Changes starting to take place behind the scenes in mobile networks may eventually pay dividends to anyone with a smartphone, a connected refrigerator or an IT department.
Carriers have done things pretty much the same way for years, with cellular base stations at the edge of their networks feeding into a series of specialized appliances at central facilities. Now they're virtualizing those networks in several ways, seeking the same rewards that enterprises have reaped by virtualizing data centers: efficiency and flexibility. The trend will be in full swing at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next month.
It's good news for mobile users that they may not hear much about. A more efficient network leaves more free capacity for the video or application you want to run, and a more flexible carrier could quickly launch services in the future that you don't even know you'll need yet. The new architectures may even change how some businesses pay for mobile services.
Just as enterprises used to buy separate servers for each application, carriers often use dedicated hardware for each function involved in delivering a service, such as billing and authentication. Years of mergers have left multiple legacy platforms, adding to the mess. As a result, rolling out a new service for a customer, such as a VPN, can take weeks.
The new approach that's gaining ground, called NFV (network functions virtualization), turns each piece of the puzzle into software that can run on standard computing hardware.
NFV is a pretty well accepted idea now, though it may take years to be implemented in carrier networks. Companies such as Cisco Systems, Oracle, and the team of Nokia and HP are now tackling the next challenge: making all those virtualized network functions work together as a coherent system instead of separate applications. They say getting all the speed and efficiency out of NFV means going deeper than hardware consolidation.
"Virtualized chaos is still chaos," said Kelly Ahuja, Cisco's senior vice president of service provider products and solutions.
As NFV becomes a well-oiled machine, it should help carriers operate more like cloud computing providers and also develop entirely new kinds of services. The Internet of Things may demand it.
Ahuja compared the carrier network of the future to a hotel where customers will buy services for a short time instead of signing up for long contracts. All the cells, towers and wires in the network would stick around, but the carrier would spin up the bandwidth and other resources for a particular customer on demand.
For example, an electric utility that needs to poll millions of wireless smart meters at a certain time, but not connect to them constantly, could pay a carrier to provision a short-term service that collects data from the meters. Once the utility was finished with the service, all the network and computing resources would be available for the next customer.
Because of cloud computing and storage, retailers and some other companies have gotten used to paying only for what they need, said analyst Maribel Lopez, at Lopez Research. They'll start seeking the same thing from mobile operators, she said.
"The only reason this isn't a huge issue right now is that not everybody's bought into the cloud," Lopez said.
As IoT leads people to use mobile networks in new ways, virtualization should make carriers more like Web companies, able to roll out totally new services with less effort.
For example, services like AT&T Digital Life, which lets subscribers manage smart appliances around their homes, are far different from the one-user and one-device plans that carriers are used to rolling out, Lopez said. And there will be more of these in the coming years.
Even cells are going virtual. A set of technologies called C-RAN (cloud radio access network) lets operators place different components of a cell in different locations, centralizing some and leaving others on a tower or rooftop. This can cut costs and may also help the carrier serve customers better, according to analyst Monica Paolini of Senza Fili Consulting.
For example, instead of each cell operating independently, several of them can be linked at high speed to one system that handles some functions for all the cells in the area. This lets the carrier better coordinate the cells, balancing the traffic load among them and improving service for subscribers.
"You optimize network performance based on the end-user experience, and not at the cell level," Paolini said.
Ultimately, the virtualization trends may meet, and each function will take place in the best possible part of the network, she said. "Core and RAN come together, and they can be optimized at the same time."