Start-ups continue to move the SON goalposts for a new network

When the term SON first hit the market, it meant self-organizing network and it was a relatively low level function, automating the process of allowing base stations to work together without interference.

The rising interest in dense small cell networks placed new strategic importance on SON, since automation became essential, not just efficient, when provisioning huge numbers of base stations in close proximity. SON platforms which can manage hardware from many vendors, and interoperate with one another, are critical enablers for densification and future 5G architectures, and so are the focus of activity by several industry bodies such as the Small Cell Forum and the NGMN Alliance. And the acronym changed to reflect the deeper functionality of the new SON, which now generally means ‘self-optimizing networks’.

As well as density, another important architectural shift in evolved 4G and 5G is virtualizing the RAN. This is still over the horizon for most carriers, but it will put a new set of demands on SON platforms. The SON suppliers – large specialists like Amdocs, the OEMs, and a group of start-ups – are all looking to address the challenges of virtualization and the new integrated network.

To fulfil its potential, SON will need to interwork with other key software such as the BSS/OSS, feeding its information about the network into the decisions made by the IT systems, themselves increasingly virtualized. It will need to automate optimization of both physical and virtualized RAN elements. And it will become virtualized itself.

These challenges are intensifying interest in SON start-ups, and may well spark further acquisitions like Amdocs’s purchase of Actix and Celcite, and Nokia’s of Eden Rock. One of the independents, CellMining, recently raised a $5m round of funding led by Lazarus Israel Opportunities Fund (Israel has become the heart of SON innovation). Its particular angle is to integrate SON with customer experience management (CEM), another key area of current operator interest.

CellMining promises optimization that is driven by user experience and real usage patterns rather than network efficiency or RAN-based metrics. It calls this ‘Behavior-Based SON’ and its software first analyzes the users’ activity patterns and experience before using that information to drive optimization decisions.

CEO Greg Snipper said in a statement: “No other company provides this depth of SON and CEM integration into a single platform, which delivers intelligent network optimization powered by subscriber experience analytics.” Brian Abrams, partner at Lazarus, added: “With subscribers demanding a seamless user experience, and with data-hungry apps making ever greater demands on network capacity and availability, MNOs are under enormous pressure to maintain a flexible and responsive network. We believe that we’re now at the start of a second wave in the SON revolution.”

Another Israel-based SON specialist, Cellwize, is demonstrating the natural fit between automated optimization, and operators’ rising use of big data analytics to understand the behavior of their networks and their subscribers. Cellwize has announced a partnership with IT giant EMC, which provides large-scale data processing platforms. This combination enables operators to adapt, optimize and prioritize network resources on a dynamic basis to suit specific target user groups and applications, such as highway commuters during rush hour, says the start-up.
Cellwize has validated its VDS (Value-Driven SON) technology for integration with EMC’s Real Time Intelligence (RTi), a credential that joins an existing validation from Hewlett-Packard Enterprise for its OpenNFV platform.

Cellwize says its closed-loop system feeds network quality measurements into the analytics engine, enabling operators to tweak network resources on an ongoing basis to address pain points and to enable new services for specific markets or users. In particular, it is examining the opportunities to optimize services for the particular needs of commuters, first responders, business parks, university campuses, smart cities and connected cars.

“The multivendor, cross-technology nature of the Cellwize customer-centric solution has been a key reason for our choosing to work with Cellwize to validate its technology”, said David Hudson, general manager of telecom modernization at EMC.

“EMC’s ability to ingest and distribute millions of data events per second will give our customer-centric SON solution the ability to take action on  a superset of business and network insights and boost performance for precise market segments,” said Ofir Zemer, CEO of Cellwize.  “

Reverb is another pioneer in the new breed of SON solutions, and specializes in ‘Cloud-SON’, combining Cloud-RAN and SON. It announced its Predictive SON in 2013, as a stepping stone to full Cloud-SON. CEO Zoran Kehler said then: “The Cloud-SON proposal isn’t a trivial detail, like hosting your SON software on a cloud hosting service. It’s a fundamentally new network architecture for self-optimizing networks that is in tune with the trend towards Cloud-RAN and NFV.”

The aim is to align the SON domain with the move towards centralizing and virtualizing network intelligence, turning it into a full network operating system which can predict cause and effect, and coordinate responses, dynamically. “Many of today’s operational systems are analogous to the muscles and bones of the body, the basic electromechanical fibers. SON is the brain,” boasted Kehler.

Companies like Reverb and another start-up, virtualized small cell company Parallel Wireless, aim to go beyond current centralized SON offerings and create a fully unified set of intelligent capabilities – a sort of ‘SON of SONs’ for a complex multilayer network of the future. For an operator with a mixture of legacy macrocells, small cell and WiFi zones, and C-RAN islands, there will be a significant challenge to make all these elements interwork and provide a common pool of resource. The solution may be to run distributed SON on standalone base stations and virtual network elements, to manage local issues like neighbor relations; hybrid or centralized SON at the network level; and Cloud SON on each C-RAN island to pull everything together.