Let’s say you’re planning to migrate to a new high-redundancy CS core network—what’s the first challenge that comes to mind? For many of you, it might be network architecture. The structure of modern telco networks is increasingly complex, and any new network rollout is going to be much more involved as a result. To wit, you’ve got to make sure that you’re setting up the core network protocols correctly (in accordance with the 3GPP standards), that your network can interconnect successfully with other networks, that it has functioning access layers for end users devices, and much more.
As the average telco network—and thus telco testing—gets more and more complex, the value of automation is becoming increasingly obvious. Whether you’re a device tester looking down a mountain of use cases requiring verification or a product manager desperate to improve your time-to-market, the ability to run through hundreds of use cases per day with the press of a button has to have an obvious appeal. And yet, the way we discuss test automation for telecoms often feels a little abstract. Broader discussions of how and why testers should automate might leave readers wondering what, exactly, an automated test environment would look and feel like.
Since the introduction of LTE in 2009, most telco operators have had to maintain three networks in parallel—2G, 3G, and LTE—with smooth interworking between the three of them, sometimes even in the course of a single phone call. Not only that, but operators need to offer their customers seamless connections with a host of other legacy systems, from ISDN to POTS. Each time the larger telco landscape gets more complex (which happens practically by the day), the presence of existing legacy systems amplifies that complexity—making life increasingly difficult for the testers tasked with verifying network functionality.
The digitization of telecommunications has led to the adoption of many software testing methodologies, including end-to-end (E2E) testing. Sometimes confused with system testing, E2E testing goes much farther, validating the interoperability of different network components and their complex interactions.
Network quality has long been a top cause of customer churn for telcos. Yet organizations often continue to struggle with delivering adequate quality because the demand for more data has negatively impacted voice service. That demand will likely grow; according to a recent McKinsey study, consumer demand for data will increase by 40 to 80% per year, depending on customer patterns and geographic region. While data might seem more urgent, voice is still important. Telcos that wish to remain competitive are placing new emphasis on network quality testing.
The most obvious benefits of automation for any industry include increased efficiency and decreased reliance on human employees. But for telcos, automation, and particularly automated testing, offers multiple other sources of ROI, from reduced time to market, to better implementation of the Continuous Delivery model.
Automation is often treated like a magic bullet, a cure-all for increasing demands on testing personnel who face new network quality concerns, additional devices, and other challenges every day. However, the truth is that automating any process, especially a critical one like network testing, is fraught with pitfalls. These five best practices can help ensure the success of network testing automation.
Let’s say you’re working through a whole slate of different test scenarios to verify service on a new network that you’re rolling out. One of your first tasks is tackling VoIP (voice over IP) tests, which, as it turns out, present some very particular challenges. Because jitter and latency in voice conversations can quickly render a call frustrating and incomprehensible, your tests have to seek out extremely granular data about packet loss and packet delay for a number of different use cases. In order to do so effectively, testers need a wealth of specialized knowledge.
Okay, let’s say you're one of the major telco operators in your geographic area, and in order to increase your competitiveness you’re hoping to be the first one to roll out a 5G network for mobile voice and data. You’ve spent months laying the groundwork and taking pains to get your equipment and protocols in line with the new standards, and you’ve done your market research to determine the level of demand among local users (including adoption of 5G-enabled devices, etc.). It’s “all steam ahead,” and the only question is how quickly you’ll be able to get your product to market.
A few years ago, a tester working on a typical telco project could run through about 10 use cases per day. Now, that number is closer to 8 use cases per day. This trend might be worrying from the outside, but if you’re a test engineer within the world of telecommunications it really shouldn’t be shocking. After all, as the complexity of global networks skyrockets, it stands to reason that verifying service for any particular node or function would become incrementally more complex as a result. The question is: what can network operators do about it? How can you maintain standards and achieve a positive testing ROI in these increasingly difficult environments?