As the communications market quickly moves to one that is quality-of-experience (QoE) centric, service providers are experiencing significant changes in the way they view performance expectations.  More and more, business users and consumers are now able to adopt services such as VoIP, broadband video, gaming and mobile applications. As such, demands on network capacity are increasing – and so are the expectations of the end user.

In the current technology-savvy consumer environment, high-quality performance in all aspects of any business or service is mandatory. A satisfied customer will be defined as one who has received a service experience that matches the expectations, guarantees and assurance they were offered at point of sale or contract signing. The reality is that if customers become dissatisfied through poor service quality or broken business continuity (and in a competitive market), it will not take long before churn and lost revenues become a reality.

Service level and operational level agreements (SLA/OLA) provide the means for today’s service providers to assure and guarantee these quality expectations; however, these agreements and contracts need to evolve to encompass user experience objectives. Features such as network resiliency and redundancy to keep networks up and traffic moving are now table-stakes as a fundamental part of any network equipment selection process, so parameters associated with end-to-end quality of service (QoS) and application performance across the network should now be considered.

With an ever-growing number of next-generation applications, it’s really all about consistent performance, as today’s time-pressured enterprise would rather have their business-critical applications available all of the time than spend efforts in negotiating rebates for poor network quality. Service providers who understand this have a window of opportunity to differentiate themselves by broadening their focus to optimize the quality of the customer experience.

The art of staying competitive
Convergence is one of the major drivers in the shift to do everything possible to ensure a consistent and predictable level of service for customers. Offering simple Internet access and bandwidth is no longer enough when other suppliers in the same market are providing bundled services that also include broadband or cable TV – including access to downloadable movies and TV programs – VoIP telephone services, support for extensive mobile data services and a wide range of other popular consumer applications.

Statistics show that as of January 2008, 93 percent of U.S. households that include families with children are equipped with a computer, and 66 percent of these have a broadband connection. Some 95 percent of these same households also own cell phones, used largely for voice and SMS (text) among family members. According to recent research, revenue from U.S. mobile services was expected to grow 45 percent during the 2008 calendar year. Over this same period, it’s also predicted that revenue from worldwide mobile data services would eclipse that of fixed Internet access services.

Business applications, while not yet at the same uptake level as consumers’, are evolving with the widespread acceptance of video conferencing and the growing use of the BlackBerry and other multi-purpose mobile devices. These devices support a variety of applications, everything from VoIP, SMS, e-mail, and wireless downloads of data and video. Many business people today carry their offices and their communications center in their pockets, purses and briefcases, and keeping these mobile devices linked into a consistently reliable network is critical.

As service providers are painfully aware, it’s not only the rapid growth in the number of devices available and in use by businesses and consumers, but it’s also the explosion in the types of applications that drive the need for deeper solutions when it comes to a higher level of network and service performance management and support. As operations expand to offer an array of capabilities to customers through mergers, acquisitions and buyouts of smaller service companies, they often find themselves managing a patchwork of legacy systems that may operate on different platforms. So take heed: New applications fuel sales but add further complexity!

Differing priorities require different intelligence
Transmitting even crucial data across the network is beginning to look like a relatively simple task compared with transmitting voice and video. The reason behind this is the fact that data moves in packets. If there is a delay or interruption of some kind in network traffic, due to hardware problems or access congestion, transmission might be slowed but the information isn’t lost. By contrast, new applications like video conferencing, streaming a song or movie, or making a VoIP call requires an unbroken flow of data. Any interruption or delay in service can result in image degradation, loss of audible or voice data, or dropped calls. And voice and video data is irretrievable, even though the connection might be restored quickly.

Most networks today incorporate resiliency and redundancy features so that in the case of a critical failure, like a power loss or hardware malfunction, the network automatically switches to a backup system to ensure ongoing operations. However, solutions at the application level can be more difficult to achieve and are even more critical. A delay of only milliseconds while the switch to back up is made can interrupt a video transmission or terminate hundreds of VoIP-based conversations.

Historically, SLAs have not only been a sales initiative to customers, but also an incentive for service providers to guarantee optimal network service or suffer penalties based on downtime. However, SLAs and rebates have been linked primarily to faults and network availability rather than QoE. Today’s service providers cannot offer premium business services with assurance relying heavily on fault-derived metrics, as the real issue for customers is not just service availability, but also the quality of its delivery. In some cases, associated enterprise losses can’t be fully recovered through SLA penalties because business processes (and revenue) have been adversely affected when the application or service has been unusable, and that is unacceptable to the business customer (of the service provider).

The bottom line is that customers today are less concerned about a provider’s network performance than they are about the viability of their individual applications.

Looking at performance differently
In order to live up to service-level guarantees and to provide a high-quality customer experience, service providers must start to view network performance differently, using intelligent thresholds or baselines to predict when service-affecting issues are likely to happen and empowering operations teams with a consolidated and multi-dimensional approach to troubleshoot them. Tools that offer visibility into application traffic, as well as network and service continuity, deliver performance management visibility that can create convergent and holistic awareness that brings network, service and application views together. Displaying the whole operational picture – and in real time – is critical to not only keeping the network functioning and applications running smoothly, but also in planning for future growth.

The concept of proactive management emphasizes a blurring of the lines between traditional fault and performance management. It implies the ability to anticipate and resolve issues before they impact service-level performance; it ensures optimal performance of critical consumer or user-facing services; and it provides the tools and processes for operations staff to resolve problems before they affect end users. To keep up, every service provider will need to implement more proactive performance solutions that offer more than network-based monitoring.

The new fault management
The key to successful delivery is the ability to use a combination of real-time and historical performance data to create accurate predictions of normal user behavior to form usage trends. These can then be leveraged with advanced analytics to track usage and alert support staff based on abnormal patterns. Such analytics ensure that operation teams can efficiently provide preemptive care of user services, which helps to minimize potential SLA violations and improve end-user perception of the service, leading to improved customer care and satisfaction.

Proactive monitoring of services, simultaneously across multiple network domains (of business services, broadband and mobile operators) provides the ability to continually track and identify peaks and troughs in utilization. These then become predictable and manageable events, allowing operators to accommodate high consumer activity or traffic levels and avoid any deterioration of service quality. Longer-term planning also becomes a possibility. For example, if the provider has seen mobile data service demand increase by 50 percent over the last six months, one can then reasonably expect and plan for projected continued growth in the future and develop the capacity to handle it without service interruptions.

A further benefit to taking a proactive approach to performance monitoring comes with identification of issues related to congestion and data loss. Many networks worldwide have sufficient bandwidth to cope with expected demand, but most have been built based on best-effort delivery of service. Today’s focus on QoS now means that guarantees are being placed upon specific data types, typically high-priority, mission-critical data and VoIP quality. Therefore, understanding real-time utilization and future capacity impacts – based on usage trends – is vital to keeping network and resources at peak operating condition.

Ideally, such a system would run on a single, “vendor-neutral” platform to provide visibility across the full scope of a multi-vendor, multi-domain environment, thus empowering operations with a single perspective on the service – regardless of where it may be experiencing a performance impact. As service providers increasingly provide streaming and real-time mobile data, broadband and business services, it is imperative to have this ability to report on end-to-end service quality parameters that can underpin the user’s experience.

Keeping pace with a changing world
Today’s communications environment includes a mix of network service types and access devices. Currently, the broadband and mobile market segments are the fastest-growing among consumers worldwide, and this trend is likely to continue – along with the number of applications on mobile devices. Additionally, most consumers gauge and judge their service provider solely on the basis of their personal experience, uninterrupted uptime and smooth running of applications. Merely extending existing performance management solutions is no longer a sufficient solution for keeping pace with the speed of this type of change.

Rather, changing pace to incorporate a single, proactive performance management solution is fast becoming a competitive advantage in effectively measuring SLAs and, most importantly, in delivering the optimal quality customer experience that keeps customers from moving to another service provider. Proactive network management sets the scene for improved, efficient operations and user-problem resolution or prevention. It also provides the opportunity to convey the confidence that providers have in their services to help attract new customers and enrich the experience of existing users.