The Ages of IMS

Back in 2002 or 2003 - it’s such a long time ago that it’s difficult to recall when exactly - I had my first encounter with the nascent world of IMS. It’s hardly betraying any customer confidences to write that, together with some colleagues, I met with people from Siemens who, at that time, were considering a new hardware platform for many key mobile network elements that they delivered. The intention was to migrate from proprietary hardware to ATCA-based components in order to meet the needs of the coming generation of IMS solutions. As anyone who has read a 3GPP specification will know, 3GPP defines a range of functional entities but leaves the physical implementation of these to the industry – Siemens wanted a more flexible solution that could meet a wide range of different requirements from a common hardware platform.

IMS had suddenly leapt into our consciousness and became a focus, particularly for the media servers that we subsequently added to our product portfolio through the acquisition of Snowshore. It seemed an opportunity for a relatively small vendor to carve out a niche and provide specialist capabilities to complement the established companies – the Media Resource Function (MRF) being our contribution to the ecosystem. Of course, it was a bit more complicated than that, with the established vendors remaining dominant at that time even in these niche areas. However, it did lead us into some very interesting work and involvement with standardisation groups in 3GPP, in particular for the evolution of the MRF entities.

All well and good, but why, you might wonder, are you writing about something that is really history? Well, I’m on my way to the IMS World Forum and it’s worth reflecting on the long road we have followed to reach this point. Not only have we seen profound changes in the industry but we have also experienced equally profound ways in which the industry communicates about itself.

IMS has always been a controversial subject in some quarters. Some criticisms have been justified – it is complex, it is difficult to understand sometimes, but it was developed for the right reasons – to provide a common session control infrastructure that could scale to meet the needs of the largest operators and from which a range of known and unknown services could be launched.

Of course, many argue that it should be simplified (very few mention specifically how), that it’s unnecessary (rarely coming up with a convincing alternative) and how much better other platforms might be (while neglecting some of the unique requirements that IMS was designed to cater for). It’s certainly provoked some interesting debate and the controversy continues but we must not lose sight of the fact that, in real terms, IMS has been a success.

The first part of the goals of IMS (to meet the needs of the largest operators) has arguably been reached. The second (to support service innovation) has almost certainly not been – and that’s the problem, the claims of service innovation were trumpeted too loudly, as if IMS would somehow unlock an age of innovation and wonder. This means that the underlying success is easily overlooked and it’s been easy to ridicule the whole topic of telco innovation, even suggesting it’s an oxymoron.

Which is very amusing of course, but it ignores the fact that the network has continued to evolve and there has been a wealth of genuine innovation at this level: IMS has a key role in co-ordinating network assets to ensure successful session management across all connected infrastructure.

When I started in telecoms back in the mid nineties, SS7 was being deployed in many countries. While it had been around in others for 20 years by then, there was still a lot of the world that hadn’t moved into the digital age or parts of national networks that needed to be updated. And, the GSM network was entirely based on SS7 technology, so there was a wealth of opportunities for deploying interesting solutions. And, as you might expect, there was on-going evolution of standards to deliver new functionality.

What surprises many is that SS7 continues to be deployed in 2014 – so it’s enjoyed a more than 40-year history, in one way or another. Of course, the number of new deployments is shrinking but there’s a lot out there and operators still need to manage it. It’s not a topic that gets much coverage and it’s easy to see why, but the fact remains that operators must still wrestle with this infrastructure, maintain and replace it, as it carries traffic and makes money. Despite projections, it’s going to be with us for a while yet.

Similarly, towards the end of the 90s, the softswitch movement emerged – and most switching today is indeed soft. We have seen many softswitching companies come and go (particularly between 1999 and 2004) but the market continues to enjoy growth. I’ve always thought of IMS as a sort of hybrid of the softswitch and the intelligent network and, in many respects, that’s what it is. There’s something a bit like an SDP, something like an SSP, something like an SRF and something like an SCP, plus a whole bunch of other stuff that glues it all together. It’s the other stuff that gets people confused, by the way, in my opinion.

Softswitches continue to be important and, in smaller networks, are probably the primary means of session control (even if we sometimes use other terminology to describe them). Similarly, I can recall many saying at the time that VoIP was the death knell of SS7. I’m still waiting.

Against this background, the decade so far of IMS seems quite reasonable. We’ve seen multiple product iterations, significant deployments and a whole series of changes in the ecosystem during that time. Of course, because of the deep changes in how the industry talks about itself, it’s not enough. People expect instantaneous change but the reality – rightly or wrongly – is different. IMS is still evolving and it will never move quickly enough to satisfy today’s commentators.

There will likely be a series of discussions on this topic as we consider moves by OTT players to move into the voice space in parallel with discussions about VoLTE and the impetus this provides to IMS deployment. After all, there’s no reason why an OTT player can’t offer a voice service over an operator’s LTE network – unless you want to break out to a legacy, non-data network, of course, in which case you have all the tiresome bother of connecting into a PSTN or PLMN infrastructure, which is what telcos are, generally speaking, really, really good at.

It seems likely that we are due another revolution – and, because news spreads at incomparably faster rates today than ten years ago, we can expect to see considerable discussion of this with inevitable pooh-poohing of the efforts of telcos. And, in many ways, the efforts of telcos are woeful, particularly in service innovation – but that’s because they build networks, of which IMS is a key constituent part. And those networks are designed to perform in a variety of ways that are mandated by government or regulators. I bet Facebook won’t be offering emergency dialling from their new voice application.

We end up comparing the wrong things and attacking the wrong targets. IMS isn’t perfect – I daresay if you were to start today, it would look completely different – but at no point in the last 10 years have we spoken to a major operator that has seriously considered anything else. Singling out IMS is easy. It’s right to be sceptical and critical, as it’s part of a sustained debate from which we can learn. Personally, I’m much more concerned with the applications and value added services that telcos offer (none that I pay for, unless they’ve slipped into my bills without noticing) and a host of other more pressing issues.

With this in mind, it’s great to be returning to Barcelona for the IMS World Forum – while there will be much that has been said before, there’s always something new and interesting and a different perspective to hear. What will the next decade of IMS hold in store? And, where in the ages of IMS do we stand? I think it’s at the soldier stage, which suggests there are many battles yet to be fought. We’ll let you know!

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