Is it time to bring 3G/4G into the MPLS network?

Considerations for the rollout of M2M communications in the managed service provider space

Much has been made of the benefits that the widespread rollout of M2M (Machine-to-Machine) communications will bring to society. From toasters that can send a notification to a smartwatch when finished, through to smart highways that can communicate with vehicles to prevent accidents, clearly the emphasis is on making technology more intelligent, more talkative.

Nor is this limited to the consumer space – M2M promises a lot for the enterprise as well.

M2M devices that are on the market today often utilise cellular SIMs for data connectivity, connecting devices to a Mobile Network Operator’s (MNO) infrastructure. By making use of the MNO’s network, the need for shared local infrastructure – like a PSTN, Duct, Cabinet, local exchange and power – can usually be reduced. This improves resilience in the last mile.

Historically, the use of 3G/4G for connectivity has been regarded as a last resort. Reliability is paramount in the enterprise space, with downtime and instability not conducive to a successful business environment. To this end, a number of IT services providers have recently been tasked with proving whether 3G/4G can be a viable MPLS access option – particularly in situations where private broadband is the primary access circuit.

I’d argue that, once a few issues are addressed, a well-engineered M2M solution has a place in the managed network service providers’ kit bag – especially as a failover path. However, there are certain actions and considerations that service providers must take into account if they are to ensure M2M is viable for use in the MPLS space.

Know your applications

Applications are the ultimate network consumers, placing demands on bandwidth, latency, security and resilience. In the enterprise, no two sets of IT applications are identical; understanding the application paradigm is therefore crucial to the design and management of bandwidth in an MPLS network. This is especially important when bandwidth is at a premium – as it is for a MNO.

For example, during a failover event remote site bandwidth is often reduced, therefore application usage should be reduced to only those that are critical. A retailer’s private WAN for payment card authorisation is clearly essential, but public Wi-Fi can be put on hold until the primary circuit has recovered.

Overcome MNO coverage issuesnode4

Poor coverage is the most common criticism directed towards M2M; in the UK, no MNO claims 100 per cent coverage and variable signal strength is an accepted norm in mobile telephony. But coverage can be maximised if the 3G/4G is “supplier neutral”, an approach regularly applied to access carriers by solution providers.

Working with multiple MNOs is becoming easier. Routers with dual SIM slots are available, as well as roaming SIMs, which are designed to automatically connect to whichever network provides the best coverage at any particular site. Either of these options extends the traditional boundaries of a single MNO’s coverage.

Choose the right tariff and hardware

There are a number of tariff options that are suitable for M2M, packaged according to MNO, monthly data allowance and 3G/4G capabilities. Routers and devices are also available to match a particular SIM, although the environment also plays a role in this decision; depending on the conditions, you may want to consider ruggedised or small footprint options.

Control data usage

SIMs are often supplied with a fixed monthly data allowance and incur usage fees for anything outside of this, therefore 3G/4G data transfers must be kept to a minimum. Managing failover traffic at the router, with appropriate policies in place for the secondary connection, ensures that critical applications get the bandwidth they need, whilst ensuring data traffic via the MNO is minimised.
A pooled tariff is another solution that can reduce excess data charges, by sharing monthly allowances across a group of users. If only one site exceeds its data allowance in a billing period this can be balanced out by another site within the pool that is under-using its own share of the allowance. This is a good option for a multi-site secondary network, which is designed to mitigate infrequent outages.

Maintain security

Data must be able to travel from the end point back to the host securely. The encryption overhead that is inherent in the use of an Internet VPN tunnel over an MNO’s network will impact the throughput on the 3G/4G connection, and increase the cost of equipment for the end points. If a customer-specific appliance is required to terminate IPSec sessions, whether in the MPLS core or at the host site, the cost of expansion will be non-linear.

To maintain security compliance, secondary connectivity needs to be private from end-to-end via the MPLS cloud; the customer’s traffic should consistently be delivered into the MPLS VRF and forwarded to the HQ or Data Centre as a private session. To achieve this a private APN is required between the MNO and the MPLS Cloud. Internet traffic can break out from a central firewall in the MPLS core or Data Centre, giving a single point of security management for all MPLS end-points. By avoiding contention on the MNO’s internet service M2M devices located in vehicles and metering equipment, as well as MPLS WAN sites, will benefit from this approach.

Ensure instant service

In addition to using 3G/4G as a secondary option for MPLS access, 3G/4G can also be used for short-term deployments, for example where a site needs to be able to get up and running instantly. Delays in delivery of new PSTN or fibre bearers are commonplace, even in urban areas, and 3G/4G signal can be a useful way to connect a site in the interim.
What is required here is a touch-free deployment – a pre-configured router shipped as a plug and play item, without the need to schedule engineering resources on site. This could also then be used to maintain services during periods of technical faults, such as PSTN or fibre breaks.

Here at Node4, early customer trials for M2M to MPLS have been successful and we have discovered a fair share of practical learnings regarding MNOs. With 4G network coverage constantly increasing, M2M technology is becoming more feasible at the MPLS access layer, particularly in situations where the primary circuit provided is wired broadband.
node4_authorM2M remains a specialist skill area and requires careful integration into the MPLS network by both customer and service provider. However, through careful management of the infrastructure, the benefits it can deliver to the customer make it more than worth the effort.

By Peter Howsam, Pre-Sales Consultant, Node4

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