sip, Sip, SIP – Gulp!

May 22, 2007

Session Initiation Protocol or ‘SIP’ as it is known has become a major signalling protocol in the IP world as it lies at the heart of Voice-over-IP (VoIP). It’s a term you can hardly miss as it is supported by every vender of phones on the planet (Picture credit: Avaya: An Avaya SIP phone).

Many open software groups have taken SIP to the heart of their initiatives and an example of this is IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) which I recently touched upon in IP Multimedia Subsystem or bust!

SIP is a real-time IP applications layer protocol that sits alongside HTTP, FTP, RTP and other well known protocols used to move data through the Internet. However it is an extremely important one because it enables SIP devices to discover, negotiate, connect and establish communication sessions with other SIP enabled devices.

SIP was co-authored in 1996 by Jonathan Rosenberg who is now a Cisco Fellow, Henning Schulzrinne who is Professor and Chair in the Dept. of Computer Science at Columbia University and Mark Handley who is Professor of Networked Systems at UCL. SIP became an IETF SIP Working Group which is still supporting the RFC 3261 standard. SIP was originally used on the US experimental Multicast network commonly known as Mbone. This makes SIP an IT /IP standard rather than one developed by the communications industry.

Prior to SIP, voice signalling protocols were essentially proprietary signalling protocols aimed at use by the big telecommunications companies on their big Public Switched Telecommunications Networks (PSTN) voice networks such as SS7 (C7 in the UK). With the advent of the Internet and the ‘invention’ of Voice over IP, it soon became clear that a new signalling protocol was required that was peer-to-peer, scalable, open, extensible, lightweight and simple in operation that could be used on a whole new generation of real-time communications devices and services that are running over the Internet.

SIP itself is based on earlier IETF / Internet standards, principally Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP) which is the core protocol behind the World Wide Web.

Key features of SIP

The SIP signalling standard has many key features:

Communications device identification: SIP supports a concept known as Address of Record (AOR) which represents a user’s unique address in the world of SIP communications. An example of an AOR is sip: xxx@yyy.com. To enable a user to have multiple communications devices or services, SIP has a mechanism called a Uniform resource Identifier (URI). A URI is like the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) used to identify servers on the world wide web. URIs can be used to specify the destination device of a real-time session e.g.

  • IM: sip: xxx@yyy.com (Windows Messenger uses SIP)
  • Phone: sip: 1234 1234 1234@yyy.com; user=phone
  • FAX: sip: 1234 1234 1235@yyy.com; user=fax

A SIP URI can use both traditional PSTN numbering schemes AND alphabetic schemes as used on the Internet.

Focussed function: SIP only manages the set up and tear down of real time communication sessions, it does not manage the actual transport of media data. Other protocols undertake this task.

Presence support: SIP is used in a variety of applications but has found a strong home in applications such as VoIP and Instant Messaging (IM). What makes SIP interesting is that it is not only capable of setting up and tearing down real time communications sessions but also supports and tracks a user’s availability through the Presence capability. The open presence standard Jabber uses SIP. I wrote about presence in – The magic of ‘presence’.

Presence is supported through a key SIP extension: SIP for Instant messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE) [a really contrived acronym!]. This allows a user to state their status as seen in most of the common IM systems. AOL Instant Messenger is shown in the picture on the left.

SIMPLE means that the concept of Presence can be used transparently on other communications devices such as mobile phones, SIP phones, email clients and PBX systems.

User preference: SIP user preference functionality enables a user to control how a call is handled in accordance to their preferences. For example:

  • Time of day: A user can take all calls during office hours but direct them to a voice mail box in the evenings.
  • Buddy lists: Give priority to certain individuals according to a status associated with each contact in an address book.
  • Multi-device management: Determine which device / service is used to respond to a call from particular individuals.

PSTN mapping: SIP can manage the translation or mapping of conventional PSTN numbers to SIP URIs and vice versa. This capability allows SIP sessions to transparently inter-work with the PSTN. There are organisations, such as ENUM, who provide appropriate database capabilities. To quote ENUM’s home page:

“ENUM unifies traditional telephony and next-generation IP networks, and provides a critical framework for mapping and processing diverse network addresses. It transforms the telephone number—the most basic and commonly-used communications address—into a universal identifier that can be used across many different devices and applications (voice, fax, mobile, email, text messaging, location-based services and the Internet).”

SIP trunking: SIP trunks enable enterprises to group inter-site calls using a pure IP network. This could use an IP-VPN over an MPLS-based network with a guaranteed Quality of Service. Using SIP trunks could lead to significant cost saving when compared to using traditional E1 or T1 leased lines.

Inter-island communications: In a recent post, Islands of communication or isolation? I wrote about the challenges of communication between islands of standards or users. The adoption of SIP-based services could enable a degree of integration with other companies to extend the reach of what, to date, have been internal services.

Of course, the partner companies need to have adopted SIP as well and have appropriate security measures in place. This is where the challenge would lay in achieving this level of open communications! (Picture credit: Zultys: a Wi-Fi SIP phone)

SIP servers

SIP servers are the centralised capability that manage establishment of communications sessions by users. Although there are many types of server, they are essentially only software processes and could be run on a single processor or device. There are several types of SIP server:

Registrar Server: The registrar server authenticates and registers users as soon as they come on-line. It stores identities and the list of devices in use by each user.

Location Server: The location server keeps track of users’ locations as they roam and provides this data to other SIP servers as required.

Redirect Server: When users are roaming, the Redirect Server maps session requests to a server closer to the user or an alternate device.

Proxy Server: SIP Proxy servers pass on SIP requests that are located either downstream or upstream.

Presence Server: SIP presence servers enable users to provide their status (presentities) to other users who would like to see it (Watchers).

Call setup Flow

The diagram below shows the initiation of a call from the PSTN network (section A), connection (section B) and disconnect (section C). The flow is quite easy to understand. One of the downsides is that if a complex session is being set up it’s quite easy to get up to 40 to 50+ separate transactions which could lead to unacceptable set-up times being experienced – especially if the SIP session is being negotiated across the best-effort Internet.

(Picture source: NMS Communications)

Round-up

As a standard SIP has had a profound impact on our daily lives and lives well along those other protocol acronyms that have fallen into the daily vernacular such as IP, HTTP, www and TCP. Protocols that operate at the application level seem to be so much more relevant to our daily lives than those that are buried in the network such as MPLS and ATM.

There is still much to achieve by building capability on top of SIP such as federated services and more importantly interoperability. Bodies working on interoperability are SIPcenter, SIP Forum, SIPfoundry, SIP’it and IETF’s SPEERMINT working group. More fundamental areas under evaluation are authentication and billing.

More depth information about SIP can be found at http://www.tech-invite.com, a portal devoted to SIP and surrounding technologies.

Next time you just buy a SIP Wi-Fi phone from your local shop, install it, find that it works first time AND saves you money, just think about all the work that has gone into creating this software wonder. Sometimes, standards and open software hit a home run. SIP is just that.

Adendum #1:Do you know your ENUM?


IP Multimedia Subsystem or bust!

May 10, 2007

I have never felt so uncomfortable about writing about a subject as I am now while contemplating IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS). Why this should be I’m not quite sure.

Maybe it’s because one of the thoughts it triggers is the subject of Intelligent Networks (IN) that I wrote about many years ago – The Magic of Intelligent Networks. I wrote at the time:

“Looking at Intelligent Networks from an Information Technology (IT) perspective can simplify the understanding of IN concepts. Telecommunications standards bodies such as CCITT and ETSI have created a lot of acronyms which can sometimes obfuscate what in reality is straightforward.”

This was an initiative to bring computers and software to the world voice switches that would enable carriers to develop advanced consumer services on their voice switches and SS7 signalling networks. To quote an old article:

“Because IN systems can interface seamlessly between the worlds of information technology and telecommunications equipment, they open the door to a wide range of new, value added services which can be sold as add-ons to basic voice service. Many operators are already offering a wide range of IN-based services such as non-geographic numbers (for example, freephone services) and switch-based features like call barring, call forwarding, caller ID, and complex call re-routing that redirects calls to user-defined locations.”

Now there was absolutely nothing wrong with that vision and the core technology was relatively straightforward (database lookup number translation). The problem in my eyes was that it was presented as a grand take-over-the-world strategy and a be-all-and-and-all vision when in reality it was a relatively simple idea. I wouldn’t say IN died a death, it just fizzled out. It didn’t really disappear as such, as most of the IN related concepts became reality over time as computing and telephony started to merge. I would say it morphed into IP telephony.

Moreover, what lay at the heart of IN was the view that intelligence should be based in the network, not in applications or customer equipment. The argument about dumb networks versus Intelligent networks goes right back to the early 1990s and is still raging today – well at least simmering.

Put bluntly, carriers laudably want intelligence to be based in the network so they are able to provide, manage and control applications and derive revenue that will compensate for plummeting Plain Old Telephony Services (POTS) services. Whereas most IT and Internet people do not share this vision as they believe it holds back service innovation which generally comes from small companies. There is a certain amount of truth in this view as there are clear examples of where this is happening today if we look at the fixed and mobile industries.

Maybe I feel uncomfortable with the concept of IMS as it looks like the grandchild of IN. It certainly seems to suffer from the same strengths and weaknesses that affected its progenitor. Or, maybe it’s because I do not understand it well enough?

What is IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS)?

IMS is an architectural framework or reference architecture - not a standard – that provides a common method for IP multiple media ( I prefer this term to multimedia) services to be delivered over existing terrestrial or wireless networks. In the IT world – and the communications world come to that – a good part of this activity could be encompassed using the term middleware. Middleware is an interface (abstraction) layer that sits between the networks and applications / services that provides a common Application Programming Interface (API).

The commercial justification of IMS is to enable the development of advanced multimedia applications whose revenue would compensate for dropping telephony revenues and the reduce customer churn.

The technical vision of IMS is about delivering seamless services where customers are able to access any type of service, from any device they want to use, with single sign-on, with common contacts and fluidity between wire line and wireless services. IMS has ambitions about delivering:

  • Common user interfaces for any service
  • Open application server architecture to enable a ‘rich’ service set
  • Separate user data from services for cross service access
  • Standardised session control
  • Inherent service mobility
  • Network independence
  • Inter-working with legacy IN applications

One of the comments I came across on the Internet from a major telecomms equipment vendor was that IMS was about the “Need to create better end-user experience than free-riding Skype, Ebay, Vonage, etc.”. This, in my opinion, is an ambition too far as innovative services such as those mentioned generally do not come out of the carrier world.

Traditionally each application or service offered by carriers sit alone in their own silos calling on all the resources they need, using proprietary signalling protocols, and running in complete isolation to other services each of which sit in their own silo. In many ways this reflects the same situation that provided the motivation to develop a common control plane for data services called GMPLS. Vertical service silos will be replaced with horizontal service, control and transport layers.


Removal of service silos
Source: Business Communications Review, May 2006

As with GMPLS, most large equipment vendors are committed to IMS and supply IMS compliant products. As stated in the above article:

“Many vendors and carriers now tout IMS as the single most significant technology change of the decade… IMS promises to accelerate convergence in many dimensions (technical, business-model, vendor and access network) and make “anything over IP and IP over everything” a reality.

Maybe a more realistic view is that IMS is just an upgrade to the softswitch VoIP architecture outlined in the 90s – albeit being a trifle more complex. This is the view of Bob Bellman, in an article entitled From Softswitching To IMS: Are We There Yet? Many of the  core elements of a softswitch architecture are to be found in the IMS architecture including the separation of the control and data planes.

VoIP SoftSwitch Architecture
Source: Business Communications Review, April 2006

Another associated reference architecture that is aligned with IMS and is being popularly pushed by software and equipment vendors in the enterprise world is Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) an architecture that focuses on services as the core design principle.

IMS has been developed by an industry consortium and originated in the mobile world in an attempt to define an infrastructure that could be used to standardise the delivery of new UMTS or 3G services. The original work was driven by 3GPP2 and TISPAN. Nowadays, just about every standards body seems to be involved including Open Mobile Alliance, ANSI, ITU, IETF, Parlay Group and Liberty Alliance – fourteen in total.

Like all new initiatives, IMS has developed its own mega-set of of T/F/FLAs (Three, four and five letter acronyms) which makes getting to grips with the architectural elements hard going without a glossary. I won’t go into this much here as there are much better Internet resources available: The reference architecture focuses on a three layer model:

#1 Applications layer:

The application layer contains Application Servers (AS) which host each individual service. Each AS communicated to the control plane using Session Initiation Protocol (SIP).  Like GSM, an AS can interrogate a database of users to check authorisation. The database is called the Home Subscriber Server (HSS) or an HSS in a 3rd party network if the user is roaming 9In GSM this is called the Home Location Register (HLR).

(Source: Lucent Technologies)

The application layer also contains Media Servers for storing and playing announcements and other generic applications not delivered by individual ASs, such as media conversion.

Breakout Gateways provide routing information based on telephone number looks-ups for services accessing a PSTN. This is similar functionality to that was found in IN systems discussed earlier.

PSTN gateways are used to interface to PSTN networks and include signalling and media gateways.

#2 Control layer:

The control plane hosts the HSS which is the master database of user identities and the individual calls or service sessions currently being used by each user. There are several roles that a SIP call / session controller can undertake:

  • P-CSCF (Proxy-CSCF) This provides similar functionality as a proxy server in an Intranet
  • S-CSCF (Serving-CSCF) This is the core SIP server always located in the home node
  • I-CSCF (Interrogating-CSCF) This is a SIP server located at a network’s edge and it’s address can be found in DNS servers by 3rd party SIP servers.

#3 Transport layer:

IMS encompasses any services that uses IP / MPLS as transport and pretty much all of the fixed and mobile access technologies including ADSL, cable modem DOCSIS, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, WIMAX and CDMA wireless. It has little choice in this matter as if IMS is to be used it needs to incorporate all of the currently deployed access technologies. Interestingly, as we saw in the DOCSIS post – The tale of DOCSIS and cable operators, IMS is also focusing on the of IPv6 with IPv4 ‘only’ being supported in the near term.

Roundup

IMS represents a tremendous amount of work spread over six years and uses as many existing standards as possible such as SIP and Parlay. IMS is work in progress and much still needs to be done – security and seamless inter-working of services are but two.

All the major telecommunications software, middleware and integrators are involved and just thinking about the scale of the task needed to put in place common control for a whole raft of services makes me wonder about just how practical the implementation of IMS actually is? Don’t take me wrong, I am a real supporter of the these initiatives because it is hard to come up with an alternative vision that makes sense, but boy I’m glad that I’m not in charge of a carrier IMS project!

The upsides of using IMS in the long term are pretty clear and focus around lowering costs, quicker time to market, integration of services and, hopefully, single log-in.

It’s some of the downsides that particularly concern me:

  • Non-migration of existing services: Like we saw in the early days of 3G, there are many services that would need to come under the umbrella of an IMS infrastructure such as instant conferencing, messaging, gaming, personal information management, presence, location based services, IP Centrex, voice self-service, IPTV, VoIP and many more. But, in reality, how do you commercially justify migrating existing services in the short term onto a brand new infrastructure – especially when that infrastructure is based on a non-completed reference architecture?

    IMS is a long term project that will be redefined many times as technology changes over the years. It is clearly an architecture that represents a vision for the future that can be used to guide and converge new developments but it will many years before carriers are running seamless IMS based services – if they ever will.

  • Single vendor lock-in: As with all complicated software systems, most IMS implementations will be dominated by a single equipment supplier or integrator. “Because vendors won’t cut up the IMS architecture the same way, multi-vendor solutions won’t happen, Moreover, that single supplier is likely to be an incumbent vendor.” This was quoted by Keith Nissen from InStat in a BCR article.
  • No launch delays: No product manager would delay the launch of a new service on the promise of jam tomorrow. While the IMS architecture is incomplete, services will continue to be rolled out without IMS further inflaming the Non-migration of existing services issue raised above.
  • Too ambitious: Is the vision of IMS just too ambitious? Integration of nearly every aspect of service delivery will be a challenge and a half for any carrier to undertake. It could be argued that while IT staff are internally focused getting IMS integration sorted they should be working on externally focused services. Without these services, customers will churn no matter how elegant a carrier’s internal architecture may be. Is IMS, Intelligent Networks reborn to suffer the same fate?
  • OSS integration: Any IMS system will need to integrate with carrier’s often proprietary OSS systems. This compounds the challenge of implementing even a limited IMS trial.
  • Source of innovation: It is often said that carriers are not the breeding ground of new, innovative services. This lies with small companies on the Internet creating Web 2.0 services that utilise such technologies as presence, VoIP and AJAX today. Will any of these companies care whether a carrier has an IMS infrastructure in place?
  • Closed shops – another walled garden?: How easy will it be for external companies to come up with a good idea for a new service and be able to integrate with a particular carrier’s semi-proprietary IMS infrastructure?
  • Money sink: Large integration projects like IMS often develop a life of their own once started and can often absorb vast amounts of money that could be better spent elsewhere.

I said at the beginning of the post that I felt uncomfortable about writing about IMS and now that I’m finished I am even more uncomfortable. I like the vision – how could I not? It’s just that I have to question how useful it will be at the end of the day and does it divert effort, money and limited resource away from where they should be applied – on creating interesting services and gaining market share. Only time will tell.

Addendum:  In a previous post, I wrote about the IETF’s Path Computation Element Working Group and it was interesting to come across a discussion about IMS’s Resource and Admission Control Function (RACF) which seems to define a ‘similar’ function. The RACF includes a Policy Decision capability and a Transport Resource Control capability. A discussion can be found here starting at slide 10. Does RACF compete with PCE or could PCE be a part of RACF?


The tale of DOCSIS and cable operators

May 2, 2007

When anyone that uses the Internet on a regular basis is presented with an opportunity to upgrade their access speeds they will usually jump at the opportunity without a second thought. There used to be a similar analogy with personal computers with operating systems and processor speeds, but this is a less common trend these days as the benefits to be gained are often ephemeral as we have recently seen with Microsoft’s Vista. (Picture: SWINOG)

However, the advertising headline for many ISPs still focuses on “XX Mbit/s for as little as YY Pounds/month”. Personally, in recent years, I have not seen too many benefits in increasing my Internet access speed because I see little improvement when browsing normal WWW sites as their performance are not now bottlenecked by my access connection but rather the performance of servers. My motivation to get more bandwidth into my home is the need to have sufficient bandwidth – both upstream and downstream – to support my family’s need to use multiple video and audio services at the same time. Yes, we are as dysfunctional as everyone else with computers in nearly every room of the house and everyone wanting to do their own video or interactive thing.

I recently posted an overview of my experience of Joost, the new ‘global’ television channel recently launched by Skype founders, Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis – Joost’s beta – first impressions and it’s interesting to note that as a peer-to-peer system it does require significant chunks of your access bandwidth as discussed in Joost: analysis of a bandwidth hog.

The author’s analysis shows that it “pulls around 700 kbps off the internet and onto your screen” and “sends a lot of that data on to other users – about 220 kbps upstream”. If Joost is a window on the future of the IPTV on the Internet, then its should be of concern to the ISP and carrier communities and it should also be of concern to each of us that uses it. 220kbits/s is a good chunk of of the 250kbit/s upstream capability of ADSL-based broadband connections. If the upstream channel is clogged, response time on all services being accessed will be affected. Even more so if several individuals are are access Joost of a single broadband connection.

It’s these issues that make me want to upgrade my bandwidth and think about the technology that I could use to access the Internet. In this space there has been an on-going battle for many years between twisted copper pair ADSL or VDSL used by incumbent carriers and cable technology used by competitive cable companies such as Virgin Media to deliver Internet to your home.

Cable TV networks (CATV) have come a long way since the 60s when they were based on simple analogue video distribution over coaxial cable. These days they are capable of delivering multiple services and are highly interactive allowing in-band user control of content unlike satellite delivery that requires a PSTN based back-channel. The technical standard that enables these services is developed by CableLabs and is called Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS). This defines the interface requirements for cable modems involved in high-speed data distribution over cable television system networks.

The graph below shows the split between ADSL and Cable based broadband subscribers: (Source: Virgin Media) with Cable trailing ADSL to a degree. The link provided provides an excellent overview of the UK broadband market in 2006 so I won’t comment further here.

A DOCSIS based broadband cable system is able to deliver a mixture of MPEG-based video content mixed with IP enabling the provision of a converged service as required in 21st century homes. Cable systems operate in a parallel universe, well not quite, but they do run a parallel spectrum enclosed within their cable network isolated from the open spectrum used by terrestrial broadcasters. This means that they are able to change standards when required without the need to consider other spectrum users as happens with broadcast services.

The diagram below shows how the spectrum is split between upstream and downstream data flows (Picture: SWINOG) and various standards specify the data modulation (QAM) and bit-rate standards. As is usual in these matters, there are differences between the USA and European standards due to differing frequency allocations and standards – NTSC in the USA and PAL in Europe. Data is usually limited to between 760 and 860MHz.

The DOCSIS standard has been developed by CableLabs and the ITU with input from a multiplicity of companies. The customer premises equipment is called a Cable Modem and the Central Office (Head End) equipment is called the a cable modem termination system (CMTS).

Since 1997there have been various releases (Source: CableLabs) of the DOCSIS standard with the most recent being version 3.0 being released in 2006.

DOCSIS 1.0 (Mar. 1997) (High Speed Internet Access) Downstream: 42.88 Mbit/s and Upstream: 10.24 Mbit/s

  • Modem price has declined from $300 in 1998 to <$30 in 2004

DOCSIS 1.1 (Apr. 1999) (Voice, Gaming, Streaming)

  • Interoperable and backwards-compatible with DOCSIS 1.0
  • “Quality of Service”
  • Service Security: CM authentication and secure software download
  • Operations tools for managing bandwidth service tiers

    DOCSIS 2.0 (Dec. 2001) (Capacity for Symmetric Services) Downstream: 42.88 Mbit/s and Upstream:30.72 Mbit/s

    • Interoperable and backwards compatible with DOCSIS 1.0 / 1.1
    • More upstream capacity for symmetrical service support
    • Improved robustness against interference (A-TDMA and S-CDMA)

    DOCSIS 3.0 (Aug. ’06) Downstream: 160 Mbit/s and Upstream: 120 Mbit/s

    • Wideband services provided by expanding used bandwidth through the use of channel bonding e.g. instead of a single data channel being delivered over a single channel, they are multiplexed over a number of channels. ( A previous post talked about bonding in the ADSL world Sharedband: not enough bandwidth? )
    • Support of IPv6

    Roundup

    With the release of the DOCSIS 3.0 standard it looks like cable companies around the world are now set to be able to upgrade the bandwidth they will be able to offer to their customers in coming years. However, this will be an expensive upgrade for them to undertake with the need to upgrade head end equipment first and then followed by field cable modem upgrades over time. I would hazard a guess that it will be at least five years before the average cable user will be able to see the benefits.

    I also wonder about what price will need to be paid for the benefit of gaining higher bandwidth through channel bonding when there is limited spectrum available for data services on the cable system. A limit in subscriber number scalability?

    I was also interested to read about the possible adoption of IPv6 in DOCSIS 3.0. It was clear to me many years ago that IPv6 would ‘never’ (never say never!) on the Internet because of the scale of the task. It’s best chance would be in closed systems such as satellite access services and IPTV systems. Maybe, cable systems are an another option. I will catch up on IPv6 in a future post.


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