Vikram Saksena: Software-centric migration is still at
edge of the network, and it will move into the core over
NetScout is focusing on technology to monitor virtual
non-virtual parts of the network
Application agility, service velocity and network elasticity
are the three key factors that are helping to encourage
virtualisation of networks as operators look for ways of
bringing new services to their customers with lower capital
But network functions virtualisation and software-defined
networks will also change the way that networks are thought of
from the ground up.
"We won’t always be delivering applications from
deep inside the networks," says Dr Vikram Saksena, the chief
solutions architect in NetScout’s office of the
chief technology officer. Saksena is the executive responsible
for the company’s NFV/SDN strategy.
"Latency is a big factor for operators," he says. "Operators
want to push application delivery closer to the network edge in
order to cut the latency and improve user experience."
The arrival of NFV and SDN means a complete change in how
networks are designed, built and operated. There is concern
over how operators will monitor service quality within and
through virtual environments. NetScout provides service
assurance technology to mobile, fixed and cable operators
around the globe, and so has an excellent view of the
implications of the new technology.
"Customers want to be able to set up services on demand, and on
the fly," says Saksena, who has been at the forefront of
innovations in the wireless, internet, cloud and data analytics
for many years. That’s why he lists service
velocity as one of those requirements. "Customers need to be
able to set up VPN connections, bandwidth and
quality-of-service profiles on demand. Operators need an
environment where they can set up services rapidly in response
to customer demands."
And elasticity? That’s because when a new service
is set up, it’s hard to know exactly how much it
will be used. "You may have to scale the network up or down in
order to match demand."
But in the conventional way of setting up networks, capital
equipment has to be allocated according to the expected
requirements. "You can never predict accurately how much a
service will be used," says Saksena. Do you over-provision and
risk having equipment that is under-utilised, or
under-provision and then have to struggle to meet
"With virtualisation, operators will be able to provision a
network based on what users actually want to do," Saksena
He’s watched the industry evolve over the decades
since he started at AT&T. In 1997, he became an AT&T
Fellow before being part of two start-up teams. Later he was
CTO of Sonus and then Tellabs.
"We’re moving from hardware-centric networks to
software-centric networks," says Saksena. "That’s
the starting point. But to actually deliver this complex goal
there are a number of key requirements," he adds.
In order to virtualise a network, "you need to be able to
abstract services away from the hardware," he explains.
"That’s a substantial design task and once that is
done you need to be able to program them into the network
— that’s where software-defined networks
come into play."
Two further capabilities are needed. "First, orchestration is
the ability to program a service across the network. You
don’t want to have to configure different parts of
the network in different ways, which takes time and can be
"This is where we at NetScout come in, once you’ve
done all that you need to assure the service so that it meets
users’ expectations," says Saksena.
"We are in the business of making sure these software-defined
networks provide service assurance in real time," he
That means providing operators with the ability to know what is
going on as it happens, so that they can check that the key
performance indicators they promise to their customers are
"Previously you could collect the data and then analyse it
off-line and figure out what’s going on." That
takes time. If virtualisation means that services can be
created and launched rapidly, service assurance needs to work
at the same sort of time scales.
"Now we’re shrinking the time.," says Saksena.
"Service assurance has to be more real time. That is what
NetScout is focused on — we provide intelligent
systems that can process KPIs in real time."
NetScout has 30 years of experience of this field. "We started
with enterprise and data centres and monitoring local area
networks. We have mastered this art. The focus of the company
hasn’t changed, but the landscape of this industry
And 30 years of experience perfectly suits NetScout to take on
the challenges of virtualisation, he adds. "Overall this
transformation is going to take a decade," he forecasts. He
likens the change to the switch — still going on
— from traditional TDM networks to IP-based
Why should operators set about this transformation to
virtualisation? "Services were getting commoditised," says
Saksena. Services were being baked into the hardware that
operators were buying from a limited number of vendors.
"Now, moving to a software-centric approach will give operators
the ability to differentiate. Operators can again be in control
of the services they provide, and different operators can spin
out services for their own customers," he explains.
There’s a long transition ahead, but where is
virtualisation taking hold first? "One area that is getting
early traction is the evolved packet core," he says. "This is
where we are finding some of the largest operators moving to
NFV. They are using a virtualised structure and putting EPC
into the stack."
But it’s clear that operators are still moving
carefully into this new virtualized world until they have
enough confidence. "It’s something like a
sandbox," says Saksena. "Operators are starting off by looking
at things like the internet of things and connected cars,
services for which they can carve out a virtualised part of the
Until their confidence builds up with experience, they are
still a touch wary of moving existing mainstream users on to
virtualised services. "The sandbox is for applications where
the risk is not high. The internet of things is a prime area,"
"We’re seeing virtualisation being introduced
mainly for newer, non-mainstream services where operators have
the opportunity to work through the issues before scaling the
deployment." They are more comfortable starting off where
"risks are lower".
Saksena highlights another area where operators are looking to
virtualization in order to start new services. "Cable operators
in the US are creating their own WiFi networks, and they need a
system for authentication. All that can be virtualized."
Small and medium businesses are likely to be early in the line
for virtualised services, suggests Saksena — services
such as hosted voice for small and medium businesses, plus
virtual customer premises equipment, "instead of using a fixed
router. You can even do some of the security functions on a
virtualized basis in the cloud," he adds.
"What we at NetScout are focusing on is to create a virtual
probe technology that can run on a virtual machine in order to
monitor east-west traffic," he says. "And in addition it has to
probe the north-south traffic. We use the same software on both
the physical and virtual platforms."
It is important to provide "exactly the same functionality for
end-to-end monitoring and service assurance," he says. "The
complexity of physical and virtual environments have to hidden
from the operators so services can be assured to provide a
seamless, disruption free evolution."
NetScout has developed and patented its ASI — Adaptive
Session Intelligence — technology so that operators
with virtualized networks can provide real-time KPIs almost
instantaneously. "Customers need information about packet loss
and dropped calls without the time lag, so that they can take
action right away — or put remedial action on the
priority list," he says.
But the key challenge during this transformation is that
operators will need to manage hybrid networks, where only parts
"You need to make sure that your non-virtualised networks can
be managed seamlessly alongside the virtualized networks. Our
ASI technology works on virtualised networks as well as on the
It will take time, he emphasises. "We recognise that operators
will be in a long period of transition and that they will need
full visibility throughout." But that’s what
NetScout is here to provide.