with a rich set of services, are essential for any operator to compete effectively in the future. Economists refer to these as economies of scale, and they provide an insurmountable competitive advantage to any operator who can offer them. Thus, economics demands that operators move to multi-service, broadband IP networks. The only questions are: Who provides the networks and Who offers the services?

IMS specifications are largely complete and ready for prime time

While much of the communications industry was in turmoil during the early part of this decade, the mobile industry — 3GPP, in particular — plowed ahead with its own NGN standards called IMS. IMS was not conceptually different from earlier NGN efforts: It uses accepted IETF protocols, like SIP, RADIUS, and Diameter and largely adopts the IT philosophy of service oriented architectures. So, in many ways, it adopts the underlying approaches that both network and IT experts have been advocating for years. What makes IMS unique is that 3GPP, fueled by rapid mobile growth, sufficient money and enthusiasm, and the impending deployment of IP-based 3G, largely completed their task. Thus, the world had a ready-made, well thought through set of standards. It is also clear that many operators see the benefit of a next-generation standard that supports cable, broadband, and wireless access at the same time. IMS is ready, and it offers the additional benefits of a consolidated network architecture (not more technology specific stovepipes) and support for convergence across those networks. It is attractive to service providers and developers alike.

Still, some will ask, do we need core network intelligence at all? The Internet vision is one of distributed, peer-to-peer and edge-based services, largely without any in-network intelligence. Many believe that “the Internet” operates sufficiently well today without any sort of centralized intelligence, control, or registries. But does it really?

Significant improvements can be made in how well IP networks deliver services, support various business models, and make users’ lives easier.

IMS offers the components to do just that. The biggest problems facing Internet-based services today are: lack of security, difficulty of use, minimal interoperability, and almost no uniform charging models.

Simple examples include inconsistent passwords scattered across non-trusted parties, weak authentication of users and devices, “islands” of users and directories without inter-domain routing, and charging that mimics retail credit card use — with all the associated baggage. The biggest internal problem facing operators today, however, is their inability to innovate and introduce new services quickly, largely because networks are a series of service-specific, proprietary stovepipes that do not adhere to any sort of SOA conventions, like shared user data or shared charging practices.

In fact, the current telecom business environment may be the most powerful driver for deploying IMS now. Many forces are conspiring to increase competition across segments (cable, voice and data). While cable companies are exerting pressure on voice prices and market share, an even larger threat exists: the “dumb pipe” scenario. A simple IP network is conceived to connect edge users to edge services and, consequently, encourages the hollowing out of the value added by telecom providers of all kinds, as VoIP and information services providers fill that space.

IMS is an excellent tool to help solve both sets of problems. It provides modular value-adding capabilities that can improve the usability of almost any service, whether it is provided entirely by an operator, or by a third party (such as a BYOB VoIP company, a news service, a music publisher, or a gaming company). IMS specifically offers a rich set of capabilities to provide open, shared data; to provide flexible real-time charging and rating; to authenticate users and devices; to share those credentials, thus reducing password proliferation and increasing security. It also provides the basis of a rapid service delivery environment, both for the development of in-network services and to bond the network to IT-based services and third-party services. In essence, it allows for a more uniform user experience, more flexible charging and economic models, better security, and greater interoperability.

All of this indicates that it is time for IMS to become real. The business drivers are there. The services — and demand for them — are there. The desire for convergence is there. Unlike previous NGN standards, IMS is sufficiently developed for most in the industry to see the value in adopting it intact, rather than re-inventing the wheel.

If the industry implements IMS as a technology — as a way of moving from SS7-based voice to SIP-based voice, then it will fail. But, if the industry sees IMS as a way to add value to a wide range of existing and latent IP-based services, and if the industry sees itself as collaborating with the innovative firms on the Internet (rather than shutting them out), it will usher in a cornucopia of new services and new revenues.

Finally, IMS is a journey. Successful technologies are deployed based on business needs. IMS will not materialize instantly, fully deployed. Nor will it be implemented at a record pace, becoming fully deployed in a year or two. Rather, it will be deployed function by function, as operators use IMS to deliver converged voice services (e.g., WiFi-Cellular roaming), add content-based services more uniformly, and simplify their operations and cut down on systems integration and maintenance costs. Indeed, this sounds less like hype, and more like a solid business rationale.

Grant F. Lenahan is vice president, IMS Delivery Solutions at Telcordia Technologies. For more information, please visit the company online at www.telcordia.com. (news - alerts)

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