Optimum capacity

With networks becoming ever more complicated, CommsMEA looks at some of the challenges facing telcos and their enterprise customers, and how both parties can work together to improve network performance

Tags: Intergence SystemsNetwork sharingOvumRiverbed Technology IncorporatedUnited Arab Emirates
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By  Roger Field Published  August 9, 2009 Communications Middle East & Africa Logo

As ever more telecom traffic moves to IP networks and demand for web based services grows, so operators and governments need to increase the availability of bandwidth, while carriers and their enterprise customers also need to work smarter with the bandwidth they have.

According to research from global analysts Ovum, networks in many parts of the world are already experiencing a fall in investment at a time when traffic is increasing rapidly.

"The service provider switching and routing market fell 20% in the first quarter of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008, and the decline is likely to continue," says John Mazur, principal analyst for network infrastructure at Ovum.

"Yet carriers continue to report robust IP traffic growth, and this is only the tip of the upcoming video tsunami." He adds that Cisco's recent Visual Networking Index predicts IP traffic will increase fivefold from 2008-13, with the largest growth segment being consumer Internet.

While network infrastructure in most countries in the Middle East is unlikely to reach capacity limits any time soon, Ovum's report serves to highlight the need for operators and their enterprise customers to work together to improve efficiency.

Indeed, many enterprises in the region already face issues similar to those highlighted by Ovum, although this is widely held to be more related to company spending restrictions owing to the economic downturn, than to dwindling capacity.

It is a trend that companies operating in the network optimisation field are familiar with, and a trend that is also leading to significant growth in the sector.

Network analysis

For example, Duncan Adamson, general manager for the Middle East at Intergence Systems, a UK based company that works closely with enterprise customers in the UAE to improve network performance, has seen a steady rise in business since the company entered the UAE market last year.

"There is much talk about the slowdown but we don't see that," he says. "It might be that our core proposition set is about doing more with what a client has got. There are technology projects being deferred, investment decisions being more rigorously checked by CFOs, giving more opportunity to do more with existing infrastructure, which plays quite nicely into our hands," he says.

In the UAE, most of Intergence's work has been with the local customers of operators, who face a range of challenges such as bottlenecks, capacity and planning.

One of the problems that Adamson highlights at a macro level is the relatively high cost of broadband in some countries in the region compared to Europe. He adds that there are also "some issues" with the types of services and SLAs (Service Level Agreements) that the operators are willing or able to offer in the market.

"Genuine visibility of the end-to-end performance of the network service that an enterprise receives from an operator here is probably not quite the same level as it might be in the UK or Western Europe," he says.

This creates problems when an enterprise is planning to improve or upgrade its network operations as they will be less likely to gain a transparent overview of the end-to-end network.

"When enterprises are trying to plan interventions of how they can improve performance across the network, there is perhaps not the same level of interaction with an operator here as they might get from an operator in a more developed market," Adamson says. "So what we try to do is help them drill down to the root cause of problems with a systemic approach."

This involves various types of analysis of the network including baselining - a method for analysing computer network performance - to predict how performance can be improved. This gives Intergence a comprehensive view of how the network is performing and allows the company to pinpoint any problems with hardware such as switches and routers.

The process also assesses overall network performance, looking at bandwidth, the use of the bandwidth, and the performance of devices that form the infrastructure.

In markets such as the UAE, where the main operators have their own exclusive zones for certain services, enterprise customers can also face additional problems. For example, some enterprises in the UAE have parts of their network infrastructure provided by Etisalat and Du, which can add an extra layer of complexity.

"Depending on the location of the enterprises offices, there can be, through no particular fault of the operators, some falling between the cracks of end-to-end visibility across the network," Adamson says.

"One operator can only give their customer visibility of their part of the network, and so it is quite difficult for clients to get an integrated holistic view, so by deploying these network probes and devices and generating a performance assessment across their infrastructure, we can actually give them visibility into where things are going wrong, if they are going wrong, and where there are opportunities to redesign.

"We can help companies understand what is going on end-to-end and that is often half the battle."

While Intergence works directly with some of the leading operators in Europe, including the UK's BT Group, the company currently works only with enterprises in the Middle East region. But with companies such as AT&T and Orange Business Services increasing their presence in the region's enterprise services arena, Adamson thinks operators will start to look more closely at working with optimisation specialists as a means of improving their enterprise services.

Efficiency gains

Riverbed, a UK-based network optimisation specialist, is another company that is experiencing a growing demand for its services in the region.

Mark Lewis, Riverbed's senior director, marketing and alliances, EMEA, said demand for its services, including bandwidth optimisation, is being driven by various factors in the region.

One of the drivers, particularly in less developed markets such as Yemen, is the high cost of bandwidth and payment structures which mean customers have to pay for their bandwidth by the megabyte.

"In the Middle East what we have seen is that there are some parts of the region where they are charging by the bandwidth. If you can reduce bandwidth traffic in a country like Yemen there is a direct cost saving."

He adds that in other parts of the region, organisations are unsure of the quality of network they can get. To this end, Riverbed is also experiencing significant demand in countries such as Iraq, where many organisations operate in remote areas and may also rely on satellite communications.

"We have devices deployed in Iraq, where there are areas that are difficult to get to. We have some specific optimisation devices for satellite communication because that is very costly bandwidth and very high in latency," Lewis adds. "That [latency] is the biggest killer and that is where our IP acceleration application comes in.

"In the Middle East, we see opportunities where there are charges for bandwidth, and in hard to reach places. We are opening up new worlds for these people."

But Lewis stresses that most of Riverbed's work is in more developed markets, where organisations are mainly interested in boosting efficiency by deploying optimisation products and services.

"The majority of our customers in the region are in countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt," Lewis says.

In these countries, clients are largely benefiting from products such as Riverbed's Steelhead appliance, which allows the end user to operate without onsite data centres, and "effectively allow the Wide Area Network to work like a Local Area Network," according to Lewis.

While most of Riverbed's work in the region is with enterprises, from small organisations to corporations, the company is starting to see more interest from telecos.

"Going forward as we start to see more work with the telcos in the region, I think it might start to balance out because the telcos will sell [Riverbed products and services to their end users], and we are seeing an increase in that area globally," Lewis says.

While Mazur says no one really knows the impact on end users of running networks at such high capacity, he questions how far optimization techniques can go in mitigating a problem which requires a much bigger investment in network architecture.

For Ovum, it is unlikely that service providers will allow serious service degradation to occur for their premium IP services, but the organisation believes public Internet based services are at risk of service degradation, with the result that end users' quality of experience may plummet in some countries.

Ovum's report highlights de-regulated markets where governments are less likely to spearhead national projects, such as North America, as being at particular risk. "North American ISPs don't want greater regulatory oversight so they find themselves on a slippery slope," the report states.

However, more centrally controlled countries such as Japan, South Korea, and France have higher-performance Internet networks mainly due to greater regulatory oversight. Mazur adds that one encouraging sign for higher investment levels is that broadband prices globally have stopped declining and are starting to increase to more acceptable levels for ISPs.

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