Tough road leading to next-gen networks

perspective Migrating to next-generation networks is extremely complex, and telecom operators must be mindful of certain pitfalls, says industry player.

perspective Most operators are now migrating their network infrastructure to a next-generation network (NGN). As a result, a growing number of networks are evolving from legacy technologies and architectures to new more advanced Internet Protocol (IP)-based infrastructures.

Three main drivers are steering this transition:

  • Customer demand for new, bandwidth-consuming services such as video and ever-expanding broadband applications, is requiring network operators to significantly expand their network capacities and SLA (service level agreement) capabilities.
  • The quickly-changing competitive landscape is catalyzing this transition. Network operators are faced with intense competition from new entrants and competition expanding into their core business, forcing them to expand their offerings and introduce new services.
  • This expansion into new services and applications must be done efficiently, keeping upfront capital expenses and ongoing operational expenses to the minimum. In many cases, this mandates the use of new networking technologies, business models and organizational structures.

Meeting these drivers while deploying a successful next-generation migration strategy is extremely complex. Each decision point along the transition path provides operators with challenges to their traditional way of thinking, business models and modes of operation. As such, various options and pitfalls must be considered:

Expand the business to new services?
Among a network operator's first decisions is whether to realign its service portfolio. Some operators evaluating the migration to NGN prefer to focus on services that form their core offering, and that they already have the knowledge base to provide.

On the other hand, most operators acknowledge that deploying an NGN brings the capability to support various new services that were not part of their core business and can act as growth engines for revenue and market share. As such, there is beginning to be a general evolution among operators from single, vertical player to a total communications provider.

Network operators faced with such a dilemma must consider not only the types of service the market wants, but also how quickly those services can be made available. Market opportunities, challenges and successful business models are defined by the competitive landscape, and in some regions, also by the regulatory environment--all of which should be carefully considered and evaluated.

Throughout the migration process, a network operator must be careful not to overlook its core operations, and lose its hard-earned market share in the process.

Are operational teams prepared for challenge?
The operational aspect of the transition to next-gen networks is a less sexy part of the consideration process, and easily overlooked. Nonetheless, it is crucial.

As an operator significantly expands its services, this creates tremendous pressure on its operational arm to deliver against expectations. In some cases, operations follow and are driven by the operator's internal agenda of expanding into new service areas, without considering that they do not have the core capabilities to do so. To avoid this, an operator must understand its operational DNA, its available skills, the network infrastructure it supports, and whether it can scale to efficiently meet the demand. Operators often underestimate the impact new service introductions have on their service support structure, consequences of which can be detrimental to growth.

Accordingly, many operators that expand their core offerings will need to increasingly outsource parts of their operations, and in some cases, even go to a full-fledge or partial-managed services model.

Is network ready for next-generation? The next decision revolves around the actual technological environment needed to support the transition. The continuum can range from more of a single, or silo, network to a fully converged network. While the goal is a simplified network, it has to provide future-proof capabilities not just for the services forecasted over the next one to three years, but also well after that, as the market, competition and network technology continuously evolve.

Therefore, operators must make technology choices that provide multi-service offerings with the ability to quickly change, expand and react to the market. Key here is flexibility to amend, integrate and scale, at minimum cost and forklift considerations.

The optimal pace
Meaningful accomplishment in the next-generation market involves developing a strategy that does not overlook the past when striving toward the future. Though Ethernet and IP have a compelling value proposition, not all companies are able to generate a business case for abandoning their investments in legacy infrastructure such as synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH), asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) switches and PCM-based voice. Copper, rather than fiber, also serves many of those companies and forms a crucial part of the decision.

This situation creates major dilemmas for many carriers and service providers.

Some operators prefer building an all-packet network that will support the Internet Protocol (IP)-based high capacity services, while operators with an existing network will support TDM-based legacy services. The latter has been proven to be non-cost effective and does not leverage past investments in the already-installed infrastructure. Performing a transition that leverages in-place networks has demonstrated to save up to 25 percent in total costs.

To gain widespread adoption, next-generation services and incumbent technologies must interwork. This mix emphasizes the importance of a migration strategy based on multi-service and multi-protocol interworking. For service providers, this approach protects existing revenues from ATM- and SDH/Sonet-based services.

An operator must build the transition process according to the pace of next-generation services evolvement, optimizing Capex (capital expenditure) investments and leveraging past investments in network infrastructure.

To outsource or not?
The final decision relates to the transition partners. Many operators understand that to focus on their core business, the transition to a next-generation network or even some parts of the migration, should be outsourced. This outsourcing can occur through consulting services, turnkey projects for end-to-end transition, or planning and optimization services.

To successfully navigate the complex migration process, operators are beginning to view their vendors not only as infrastructure providers but as strategic partners. The right partner is one that is completely focused on the customer--it can offer an open solution that addresses the operator's unique requirements, including the introduction of third-party elements instead of focusing on the vendor's proprietary offerings.

The partner's multi-domain expertise is important, too. Operators are looking for partners to provide value beyond the technology. They need partners with expertise in transitioning customers with a full-network view. This partner will typically offer consulting, implementation, turnkey and managed services beyond traditional networking infrastructure sales.

Bottom line
To achieve optimal performance, many decisions along the transition path require an "out-of-the-box" thinking. It is important to plan the transition well beforehand, and choose the right strategy, pace, partners and technology for each distinctive organization.

Ronen Mikdashi is vice president of product marketing at networking infrastructure provider, ECI Telecom.