Why mobile networks are as stable as a falling Jenga tower.
Updated: Sep 23, 2019
Do you own a mobile phone? Of course you do. You're most probably reading this on one of those blessed devices. Would it surprise you to learn that the "mobile network” on which your phone runs is really a collector of networks slapped together over time? The sad fact of the matter is that this is true. When you use your mobile phone you are most probably accessing a large number of elements piled high one on top of the other. You do not so much access one single network as a haphazardly arranged Jenga tower of components that might fall down at the slightest wobble of the table.
A very tall, very unsteady Jenga tower.
There's the voice network, of course. Then there’s the part of the edifice that's used for text messages. Depending on how the thing was "architected” (and I use the term loosely) some of your SMS messages might be traveling on the original signaling network or they may take a detour thru the Internet before being reinserted back into the phone network to transmitted to the phone on the other end.
Just to accomplish this would require any number of unstable Jenga bricks to work in tandem. Getting them to cooperate requires more than a little work by the people that maintain and supervise the operations of the mobile carrier.
Every time that the mobile network gets an upgrade the whole wobbly mess shakes a little. This is not a minor thing either.
Say that you are running a modern mobile network and you would like to upgrade it from 3G to 4G. That sounds great, doesn't it? Faster Internet connections, less battery drainage, all that jazz. So you pick an area of town to upgrade first and get to work. There are literally dozens of pieces of equipment and software that have to be deployed all along the Jenga tower, some of them near the bottom, some in the middle, and some on top. All this, while regular folks are trying to send messages, watch the final episode of Game of Thrones, or post their latest selfie on Instagram. So go right ahead and upgrade the network. Just keep in mind that heaven protect you should your users be deprived of access to cute cat videos for any amount of time.
Ready, here we go.
Install that thing-a-magick near the bottom.
Now the doodad that goes halfway up the middle.
And now the whatchamacallit that attaches to the antenna.
Shake, rattle, and roll.
All done? Good. Now do it again hundreds of times across the country and keep in mind that not all sites are configured the same, so be careful.
At this point, dear reader, you might be about to shrug your shoulders and say "to hell with the mobile networks.” You might, but where would you be without constant access to Twitter and email and cat videos? The sad fact is that we need our mobile networks to work even though they are a mess. Any charge or upgrade will take countless hours, and truck rolls, and software changes.
Oh dear, we haven't even discussed the other Jenga tower; the one that's made up at the software the runs the network.
Now let me offer a different metaphor for how a network can run. Every so many weeks someone on my Twitter feed will post a video of a murmuration of starlings in flight. Tens of thousands of the little things moving in concert through the sky. It's a beautiful thing to see and what makes it even more surprising is the realization that this whole thing is self-organized. Any bird can add itself to the flock (or network) and the group will adapt itself to the new member.
Now wouldn't it be great if our supposedly smart networks were at least as smart as large collections of starlings? It would, It really would. Especially now that the 4G tower is about to be upgraded to 5G.
A couple of weeks ago I chatted with Yoran Doodai (LinkedIn), VP Business Development at Cellwize (link). To put it quite simply, Cellwize wants to transform the Jenga tower into a self-organizing network that behaves more like a murmuration of starlings.
Or, on a less poetic note, they want to help networks deploy services faster, with fewer people and truck rolls. Think about it this way, when Google deploys a new service, it takes something like three people to do it. The equivalent number for a large mobile network would be upwards of three-hundred.
To my mind, increasing a complex system’s efficiency by a factor of one-hundred qualifies not only as innovative but as revolutionary. With this, Cellwize are hitting all the value disciplines leading with operational excellence of course. But that excellence relies on Cellwize knowing what their customers need in detail, in anticipating their challenges and offering solutions even before those challenges become a crisis.
Is there a product leadership angle? I think there is. Clearly they are forging a new path here. Not only that but if they can truly enable the mobile carriers to change and evolve rapidly they will also enable them to innovate themselves.
And, oh yeah, Cellwize also just received a very nice chunk of change in investment from Deutsche Telekom, who know whereof they speak (link).
Did you find this post interesting, challenging, wrong? Let me know.
Do you know of a company that’s doing something interesting in innovation, send them my way.