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Optus tests new approach to New Years' Eve mobile woes

Trial will shift packet core onto blades to handle traffic spikes

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Australian mobile carrier Optus, the local Singtel outpost, is trying to find a solution to the problem of mobile performance dips when crowds – think sporting events and New Years’ eve fireworks – clog the networks.

The carrier is working with year-old Santa Clara outfit Connectem, which describes its technology as “software defined networking” (surely the coming buzzword of 2013) on a trial installation in its Macquarie Park campus in Sydney’s North Ryde.

The “cloud-style” packet core is specifically designed to cope with data traffic spikes by offering a more flexible alternative to the more monolithic approach used by traditional mobile network vendors.

Speaking to Vulture South, Optus’ managing director of networks Günther Ottendorfer explained that traditional packet core nodes are “big entities … so when you come up to capacity, you expand by adding one or two nodes to the system”.

That works well enough in the more sedate and managed telecommunications of a former era, but all over Australia – and, The Register supposes, the rest of the world – mobile carriers are seeing large and variable jumps in demand for data.

That’s a concern for a carrier like Optus, which would rather avoid installing a few gigabits per second of packet core capacity that’s lying idle at some point in the future. Optus is a Nokia Siemens Networks shop, but Ottendorfer said this approach to engineering is common to all the major vendors including Ericsson, Cisco, and Juniper.

Connectem’s solution, Ottendorfer explained, is to create virtual packet core software onto general-purpose blades.

“What that delivers to us is very flexible capacity,” he said. “If you add more traffic, you just add more blades – and you have the flexibility to use the blades for other purporses if you no longer need them.

“And it’s very granular – you can add a few blades instead of one or two whole nodes.”

He told The Register that Australia is a good proving ground for the technology, because our fondness for Apple and Android smartphones is putting us in the forefront of traffic growth. “The data growth in Australia is quite amazing,” he said. “Optus is one of the first carriers in the world to see these extreme peaks in data traffic.

“That’s why we’re doing this trial – to find out how close we are to putting something like this into operation.”

Ottendorfer’s most likely scenario is that a solution like Connectem’s would be a supplement to existing infrastructure: “You wouldn’t replace your existing infrastructure,” he noted. “You would use this for growth, or for special applications. If it proves its value, it will increase its share in our network.”

He added that there are other parts of the mobile network he can imagine becoming virtualised in a similar fashion, such as 2G and 3G base station controllers (in other words, pooling the RNC/BSC (radio network controller in 3G, base station controller in 2G) functionality that currently exists in more proprietary platforms).

The Macquarie Park test follows successful lab trials conducted by Optus and Connectem earlier this year. ®

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