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Just how big is the LTE Diameter routing market, anyway?

Driven by some high-profile outages and taking off with some notable RFP issues (and wins), the question remains just how big--and important--this emerging market really will be.

Imagine trying to market an IMS/3GPP network element. Few things could be harder, or more thankless. You pull out a massive network spaghetti chart, point to your piece in this “functional” architecture, and tell an operator, “hey, you need this.”

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But what if some of the first commercial LTE networks (like, say, Verizon’s) suffered a high-profile outage? And the element you’re hawking promises to save the day? Would that give you fodder to get some meetings and sell some boxes? You bet it would.

Such is the story of the diameter agent or router. The market hasn’t even completely coalesced around what to call it (it looks like Diameter Signaling Controller, or DSC, might win the day), but mobile operators know they need it. Or at least that’s the story that Diameter solution vendors such as Acme Packet, Traffix and Tekelec, IntelliNet and Openet are out selling hard.

At this week’s 4G World show, we spent some time talking to those vendors and others about this still emerging market (actually kicking off the week with a look at the technology: CP: The LTE signaling challenge).

What is Diameter Routing?

Why the need for Diameter routing? The short answer is that while the IP voice market has a fairly well understood protocol, SIP, and network element for dealing with that protocol, the Session Border Controller (SBC), things are a little less clear on the mobile data signaling side of the house. When a user even just turns on their smartphone, dozens of Diameter messages can be shot out across the network – to user and location databases, to policy servers, to billing platforms, and more. All of that messaging can flood and take down a 4G network – and indeed in some cases it has.

The answer is to introduce a network element, the Diameter router or signaling controller, that can serve as the traffic cop and load balancer for those signals, not only ensuring they get routed properly but that they don’t overwhelm any particular network element, taking down the network with it.

Unlike the SBC market – which has grown to a fairly health size (likely about $1 billion by 2015, according to Infonetics) by getting itself deployed across both the carrier edge and inside enterprises as well), the Diameter routing market may be a bit more limited.

Diameter routers will, at least at first, most likely get deployed at the center of the network, sources said, though carriers could deploy multiple boxes to sit in front of different Diameter message-spouting/consuming elements, like one in front of the policy server and one in front of the HSS, said Kevin Mitchell, director of solutions marketing at Acme Packet, which launched its Net-Net Policy Director back in February (Briefing Room: Acme Packet Unveils New Class of Product to Control Policy Exchange in LTE and IMS Networks). The choices operators make in designing the software side of their LTE networks will determine how many Diameter routing boxes they need.

Even with those choices still pending at many operators, this week saw one of the first attempts to size the Diameter routing market, with Exact Ventures publishing its first DSC Market Forecast Report. The report forecast the market to more than double each year through 2016. Exact Ventures founder and principal analyst Greg Collins noted that growth will be driven by fear of outages: “Any failures of the signaling system can spell disaster for the network operator in the form of network outages, poor performance, and system latency, resulting in subscriber churn and lost revenues," he said.

IP, SBCs and DSCs, Oh My…

Given the kinship between SBCs and DSCs, it’s not surprising to see SBC leader Acme Packet jumping into the market. At 4G World this week, Acme Packet’s Mitchell described his company’s take on the product as “extremely IP focused; we’re not going to play the legacy game.” That’s in comparison to fellow vendor Tekelec, which given its roots in TDM and SS7 signaling, talks a bit more about bridging those two signaling worlds. Meanwhile, Traffix updated its Diameter routing platform at 4G World this week, focusing on advanced network scenarios like roaming and over the top content (CP: Traffix revs platform to help operators manage LTE signaling).

It remains to be seen if bigger equipment vendors like Ericsson or Huawei tackle the DSC, or if it remains in the province of IP specialists. And not every smaller IP-focused vendor is jumping into Diameter yet either. For instance, Metaswitch, with deep roots in SIP including a recent entry into the SBC market (CP: Can Metaswitch make a dent in crowded SBC market?), acknowledges that while there’s a lot of buzz around Diameter, it isn’t planning a DSC product, at least in part due to questions about the ultimate size of the market, said Patrick Fitzgerald, Metaswitch's vice president of SIP Infrastructure. Fitzgerald’s back-of-the-envelope math tabs the DSC market as likely half the size of the SBC category at best, he noted.

That said, some big DSC deals are getting awarded. Most notably, Tekelec scored a win with Verizon in August. Said Current Analysis analyst Joe McGarvey (the analyst first on top of the DSC market) of that deal: “Verizon Wireless is among the most, if not the most, aggressive adopter of LTE and IMS, two all-IP-based technologies that are expected to serve as catalysts for the rapid growth of Diameter-based signaling in mobile networks,” McGarvey wrote.

Test vendor Spirent, meanwhile, confirmed that operators are aggressively testing heavy-impact Diameter signaling scenarios in the lab, said Ross Cassan, senior product marketing manager at Spirent. “We’ve tripled our ability to scale Diameter messaging in our latest releases,” he said, noting that such tests were being driven not only by network reliability concerns, but also an increased focus on delivering policy-driven quality of service guarantees on emerging 4G networks.

Such service scenarios – increasingly important as operators move away from unlimited mobile data plans and try to figure out new ways to monetize 4G – will only increase the sheer amount of Diameter signaling.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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