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The State of IP

It's been years since IP slowly but surely began infiltrating into mainstream carrier networks. In 2010 it's poised to make its biggest impact ever.

Indeed, IP in the carrier network is ultimately about convergence, a long-term "wish list" goal that may ultimately be beginning to come true. While some service providers view it as risky, most fixed line carriers – residential, mobile and wholesale backhaul – are "very willing and able to carry all that traffic in a single aggregation network," said Alcatel-Lucent's Newell, adding that the ultimate goal is for a variety of access technologies – especially wide area wireless like LTE and femtocells in the local area – to bring traffic onto carrier IP networks and ultimately the public Internet as quickly as possible, drastically reducing costs and radically flattening carrier networks."It's quite a hot topic, the proposition of a converged IP network capable of handling one, two or all three service types – it brings huge benefits in provisioning, integration, training, operations and maintenance," Newell said. "You could well start seeing that type of integration, with LTE in particular as a trigger for these converged [IP] networks."

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Applications: Virtualization, Network Intelligence and the Killer App

Such all-IP converged networks, trafficking solely in data packets and running on ever-cheaper, more standards-based software and hardware, turns tomorrow's central offices into something much more like an IT data center. The next step is to apply data center-centric ideas like virtualization to the carrier network, providing even greater levels of flexibility. "One of the things we can begin to do [is help the carrier] carve our resources using virtualization within a secure domain router," said Suraj Shetty, vice president of service provider marketing for Cisco. "You get one set of resources supporting wholesale IP, another set of resources carved out to support a tier one enterprise customer, and another set for services on the public network. In a virtual machine, data center kind of approach, it's a way to bring more network resources to bear, on the fly."

Cisco competitor Juniper Networks has talked about the future IP-based, virtualized central office in much the same way – and traditional network equipment vendors are moving in that direction as well.

Working hand-in-hand with those greater network efficiencies, IP changes the carrier application equation as well. Technologies like deep packet inspection help carriers better manage the IP packet flow over their networks, while policy servers let them construct business rules to better manage those networks, the applications that run over them and the customers that access them. In short, with IP "the network is becoming more application aware and applications are becoming more network-aware," said Jonathon Gordon, director of marketing for DPI vendor Allot Communications.

These new IP tools of the trade are already being used in the mobile arena to help operators get a handle on exploding mobile data growth by implementing more flexible and real-time billing and charging schemes (see: Mobile Billing Blows Up). That same infrastructure can be leveraged in a variety of additional ways as well; most notably to deliver and sell (if net neutrality regulations allow it) quality of service guarantees to enterprises, consumers and third-party content and application providers. "What you end up with is a lot more transactional decision-making happening in real time on the edge of the carrier network," said Joe Hogan, CTO of IP policy and transaction platform vendor Openet. "This is all going to evolve quite rapidly and drive carriers into what amounts to a very large scale transactional policy business. If service providers don't have a platform that is attractive [to partner with] over-the-top providers, they are going to become the victim of them."

The interesting thing about the recent explosion in DPI- and policy-based transaction platform deployments is that such elements are well within the landscape of big-picture IP application architectures like IMS – which otherwise has taken eons to move into service provider networks. But while the smart IP box approach is about quick wins and fast deployments, IMS remains about building out an entirely new software-based and service-driven architecture for carrier IP networks – a goal as necessary, and as challenging, as ever. The fact that IMS isn't simple to understand or implement is both its strength (in that complexity lies its promise and potential power) and one of its obvious weaknesses, said IDC analyst Elisabeth Rainge. In 2010, however, the ultimate promise of IMS remains essentially unchanged: it's an IP-based core network made up of service, control and transport layers; it's a standard (or standards); it's a next generation network architecture; and it's an enabler of new services. Even today, as IMS becomes more real every day, "when we think about what IMS is, it's by no means a specific class of products," Rainge said. "It remains a concept that takes on many different flavors as it has evolved and is adopted."

Whatever the specific deployment approach, IMS is largely boiling down to two critical pieces: CSCF, or the call session control function, enabling signaling and transport; and HSS, home subscriber server, for dealing with customers on the network. In emerging LTE architectures in particular, "HSS deployments and investments are already very clearly underway," Rainge said. Meanwhile, exactly how providers deal with signaling and control layer issues in their IMS deployments has emerged as a clear differentiator between different provider implementations of IMS.

In the end, the outlook for IMS is good, Rainge said. The architecture aligns with important service provider goals including green/sustainability (IMS runs on cheaper, cooler servers for the most part); system administration improvements; and the ability to deliver better services cheaper and faster. Not to mention it supports the convergence move toward IP. "There's not a tier-one out there not implementing IMS," said Acme Packet's Hourihan.

Adding a new twist to the IMS story is recent momentum around Rich Communications Suite, or RCS, a key companion technology for delivering new services via IMS. In some quarters, RCS has been met with a fair amount of skepticism, as critics wonder if a lengthy, specification-by-consensus approach to new service development can compete with the rapid-fire mobile services world driven by the iPhone, Android and other more developer-centric platforms.

Yet for mobile operators to compete they need some competitive advantage. Mobile device and OS makers benefit from being able to target a global audience; in comparison, mobile operators are typically regional-based. The counter to is to develop a suite of RCS services that are able to operate between carrier networks, something that companies like Apple can't guarantee. It's just that level of interoperability on a network/service level that drove mobile's biggest success story – SMS. RCS services center around a networked address book profile based around the customer's mobile phone, as well as services such as mobile instant messaging which take advantage of that greater knowledge of the customer profile, location and state. The recently-debuted RCS Release 2 adds some key enhancements to the specs, most notably support for delivering services to broadband access clients as well as support for multi-device environments. Both of those capabilities make such RCS-based services as in-call multimedia sharing, conversational messaging and presence-enhanced contact management all the more potentially powerful.

In the end, IP in the carrier network has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts – bringing efficiencies to the core, converge to the access edge and new application control and capabilities out to developers and customers.

And that's what makes "the state of IP," circa 2010, so promising, indeed.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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