Alcatel-Lucent unveils a mobile magnifying glass

Alcatel-Lucent introduced a tool for seeing how each application affects a mobile network

Mobile applications are evolving even faster than the networks on which they run, and they could create new demands on infrastructure that hurt overall network performance.

Legendary research center Bell Labs has joined with corporate incubator Alcatel-Lucent Ventures in creating a system for mobile operators to track traffic and see how each application affects the network. They claim the Alcatel-Lucent 9900 Wireless Network Guardian (WNG), introduced Monday, is the first platform of its kind.

Because the applications now coming to mobile phones are more complex, they can have an impact on networks that goes beyond simple consumption of bandwidth, according to IDC analyst Godfrey Chua. For example, push-to-talk applications don't require a fat pipe but do hang on to part of the carrier's radio spectrum continuously so users can exchange presence information. Applications that act on information about a subscriber's location, including targeted advertising, also introduce new demands on the network, he said.

The variety of mobile applications could explode in the coming years as a result of initiatives such as Google's Android OS and Apple's SDK (software development kit) for the popular iPhone. The ongoing 700MHz spectrum auction by the US Federal Communications Commission also requires part of that prized band be open to any device and any application. Perhaps in preparation for that rule, Verizon Wireless plans to offer a service plan that allows "any device, any application" access to its network.

Whether the WNG is a first or not, it's an interesting product, Chua said. Mobile operators might use systems like it for a variety of purposes, including some that subscribers might not like, he said.

"There could be new and novel ways of charging people," Chua said. Applications that tax networks heavily, such as file-sharing, might be detected and blocked, he added.

The WNG can track all types of IP (Internet Protocol) traffic and determine how much of the network's resources each session is consuming. Using that information, carriers can modify or expand their networks to better accommodate new applications and block certain kinds of attacks, said Mike Schabel, general manager for the WNG at Alcatel-Lucent Ventures.

The system consists of two devices: a detector in each network node that collects information about the traffic and its impact, and a central management device in a network operations center that stores and analyzes that information, plus provides an interface for network administrators. Based on information it collects about patterns, the WNG can detect anomalies, including attacks and new application types. Administrators can change settings in the network or bring in other devices from Alcatel-Lucent or third parties, such as firewalls and intrusion prevention gear, to tackle problems they learn about through the WNG, Schabel said.

The WNG is available now. Alcatel will sell it to carriers and offer a managed service in which it installs the gear on a carrier's network and monitors it.

Alcatel hopes eventually to offer tools that automatically optimize networks based on data from the WNG, he added. This technology is already working in the lab, but it will take time to reduce false positives and make it work well enough for commercial networks, Schabel said.

The ultimate goal is to make mobile networks operate predictably well, he said.

"The whole premise of open access is getting to the point of offering all possible applications with the best possible experience," Schabel said.

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