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Navagating the Road to True IMS

By Andrew Wyatt

IMS Magazine

If IMS should offer an open scalable architecture supporting a vast array of revenue generating, converged services, why have initial deployments turned the platform into a closed, proprietary set of boxed applications?
This year’s CTIA saw interest in the ‘heart’ of telecoms — the core network — rival the usual frenzy around the latest wireless applications and gadgets. Walking the floor, it was impossible to avoid IMS when discussing the growth of the Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) community, the delivery of triple and quadruple play services, and the route to creating a new generation wireless network.

This is of little surprise considering the intoxicating mix of open standards architecture, cost reduction opportunities, and rapid service deployment promised by the technology.

Researching IMS

And it was cost reduction that occupied the minds of telecoms executives responding to an independent new IMS research report titled “IP Independence.” The study found that one of the most significant factors driving its deployment was its ability to enable carriers to meet ambitious OPEX (define - news - alert), and CAPEX (define - news - alert), reduction targets of 10 and five per cent respectively.

Consolidating the IMS views of 57 Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) from global wireless carriers, the research focused in particular on the implementation drivers, industry expectations, perceived challenges, and the approaches to IMS deployment.

Alongside the global enthusiasm shown by 77 percent of respondents planning to deploy IMS, some interesting regional differences were highlighted. Most significantly, when you look at North American operators they are, quite simply, betting big on IMS — with 86 percent considering IMS a key business priority, in contrast to only 66 percent in Europe.

Perception Problem?

However, IP Independence also showed that perception does not always match reality in this new generation world. The report uncovered a clear disconnect between those already implementing IMS and those planning to. Of the former, only one in 10 operators expects return on investment (ROI) within two years, whereas those yet to implement IMS assume a much quicker return.

This indicates those already some way down the IMS road are uncovering some unexpected challenges and goes some way to explain why there are no commercial deployments of a true IMS-ready infrastructure — despite claims to the contrary from certain equipment providers.

The research suggests that IMS requires a radical mind-shift and approach in the way operators and equipment manufacturers address the IMS deployment challenge. This takes time and is why operators need to plan at the network level, rather than bolting on vertical applications, which does little to reduce OPEX and CAPEX expenditure or encourage rapid service deployment.

Common Definition

IMS is many things to many people and the challenge for the industry is to operate within a common framework. Essentially, however, it can be described as an IP-based service platform or architecture that delivers all voice and data services — irrespective of the user’s entry channel or device — on top of an IP core network.

Fundamental to its effective deployment is the requirement to centralize all subscriber, service, and network data in a single repository at the heart of the network. It is this consolidation that enables subscriber mobility across fixed, mobile, and converged networks.

However, commercial deployment of true IMS is some way off. Evidence suggests that some of the established players in the value chain have been unwilling to wait for the development of an IMS-ready environment before encouraging operators to deploy vertically integrated applications. The latter has little to do with a true IMS architecture, and serves to add to the existing barriers to IMS deployment. According to IP Independence, the major hurdle carriers need to overcome is structural and business change (84 percent of operators), with technical change (60 percent) and uncertain ROI (54 percent) close behind. IMS is many things to
many people and the challenge for the industry is to operate within a common framework.


Today’s Legacy Issues

Taking a step back, the need for the architectural benefits of IMS has never been greater than it is today. The vast majority of conventional mobile networks are based on legacy proprietary hardware infrastructure. These networks ‘lock up’ subscriber information under tons of switches and applications, and makes that information inaccessible, inconsistent, and often duplicated across the network.

Over the past decade, operators have tended to stack additional complex technology onto the network to enable the provisioning and delivery of each new ‘in vogue’ data service. As a result, their hardware-based legacy systems are inflexible, becoming rapidly outdated and are non-scalable in even a 2.5G environment. The result is slow service deployment time, excessive cost per subscriber, and a high cost to operate, maintain, and update the network.

Even simple service usage data can take between two and four weeks to gather. Add this to the inability of the switch network to track and analyze data across the different transport layers in a converged scenario, and service assurance becomes a hugely challenging task.

Indeed, 85 percent of carriers agree that a rip and replace of legacy hardware is critical to reducing operational cost.

Yet these problems continue in an IMS world. Like their 2G cousins before, emerging ‘pseudo-IMS’ offerings continue to lock-up subscriber, service, and network data in the application layer — making it inaccessible without the high-cost assistance of the vendor. Furthermore, these boxes add to the complexity of the network — giving the CTO one more hardware box to integrate with the hundreds of other boxes that have been thrown onto the network during its lifetime.

Industry Support

Of course, while challenges remain, there is clear industry support of IMS, with the research finding 94 percent of carriers considering the architecture to enable more efficient application delivery, with the subsequent ability to reduce customer churn and increase revenue potential.

However, the commercial launch of a true IMS architecture and service portfolio is, at least 12–18 months away. Even this rather conservative estimate is dependent on the ability of the vendor community to deliver open, scalable IP-based solutions into the core mobile network — something an increasing ecosystem of emerging vendors have taken fully to heart.

Three Steps to IMS

The first step is to create an IMS friendly environment at the core, reducing complexity in the network to unlock the data hidden in legacy infrastructure. And through simplifying the network, OPEX and CAPEX can be dramatically reduced by as much as 50 percent, not just the 10 and five percent that global operators in IP Independence are looking for.

The second step is to consolidate all subscriber data into a common directory that sits at the heart of the network. This not only provides an ideal platform to enable the mobility function of IMS, but ensures significant 2G subscriber provisioning and service deployment benefits as well.

This consolidation phase is also fundamental in liberating the operator from vendor lock-in. De-siloing the data from multiple applications across the network and holding it in a single repository puts the operator back in full control of its subscribers and network and freedom from proprietary lock-in.

The final step is more philosophical than practical. It is this need to view IMS deployment not as the roll-out of a set of consumer and business applications, but as the creation of a truly open architecture that delivers the platform to develop an all-IP network.

Enabling IMS

Defining the business and technology case for IMS may be challenging but there is universal agreement that the opportunities are well worth the work. 77 percent of operators in the research believe better subscriber data management will reduce customer churn while 65 percent agree that phasing out proprietary hardware is imperative in order to stay competitive in the next three to five years.

Achieving true IMS requires the industry to move away from trying to predict the next killer application enabled by IMS, and focus on how to create a flexible core network, able to respond to changing customer demand. As in the past, the market will define the next killer application; it is the operator’s job to develop an architecture that will service the demand. And this is the central tenet of a successful IMS rollout: Get the platform right, and service creation and deployment become easy.

IMS will create a phenomenally competitive environment with fixed and mobile operators jostling to own the subscriber. The winners will be those operators that can make the fundamental shift in both philosophy and underlying core network architecture over the next twelve months. By stepping back from the application, and focusing on the architecture not the box, true IMS will be a reality.


Andrew Wyatt is vice president of global marketing at Apertio (news - alert). For more information, please visit www.apertio.com.


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