Category Archives: EPC

DNS’ role in S8-Home Routing Roaming

S8 Home Routing is a really simple concept, the traffic goes from the SGW in the visited PLMN to the PGW in the home PLMN, so the PCRF, OCS/OFCS, IMS, IP Addresses, etc, etc, are all in the home network, and this avoids huge amounts of complexity.

But in order for this to work, the visited network MME needs to find the PGW of the home network, and with over 700 roaming networks in commercial use, each one with potentially hundreds of unique APNs each routing to a different PGW, this is a tricky proposition.

If you’ve configured your PGW peers statically on your MME, that’s fine, but it doesn’t scale very well – And if you add an MVNO who wants their own PGW for serving their APN, well you’ll be adding some complexity there to, so what to do?

Well, the answer is DNS.

By taking the APN to be served, the home PLMN and the interface type desired, with some funky DNS queries, our MME can determine which PGW should be selected for a request.

Let’s take a look, for a UE from MNC XXX MCC YYY roaming into our network, trying to access the “IMS” APN.

Our MME knows the network code of the roaming subscriber from the IMSI is MNC XXX, MCC YYY, and that the UE is requesting the IMS APN.

So our MME crafts a DNS request for the NAPTR query for ims.apn.epc.mncXXX.mccYYY.3gppnetwork.org:

Because the domain is epc.mncXXX.mccYYY.3gppnetwork.org it’s routed to the authoritative DNS server in the home network, which sends back the response:

We’ve got a few peers to pick from, so we need to filter this list of Answers to only those that are relevant to us.

First we filter by the Service tag, whihc for each listed peer shows what services that peer supports.

But since we’re looking for S8, we need to find a peer who’s “Service” tag string contains:

x-3gpp-pgw:x-s8-gtp

We’re looking for two bits of info here, the presence of x-3gpp-pgw in the Service to indicate that this peer is a PGW and x-s8-gtp to indicate that this peer supports the S8 interface.

A service string like this:

x-3gpp-pgw:x-s5-gtp

Would be excluded as it only supports S5 not S8 (Even though they are largely the same interface, S8 is used in roaming).

It’s also not uncommon to see both services indicated as supported, in which case that peer could be selected too:

x-3gpp-pgw:x-s5-gtp:x-s8-gtp

(The answers in the screenshot include :x-gp which means the PGWs advertised are also co-located with a GGSN)

So with our answers whittled down to only those that meet our needs, we next use the Order and the Preference to pick our best candidate, this is the same as regular DNS selection logic.

From our candidate, we’ve also got the Regex Replacement, which allows our original DNS request to be re-written, which allows us to point at a single peer.

In our answer, we see the original request ims.apn.epc.mncXXX.mccYYY.3gppnetwork.org is to be re-written to topon.lb1.pgw01.epc.mncXXX.mccYYY.3gppnetwork.org.

This is the FQDN of the PGW we should use.

Now we know the FQND we should use, we just do an A-Record lookup (Or AAAA record lookup if it is IPv6) for that peer we are targeting, to turn that FQDN into an IP address we can use.

And then in comes the response:

So now our MME knows the IP of the PGW, it can craft a Create Session request where the F-TEID for the S8 interface has the PGW IP set on it that we selected.

For more info on this TS 129.303 (Domain Name System Procedures) is the definitive doc, but the GSMA’s IR.88 “LTE and EPC Roaming Guidelines” provides a handy reference.

The meaning of 3GPP-Charging-Characteristics

How does one encode / interpret the value of this AVP / IE was the question I set out to answer.

TS 29.274 says:

For the encoding of this information element see 3GPP TS 32.298

TS 32.298 says:

The functional requirements for the Charging Characteristics as well as the profile and behaviour bits are further defined in normative Annex A of TS 32.251

TS 32.251 Annex A says:

The Charging Characteristics parameter consists of a string of 16 bits designated as Behaviours (B), freely defined by Operators, as shown in TS 32.298 [51]. Each bit corresponds to a specific charging behaviour which is defined on a per operator basis, configured within the PCN and pointed when bit is set to “1” value.

After a few circular references I found this is imported from 32.298.

Finally we find some solid answers hidden away in TS 132 215, under the Charging Characteristics Profile index.

Charging Characteristics consists of a string of 16 bits designated as Profile (P) and Behaviour (B), shown in Figure 4.
The first four bits (P) shall be used to select different charging trigger profiles, where each profile consists of the
following trigger sets:

  • S-CDR: activate/deactivate CDRs, time limit, volume limit, maximum number of charging conditions, tariff
    times;
  • G-CDR: same as SGSN, plus maximum number of SGSN changes;
  • M-CDR: activate/deactivate CDRs, time limit, and maximum number of mobility changes;
  • SMS-MO-CDR: activate/deactivate CDRs;
  • SMS-MT-CDR: active/deactivate CDRs.

The Charging Characteristics field allows the operator to apply different kind of charging methods in the CDRs.
A subscriber may have Charging Characteristics assigned to his subscription. These characteristics can be supplied by the HLR to the SGSN as part of the subscription information, and, upon activation of a PDP context, the SGSN forwards the charging characteristics to the GGSN on the Gn / Gp reference point according to the rules specified in Annex A of TS 32.251 [11].

This information can be used by the GSNs to activate CDR generation and control the
closure of the CDR or the traffic volume containers (see clause 5.1.2.2.23) and is included in CDRs transmitted to nodes handling the CDRs via the Ga reference point. It can also be used in nodes handling the CDRs (e.g., the CGF or the billing system) to influence the CDR processing priority and routing.

These functions are accomplished by specifying the charging characteristics as sets of charging profiles and the expected behaviour associated with each profile.

The interpretations of the profiles and their associated behaviours can be different for each PLMN operator and are not subject to standardisation. In the present document only the charging characteristic formats and selection modes are specified.

The functional requirements for the Charging Characteristics as well as the profile and behaviour bits are further defined in normative Annex A of TS 32.251 [11], including the definitions of the trigger profiles associated with each CDR type.

The format of charging characteristics field is depicted in Figure 4. Px (x =0..3) refers to the Charging Characteristics Profile index. Bits classified with a “B” may be used by the operator for non-standardised behaviour (see Annex A of TS 32.251 [11]).

Right, well hopefully next time someone goes looking for this info you’ll find it a bit more easily than I did!

SMS over Diameter for Roaming SMS

I know what you’re thinking, again with the SMS transport talk Nick? Ha! As if we’re done talking about SMS. Recently we did something kinda cool – The world’s first SMS sent over NB-IoT (Satellite).

But to do this, we weren’t using IMS, it’s too heavy (I’ve written about NB-IoT’s NIDD functions and the past).

SGs-AP which is used for CSFB & SMS doesn’t span network borders (you can’t roam with SGs-AP), and with SMSoIP out of the question, that gave us the option of MAP or Diameter, so we picked Diameter.

This introduces the S6c and SGd Diameter interfaces, in the diagrams below Orange is the Home Network (HPMN) and the Green is the Visited Network (VPMN).

The S6c interface is used between the SMSc and the HSS, in order to retrieve the routing information. This like the SRI-for-SM in MAP.

The SGd interface is used between the MME serving the UE and the SMSc, and is used for actual delivery of the MO/MT messages.

I haven’t shown the Diameter Routing Agents in these diagrams, but in reality there would be a DRA on the VPLMN and a DRA on the HPMN, and probably a DRA in the IPX between them too.

The Attach

The attach looks like a regular roaming attach, the MME in the Visited PMN sends an Update Location Request to the HSS, so the HSS knows the MME that is serving the subscriber.

S6a Update Location Request to indicate the MME serving the Subscriber

The Mobile Terminated SMS Flow

Now we introduce the S6c interface and the SGd interfaces.

When the Home SMSc has a message to send to the subscriber (Mobile Terminated SMS) it runs a the Send-Routing-Info-for-SM-Request (SRR) dialog to the HSS.

The Send-Routing-Info-for-SM-Answer (SRA) back from the HSS contains the info on the MME Diameter Host name and Diameter Realm serving the subscriber.

S6t – Send-Routing-Info-for-SM request to get the MME serving the subscriber

With this info, we can now craft a Diameter Request that will get sent to the MME serving the subscriber, containing the SMS PDU to send to the UE.

SGd MT-Forward-Short-Message to deliver Mobile Terminated SMS to the serving MME

We make sure it’s sent to the correct MME by setting the Destination-Host and Destination-Realm in the Diameter request.

Here’s how the request looks from the SMSc towards our DRA:

As you can see the Destination Realm and Destination-Host is set, as is the User-Name set to the IMSI of the UE we want to send the message to.

And down the bottom you can see the SMS-TPDU, the same as it’s been all the way back since GSM days.

The Mobile Originated SMS Flow

The Mobile Originated flow is even simpler, because we don’t need to look up where to route it to.

The MME receives the MO SMS from the UE, and shoves it into a Diameter message with Application ID set to SGd and Destination-Realm set to the HPMN Realm.

When the message reaches the DRA in the HPMN it forwards the request to an SMSc and then the Home SMSc has the message ready to roll.

So that’s it, pretty straightforward to set up!

Uncomfortable Questions to ask about 5G Standalone at MWC – Part 2 – Has this Cash cow got Milk?

This is the second post of 3 presenting the argument against introducing 5G-SA.

There’s an old adage that businesses spend money for one of three reasons:

  • To Save Money (Which I covered yesterday)
  • To make more Money (This post, congratulations, you’re reading it!)
  • Because they have to (Regulatory compliance, insurance, taxes, etc) – That’s the next post

So let’s look at SA in this context.

5G-SA can drive new revenue streams

We (as an industry) suck at this.

Last year on the Telecoms.com podcast, Scott Bicheno made the point that if operators took all the money they’d gambled (and lost) on trying to play in the sports rights, involvement in media companies, building their own streaming apps, attempts at bundling other utilities, digital identity, etc, and just left the cash in the bank and just operated the network, they’d be better off.

Uber, Spotify, “OTTs”, etc, utilize MNOs to enable their services, but operators don’t see this extra revenue.
While some operators may talk of “fair share” the truth is, these companies add value to our product (connectivity) which as an industry, we’ve failed to add ourselves.

Last year at MWC we saw vendors were still beating the drum about 5G being critical for the “Metaverse”, just weeks before Meta announced they were moving away from the Metaverse.

Today the only device getting any attention from consumers is Apple’s Vision Pro, a very pricey, currently niche offering, which has no SIM card or cellular connectivity.

If the Metaverse does turn out to be a cash cow, it is unlikely the telecommunications industry will be the ones milking it.

Claim: Customers are willing to pay more for 5G-SA

This myth seems to be fairly persistent, but with minimal data to support this claim.

While BSS vendors talk about “5G Monetization”, the truth is, people use their MNO to provide them connectivity. If the coverage is adequate, and the speed enough to do what they need to do, few would be willing to pay any additional cash each month to see higher numbers on a speedtest result (enabled by 5G-NSA) and even fewer would pay extra cash for, well, whatever those features only enabled by 5G-Standalone are?

With most consumers now also holding onto their mobile devices for longer periods of time, and with interest rates reining in consumer spending across the board, we are seeing the rise of a more cost conscious consumer than ever before. If we want to see higher ARPUs, we need to give the consumer a compelling reason to care and spend their cash, beyond a speed test result.

We talk a little about APIs lower down in the post.

Claim: Users want Ultra-Low Latency / High Reliability Comms that only 5G-SA delivers

Wanting to offer a product to the market, is not the same as the market wanting a product to consume.

Telecom operators want customers to want these services, but customer take up rates tell a different story. For a product like this to be viable, it must have a wide enough addressable market to justify the investment.

Reliability

The URLCC standards focus on preventing packet loss, but the world has moved on from needing zero packet loss.

The telecom industry has a habit of deciding what customers want without actually listening.
When a customer talks about wanting “reliable” comms, they aren’t saying they want zero packet loss, but rather fewer dropouts or service flaps.
For us to give the customer what they are actually asking for involves us expanding RAN footprint and adding transmission diversity, not 5G-SA.

The “protocols of the internet” (TCP/IP) have been around for more than 50 years now.

These protocols have always flowed over transport links with varied reliability and levels of packet loss.

Thanks to these error correction and retransmission techniques built into these protocols, a lost packet will not interrupt the stream. If your nuclear command and control network were carried over TCP/IP over the public internet (please don’t do this), a missing packet won’t lead to worldwide annihilation, but rather the sender will see the receiver never acknowledged the receipt of the packet at the other end, and resend it, end of.

If you walk into a hospital today, you’ll find patient monitoring devices, tracking the vital signs for patients and alerting hospital staff if a patient’s vital signs change. It is hard to think of more important services for reliability than this.

And yet they use WiFi, and have done for a long time, if a packet is lost on WiFi (as happens regularly) it’s just retransmitted and the end user never knows.

Autonomous cars are unlikely to ever rely on a 5G connection to operate, for the simple reason that coverage will never be 100%. If your car stops because you’re in a not-spot, you won’t be a happy customer. While plenty of cars have cellular modems in them, that are used to upload telemetry data back to the manufacturer, but not to drive the car.

One example of wireless controlled vehicles in the wild is autonomous haul trucks in mines. Historically, these have used WiFi for their comms. Mine sites are often a good fit for Private LTE, but there’s nothing inherent in the 5G Standalone standard that means it’s the only tool for the job here.

Slicing

Slicing is available in LTE (4G), with an architecture designed to allow access to others. It failed to gain traction, but is in networks today.

See: Pre-5G Network Slicing.

What is different this time?

Low Latency

The RAN a piece of the latency puzzle here, but it is just one piece of the puzzle.

If we look at the flow a packet takes from the user’s device to the server they want to talk to we’ve got:

  1. Time it takes the UE to craft the packet
  2. Time it takes for the packet to be transmitted over the air to the base station
  3. Time it takes for the packet to get through the RAN transmission network to the core
  4. Time it takes the packet to traverse the packet core
  5. Time it takes for the packet to get out to transit/peering
  6. Time it takes to get the packet from the edge of the operators network to the edge of the network hosting the server
  7. Time it takes the packet through the network the server is on
  8. Time it takes the server to process the request

The “low latency” bit of the 5G puzzle only involves the two elements in bold.

If you’ve got to get from point A to point B along a series of roads, and the speed limit on two of the roads you traverse (short sections already) is increased. The overall travel time is not drastically reduced.

I’m lucky, I have access to a well kitted out lab which allows me to put all of these latency figures to the test and provide side by side metrics. If this is of interest to anyone, let me know. Otherwise in the meantime you’ll just have to accept some conjecture and opinion.

You could rebut this talking about Edge Compute, and having the datacenter at the base of the tower, but for a number of fairly well documented reasons, I think this is unlikely to attract widespread deployment in established carrier networks, and Intel’s recent yearly earning specifically called this out.


Claim: Customers want APIs and these needs 5G SA

Companies like Twilio have made it easy to interact with the carrier network via their APIs, but yet again, it’s these companies producing the additional value on a service operated by the MNOs.

My coffee machine does not have an API, and I’m OK with this because I don’t have a want or need to interact with it programatically.

By far, the most common APIs used by businesses involving telco markets are APIs to enable sending an SMS to a user.

These have been around for a long time, and the A2P market is pretty well established, and the good news is, operators already get a chunk of this pie, by charging for the SMS.

Imagine a company that makes medical booking software. They’re a tech company, so they want their stack to work anywhere in the world, and they want to be able to send reminder SMS to end users.

They could get an account manager with each of the telcos in each of the markets they work in, onboard and integrate the arcane complexities of each operators wholesale SMS system, or they could use Twilio or a similar service, which gives them global reach.

Often the cost of services like Twilio are cheaper than working directly with the carriers in each market, and even if it is marginally more expensive, the cost savings by not having to deal with dozens of carriers or integrate into dozens of systems, far outweighs this.

GSMA’s OpenGateway Initiative has sought to rectify this, but it lacks support for the use case we just discussed.

While it’s a great idea, in the context of 5G Standalone and APIs, it’s worth noting that none of the use cases in OpenGateway require 5G Standalone (Except possibly Edge discovery, but it is debatable).

Even Slicing existed before in LTE.

Critically, from a developer experience perspective:

I can sign up to services like Twilio without a credit card, and start using the service right away, with examples in my programming language of choice, the developer user experience is fantastic.

Jump on the OpenGateway website today and see if you can even find a way to sign up to use the service?

Claim: Fixed Wireless works best with 5G-SA

Of all the touted use cases and applications for 5G, Fixed Wireless (FWA) has been the most successful.

The great thing about FWA on Cellular networks is you can use the same infrastructure you use for your mobile customers, and then sell excess capacity in the network to deliver Fixed Wireless Access services, better utilizing an asset (great!).

But again, this does not require Standalone 5G. If you deploy your FWA network using 5G SA, then you won’t be able to sweat that same asset for both mobile subscribers and FWA subscribers.

Today at least, very few handsets short of this generation of flagship phones, supports 5G SA. Even the phones sold as supporting 5G over the past few years, are almost all only supporting 5G-NSA, so if you rolled out your FWA network as Standalone, you can’t better utilize the asset by sharing with your existing LTE/5G-NSA customers.

Claim: The Killer App is coming for 5G and it needs 5G SA

This space is reserved for the killer app that requires 5G Standalone.

Whenever that comes?

Anyone?

I’m not paying to build a marina berth for my mega yacht, mostly because I don’t have one. Ditto this.

Could you explain to everyone on an investor call that you’re investing in something where the vessel of the payoff isn’t even known to exist? Telecom is “blue chip”, hardly speculative.

The Future for Revenue Growth?

Maybe there isn’t one.

I know it’s an unthinkable thought for a lot of operators, but let’s look at it rationally; in the developed world, everyone who wants a mobile service already has one.

This leaves operators with two options; gaining market share from their competitors and selling more/higher priced services to existing customers.

You don’t steal away customers from other operators by offering a higher priced product, and with reduced consumer spending people aren’t queuing up to spend more each month.

But there is a silver lining, if you can’t grow revenues, you can still shrink expenditure, which in the end still gets the same result at the end of the quarter – More cash.

Simplify your operations, focus on what you do really well (mobile services), the whole 80/20 rule, get better at self service, all that guff.

There’s no shortage of pain points for consumers telecom operators could address, to make the customer experience better, but few that include the word Slicing.

Uncomfortable Questions to ask about 5G Standalone at MWC – Part 1 – Does $tandalone save $$$?

No one spends marketing dollars talking about the problems with a tech and vendors aren’t out there promoting sweating existing assets. But understanding your options as an operator is more important now than ever before.

Sidebar; This post got really long, so I’m splitting it into 3…

We’re often asked to help define a a 5G strategy for operators; while every case is different, there’s a lot of vendors pushing MNOs to move towards 5G standalone or 5G-SA.

I’m always a fan of playing “devil’s advocate“, and with so many articles and press releases singing the praises of standalone 5G/5G-SA, so as a counter in this post, I’ll be making the case against the narratives presented to operators by vendors that the “right” way to do 5G is to introduce 5G Standalone, that they should all be “upgrading” to Standalone 5G.

With Mobile World Congress around the corner, now seems like a good time to put forward the argument against introducing 5G Standalone, rebutting some common claims about 5G Standalone operators will be told. We’ll counterpoint these arguments and I’ll put forward the case for not jumping onto the 5G-SA bandwagon – just yet.

On a personal note, I do like 5G SA, it has some real advantages and some cool features, which are well documented, including on this blog. I’m not looking to beat up on any vendors, marketing hype or events, but just to provide the “other side” of the equation that operators should consider when making decisions and may not be aware of otherwise. It’s also all opinion of course (cited where possible), but if you’re going to build your network based on a blog post (even one as good as this) you should probably reconsider your life choices.

Some Arcane Detail: 5G Non-Standalone (NSA) vs Standalone (SA)

5G NSA (Non Standalone) uses LTE (4G) with an additional layer “bolted on” that uses 5G on the radio interface to provide “5G” speeds to users, while reusing the existing LTE (Evolved Packet Core) core and VoLTE for voice / SMS.

Image source: Samsung

From an operator perspective there is almost no change required in the network to support NSA 5G, other than in the RAN, and almost all the 5G networks in commercial use today use 5G NSA.

5G NSA is great, it gives the user 5G speeds for users with phones that support it, with no change to the rest of the network needed.

Standalone 5G on the other hand requires an a completely new core network with all the trimmings.

While it is possible to handover / interwork with LTE/4G (Inter-RAT Handovers), this is like 3G/4G interworking, where each has a different core network. Introducing 5G standalone touches every element of the network, you need new nodes supporting the new standards for charging, policy, user plane, IMS, etc.

Scope

There’s an old adage that businesses spend money for one of three reasons:

  • To Save Money (Which we’ll cover in this post)
  • To make more Money (Covered next – Will link when published)
  • Because they have to (Regulatory compliance, insurance, taxes, etc)

Let’s look at 5G Standalone in each of these contexts:

5G Cost Savings – Counterpoint: The cost-benefit doesn’t stack up

As an operator with an existing deployed 4G LTE network, deploying a new 5G standalone network will not save you money.

From an capital perspective this is pretty obvious, you’re going to need to invest in a new RAN and a new core to support this, but what about from an opex perspective?

Claim: 5G RAN is more efficient than 4G (LTE) RAN

Spectrum is both finite and expensive, so MNOs must find the most efficient way to use that spectrum, to squeeze the most possible value out of it.

Let’s look at some numbers:

In the case of 3G vs 4G (LTE) there was a strong cost saving case to be made; a single 5Mhz UMTS (3G) cell could carry a total of 14Mbps, while if that same 5Mhz channel was refarmed / shifted to a 4×4 LTE (4G) carrier we hit 75Mbps of downlink data.

In rough numbers, we can say we get 5x the spectral efficiency by moving from 3G to 4G. This means we can carry 5.2x more with the same spectrum on 4G than we can on 3G – A very compelling reason to upgrade.

The like-for-like spectral efficiency of 5G is not significantly greater than that of LTE.

In numbers the same 5Mhz of spectrum we refarmed from UMTS (3G) to 4G (LTE) provided a 5x gain in efficiency to deliver 75Mbps on LTE. The same configuration refarmed to 5G-NR would provide 80Mbps.

Refarming spectrum from 4G (LTE) to 5G (NR) only provides a 6% increase in spectral efficiency.

While 6% is not nothing, if refarmed to a 5G standalone network, the spectrum can no longer be used by LTE only devices (Unless Dynamic Spectrum Sharing is used which in itself leads to efficiency losses), which in itself reduces the efficiency and would add additional load to other layers.

The crazy speeds demonstrated by 5G are not due to meaningful increases in efficiency, but rather the ability to use more spectrum, spectrum that operators need to purchase at auction, purchase equipment to utilize and pay to run.

Claim: 5G Standalone Core is Cheaper to operate as it is “Cloud Native”

It has been widely claimed that the shift for the 5G Core Architecture to being “Cloud Native” can provide cost savings.

Operators should regard this in a skeptical manner; after all, we’ve been here before.

Did moving from big-iron to VNFs provide the promised cost savings to operators?

For many operators the shift from hardware to software added additional complexity to the network and increased the headcount to support this.

What were once big-iron appliances dedicated to one job, that sat in the corner and chugged away, are now virtual machines (VNFs).
Many operators have naturally found themselves needing a larger team to manage the virtual environment, compared to the size of the team they needed to just to plug power and data into a big box in an exchange before everything was virtualized.

Introducing a “Cloud Native” Kubernetes layer on top of the VNF / virtualization layer, on top of the compute layer, leaves us with a whole lot of layers. All of which require resources to be maintain, troubleshoot and kept running; each layer having associated costs for staffing, licensing and support.

Many mid size enterprises rushed into “the cloud” for the promised cost savings only to sheepishly admit it cost more than the expected.

Almost none of the operators are talking about running these workloads in the public cloud, but rather “Private Clouds” built on-premises, using “Cloud Native” best practices.

One of the central arguments about cloud revolves around “elastic scaling” where the network can automatically scale to match demand; think extra instances spun up a times of peak demand and shut down when the demand drops.

I explain elastic scaling to clients as having to move people from one place to another. Most of the time, I’m just moving myself, a push bike is fine, or I’ve got a 4 seater car, but occasionally I’ll need to move 25 people and for that I’d need a bus.

If I provide the transportation myself, I need to own a bike, a car and a bus.

But if use the cloud I can start with the push bike, and as I need to move more people, the “cloud” will provide me the vehicle I need to move the people I need to move at that moment, and I’ll just pay for the time I need the bus, and when I’m done needing the bus, I drop back to the (cheaper) push bike when I’m not moving lots of people.

This is a really compelling argument, and telecom operators regularly announces partnerships with the hyperscalers, except they’re always for non-core-network workloads.

While telecom operators are going to provide the servers to run this in “On-prem-cloud”, they need to dimension for the maximum possible load. This means they need to own a bike/car/bus, even if they’re not using it most of the time, and there’s really no cost savings to having a bus but not using it when you’re not paying by the hour to hire it.

Infrastructure aside, introducing a Standalone 5G Core adds another core network to maintain. Alongside the Circuit Switched Core (MSC/GGSN/SGSN) serving 2G/3G subscribers, Evolved Packet Core serving 4G (LTE) and 5G-NSA subscribers, adding a 5G Standalone Core to for the 5G-SA subscribers served by the 5G SA cells, is going to be more work (and therefore cost).

While the majority of operators have yet to turn off their 2G/3G core networks, introducing another core network to run in parallel is unlikely to lead to any cost savings.

Claim: Upgrading now can save money in the Future / Future Proofing

Life cycles of telecommunications are two fold, one is the equipment/platform life cycle (like the RAN components or Core network software being used to deliver the service) the other is the technology life cycle (the generation of technology being used).

The technology lifecycles in telecommunications are vastly longer than that for regular tech.

GSM (2G) was introduced into the UK in 1991, and will be phased out starting in 2033, a 42 year long technology life cycle.

No vendor today could reasonably expect the 5G hardware you deploy in 2024 to still be in production in 2066 – The platform/equipment life cycle is a lot shorter than the technology life cycle.

Operators will to continue relying on LTE (4G) well into the late 2030s.

I’d wager that there is not a single piece of equipment in the Vodafone UK GSM network today, that was there in 1991.
I’d go even further to say that any piece of equipment in the network today, didn’t even replace the 1991 equipment, but was probably 3 or 4 generations removed from the network built in 1991.

For most operators, RAN replacements happen between 4 to 7 years, often with targeted augmentation / expansion as needed in the form of adding extra layers / sectors between these times.

The question operators should be asking is therefore not what will I need to get me through to 2066, but rather what will I need to get to 2030?

The majority of operators outside the US today still operate a 2G or 3G network, generally with minimal bandwidth to support legacy handsets and devices, while the 4G (LTE) network does most of the heavy lifting for carrying user traffic. This is often with the aid of an additional 5G-NSA (Non-Standalone) layer to provide additional capacity.

Is there a cost saving angle to adding support for 5G-Standalone in addition to 2G/3G/4G (LTE) and 5G (Non-Standalone) into your RAN?

A logical stance would be that removing layers / technologies (such as 2G/3G sunsetting) would lead to cost savings, and adding a 5G Standalone layer would increase cost.

All of the RAN solutions on the market today from the major vendors include support for both Standalone 5G and Non Standalone, but the feature licensing for a non-standalone 5G is generally cheaper than that for Standalone 5G.

The question operators should be asking is on what timescale do I need Standalone 5G?

If you’ve rolled out 5G-NSA today, then when are you looking to sunset your LTE network?
If the answer is “I hope to have long since retired by that time”, then you’ve just answered that question and you don’t need to licence / deploy 5G-SA in this hardware refresh cycle.

Other Cost Factors

Roaming: The majority of roaming traffic today relies on 2G/3G for voice. VoLTE roaming is (finally) starting to establish a foothold, but we are a long way from ubiquitous global roaming for LTE and VoLTE, and even further away for 5G-SA roaming. Focusing on 5G roaming will enable your network for roaming use by a miniscule number of operators, compared to LTE/VoLTE roaming which covers the majority of the operators in the developed world who can utilize your service.

I decided to split this into 3 posts, next I’ll post the “5G can make us more money” post and finally a “5G because we have to” post. I’ll post that on LinkedIn / Twitter / Mailing list, so stick around, and feel free to trash me in the comments.

CGrateS – ActionTriggers

In our last post we looked at Actions and ActionPlans, and one of the really funky things we can do is setting ActionPlans to trigger on a time schedule or setting ActionTriggers to trigger on an event.

We’re going to build on the examples we had on the last post, so we’ll assume your code is up to the point where we’ve added a Signup Bonus to an account, using an ActionPlan we assigned when creating the account.

In this post, we’re going to create an action that charges $6, called “Action_Monthly_Charge“, and tie it to an ActionPlan called “ActionPlan_Monthly_Charge“, but to demo how this works rather than charging this Monthly, we’re going to charge it every minute.

Then with our balances ticking down, we’ll set up an ActionTrigger to trigger when the balance drops below $95, and alert us.

Defining the Monthly Charge Action

The Action for the Monthly charge will look much like the other actions we’ve defined, except the Identifier is *debit so we know we’re deducting from the balance, and we’ll log to the CDRs table too:

# Action to add a Monthly charge of $6
Action_Monthly_Charge = {
    "id": "0",
    "method": "ApierV1.SetActions",
    "params": [
        {
          "ActionsId": "Action_Monthly_Charge",
          "Actions": [
              {
                'Identifier': '*debit',
                'BalanceType': '*monetary',
               'Units': 6,
               'Id': 'Action_Monthly_Charge_Debit',
               'Weight': 70},
              {
                  "Identifier": "*log",
                  "Weight": 60,
                  'Id' : "Action_Monthly_Charge_Log"
              },
              {
                  "Identifier": "*cdrlog",
                  "BalanceId": "",
                  "BalanceUuid": "",
                  "BalanceType": "*monetary",
                  "Directions": "*out",
                  "Units": 0,
                  "ExpiryTime": "",
                  "Filter": "",
                  "TimingTags": "",
                  "DestinationIds": "",
                  "RatingSubject": "",
                  "Categories": "",
                  "SharedGroups": "",
                  "BalanceWeight": 0,
                  "ExtraParameters": "{\"Category\":\"^activation\",\"Destination\":\"Recurring Charge\"}",
                  "BalanceBlocker": "false",
                  "BalanceDisabled": "false",
                  "Weight": 80
              },
          ]}]}
pprint.pprint(CGRateS_Obj.SendData(Action_Monthly_Charge))

Next we’ll need to wrap this up into an ActionPlan, this is where some of the magic happens. Inside the action plan we can set a once off time, or a recurring time, kinda like Cron.

We’re setting the time to *every_minute so things will happen quickly while we watch, this action will get triggered every 60 seconds. In real life of course, for a Monthly charge, we’d want to trigger this Action monthly, so we’d set this value to *monthly. If we wanted this to charge on the 2nd of the month we’d set the MonthDays to “2”, etc, etc.

# # Create ActionPlan using SetActionPlan to trigger the Action_Monthly_Charge
SetActionPlan_Daily_Action_Monthly_Charge_JSON = {
    "method": "ApierV1.SetActionPlan",
    "params": [{
        "Id": "ActionPlan_Monthly_Charge",
        "ActionPlan": [{
            "ActionsId": "Action_Monthly_Charge",
            "Years": "*any",
            "Months": "*any",
            "MonthDays": "*any",
            "WeekDays": "*any",
            "Time": "*every_minute",
            "Weight": 10
        }],
        "Overwrite": True,
        "ReloadScheduler": True
    }]
}
pprint.pprint(CGRateS_Obj.SendData(
    SetActionPlan_Daily_Action_Monthly_Charge_JSON))

Alright, but now what’s going to happen?

If you think the accounts will start getting debited every 60 seconds after applying this, you’d be wrong, we need to associate this ActionPlan with an Account first, this is how we control which accounts get which ActionPlans tied to them, to do this we’ll use the SetAccout API again we’ve been using to create accounts:

# Create the Account object inside CGrateS & assign ActionPlan_Signup_Bonus and ActionPlan_Monthly_Charge
Create_Account_JSON = {
    "method": "ApierV2.SetAccount",
    "params": [
        {
            "Tenant": "cgrates.org",
            "Account": str(Account),
            "ActionPlanIds": ["ActionPlan_Signup_Bonus", "ActionPlan_Monthly_Charge"],
            "ActionPlansOverwrite": True,
            "ReloadScheduler":True
        }
    ]
}
print(CGRateS_Obj.SendData(Create_Account_JSON))

So what’s going to happen if we run this?

Well, for starters the ActionPlan named “ActionPlan_Signup_Bonus” is going to be triggered, as in the ActionPlan it’s Timing is set to *asap, so CGrateS will apply the corresponding Action (“Action_Add_Signup_Bonus“) right away, which will credit the account $99.

But a minute after that, we’ll trigger the ActionPlan named “ActionPlan_Monthly_Charge”, as the timing for this is set to *every_minute, when the Action “Action_Monthly_Charge” is triggered, it’s going to be deducting $6 from the balance.

We can check this by using the GetAccount API:

# Get Account Info
pprint.pprint(CGRateS_Obj.SendData({'method': 'ApierV2.GetAccount', 'params': [
              {"Tenant": "cgrates.org", "Account": str(Account)}]}))

You should see a balance of $99 to start with, and then after 60 seconds, it should be down to $93, and so on.

{'error': None,
 'id': None,
 'result': {'ActionTriggers': None,
            'AllowNegative': False,
            'BalanceMap': {'*monetary': [{'Blocker': False,
                                          'Categories': {},
                                          'DestinationIDs': {},
                                          'Disabled': False,
                                          'ExpirationDate': '2023-11-17T14:57:20.71493633+11:00',
                                          'Factor': None,
                                          'ID': 'Balance_Signup_Bonus',
                                          'RatingSubject': '',
                                          'SharedGroups': {},
                                          'TimingIDs': {},
                                          'Timings': None,
                                          'Uuid': '3a896369-8107-4e32-bcef-2d078c981b8a',
                                          'Value': 99,
                                          'Weight': 1200}]},
            'Disabled': False,
            'ID': 'cgrates.org:Nick_Test_123',
            'UnitCounters': None,
            'UpdateTime': '2023-10-17T14:57:21.802521707+11:00'}}

Triggering Actions based on Balances with ActionTriggers

Okay, so we’ve set up recurring charges, now let’s get notified if the balance drops below $95, we’ll start, like we have before, with defining an Action, this will log to the CDRs table, HTTP post and write to syslog:


#Define a new Action to send an HTTP POST
Action_HTTP_Notify_95 = {
    "id": "0",
    "method": "ApierV1.SetActions",
    "params": [
        {
          "ActionsId": "Action_HTTP_Notify_95",
          "Actions": [
              {
                  "Identifier": "*cdrlog",
                  "BalanceId": "",
                  "BalanceUuid": "",
                  "BalanceType": "*monetary",
                  "Directions": "*out",
                  "Units": 0,
                  "ExpiryTime": "",
                  "Filter": "",
                  "TimingTags": "",
                  "DestinationIds": "",
                  "RatingSubject": "",
                  "Categories": "",
                  "SharedGroups": "",
                  "BalanceWeight": 0,
                  "ExtraParameters": "{\"Category\":\"^activation\",\"Destination\":\"Balance dipped below $95\"}",
                  "BalanceBlocker": "false",
                  "BalanceDisabled": "false",
                  "Weight": 80
              },
              {
                  "Identifier": "*http_post_async",
                  "ExtraParameters": "http://10.177.2.135/95_remaining",
                  "ExpiryTime": "*unlimited",
                  "Weight": 700
              },
              {
                  "Identifier": "*log",
                  "Weight": 1200
              }
          ]}]}
pprint.pprint(CGRateS_Obj.SendData(Action_HTTP_Notify_95))

Now we’ll define an ActionTrigger to check if the balance is below $95 and trigger our newly created Action (“Action_HTTP_Notify_95“) when that condition is met:


#Define ActionTrigger
ActionTrigger_95_Remaining_JSON = {
    "method": "APIerSv1.SetActionTrigger",
    "params": [
        {
            "GroupID" : "ActionTrigger_95_Remaining",
            "ActionTrigger": 
                {
                    "BalanceType": "*monetary",
                    "Balance" : {
                        'BalanceType': '*monetary',
                        'ID' : "*default",
                        'BalanceID' : "*default",
                        'Value' : 95,
                        },
                    "ThresholdType": "*min_balance",
                    "ThresholdValue": 95,
                    "Weight": 10,
                    "ActionsID" : "Action_HTTP_Notify_95",
                },
            "Overwrite": True
        }
    ]
}
pprint.pprint(CGRateS_Obj.SendData(ActionTrigger_95_Remaining_JSON))

We’ve defined the ThresholdType of *min_balance, but we could equally set this to ThresholdType to *max_balance, *balance_expired or trigger when a certain Counter has been triggered enough times.

Adding an ActionTrigger to an Account

Again, like the ActionPlan we created before, before the ActionTrigger we just created will be used, we need to associate it with an Account, for this we’ll use the AddAccountActionTriggers API, specify the Account and the ActionTriggerID for the ActionTrigger we just created.


#Add ActionTrigger to Account 
Add_ActionTrigger_to_Account_JSON = {
    "method": "APIerSv1.AddAccountActionTriggers",
    "params": [
        {
            "Tenant": "cgrates.org",
            "Account": str(Account),
            "ActionTriggerIDs": ["ActionTrigger_95_Remaining"],
            "ActionTriggersOverwrite": True
        }
    ]
}
pprint.pprint(CGRateS_Obj.SendData(Add_ActionTrigger_to_Account_JSON))

If we run this all together, creating the account with the “ActionPlan_Signup_Bonus” will give the account a $99 Balance. But after 60 seconds, “ActionPlan_Monthly_Charge” will kick in, and every 60 seconds after that, at which point the balance will get to below $95 when CGrateS will trigger the ActionTriggerActionTrigger_95_Remaining” and get the HTTP POST to the HTTP endpoint and log entry:

We can check on this using the ApierV2.GetAccount method, where we’ll see the ActionTrigger we just defined.

Checking out the LastExecutionTime we can see if the ActionTrigger been triggered or not.

So using this technique, we can notify a customer when they’ve used a certain amount of their balance, but we can lock out Accounts who have spent more than their allocated spend limit by setting an Action that suspends the Account once it reaches a certain level. We notify customers when balance expires, or if a certain number of counters has been triggered.

As always I’ve put all the code used in this example, from start to finish, up on GitHub.

Mobile IPv6 Tax?

Recently a Tweet from Dean Bubly got me thinking about how data is charged in cellular:

In the cellular world, subscribers are charged for data from the IP, transport and applications layers; this means you pay for the IP header, you pay for the TCP/UDP header, and you pay for the contents (the cat videos it contains).

This also means if an operator moves mobile subscribers from IPv4 to IPv6, there’s an extra 20 bytes the customer is charged for for every packet sent / received, which the customer is charged for – This is because the IPv6 header is longer than the IPv4 header.

Source: ServerFault - https://serverfault.com/questions/547768/ipv4-header-vs-ipv6-header-size

In most cases, mobile subs don’t get a choice as to if their connection is IPv4 or IPv6, but on a like for like basis, we can say that if a customer moves is on IPv6 every packet sent/received will have an extra 20 bytes of data consumed compared to IPv4.

This means subscribers use more data on IPv6, and this means they get charged for more data on IPv6.

For IoT applications, light users and PAYG users, this extra 20 bytes per packet could add up to something significant – But how much?

We can quantify this, but we’d need to know the number of packets sent on average, and the quantity of the data transferred, because the number of packets is the multiplier here.

So for starters I’ve left a phone on the desk, it’s registered to the network but just sitting in Idle mode – This is an engineering phone from an OEM, it’s just used for testing so doesn’t have anything loaded onto it in terms of apps, it’s not signed into any applications, or checking in the background, so I thought I’d try something more realistic.

So to get a clearer picture, I chucked a SIM in my regular everyday phone I use personally, registered it to the cellular lab I have here. For the next hour I sniffed the GTP traffic for the phone while it was sitting on my desk, not touching the phone, and here’s what I’ve got:

Overall the PCAP includes 6,417,732 bytes of data, but this includes the transport and GTP headers, meaning we can drop everything above it in our traffic calculations.

Everything except the data encapsulated in GTP can be dropped

For this I’ve got 14 bytes of ethernet, 20 bytes IP, 8 bytes UDP and 5 bytes for TZSP (this is to copy the traffic from the eNB to my local machine), then we’ve got the transport from the eNB to the SGW, 14 bytes of ethernet again, 20 bytes of IP , 8 bytes of UDP and 8 bytes of GTP then the payload itself. Phew.
All this means we can drop 97 bytes off every packet.

We have 16,889 packets, 6,417,732 bytes in total, minus 97 bytes from each gives us 1,638,233 of headers to drop (~1.6MB) giving us a total of 4.556 MB traffic to/from the phone itself.

This means my Android phone consumes 4.5 MB of cellular data in an hour while sitting on the desk, with 16,889 packets in/out.

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere!

So now we can answer the question, if each of these 16k packets was IPv6, rather than IPv4, we’d be adding another 20 bytes to each of them, 20 bytes x 16,889 packets gives 337,780 bytes (~0.3MB) to add to the total.

If this traffic was transferred via IPv6, rather than IPv4, we’d be looking at adding 20 bytes to each of the 16,889 packets, which would equate to 0.3MB extra, or about 7% overhead compared to IPv4.

But before you go on about what an outrage this IPv6 transport is, being charged for those extra bytes, that’s only one part of the picture.

There’s a reason operators are finally embracing IPv6, and it’s not to put an extra 7% of traffic on the network (I think if you asked most capacity planners, they’d say they want data savings, not growth).

IPv6 is, for lack of a better term, less rubbish than IPv4.

There’s a lot of drivers for IPv6, and some of these will reduce data consumption.
IPv6 is actually your stuff talking directly to the remote stuff, this means that we don’t need to rely on NAT, so no need to do NAT keepalives, and opening new sessions, which is going to save you data. If you’re running apps that need to keep a connection to somewhere alive, these data savings could negate your IPv6 overhead costs.

Will these potential data savings when using IPv6 outweigh the costs?

That’s going to depend on your use case.

If you’ve extremely bandwidth / data constrained, for example, you have an IoT device on an NTN / satellite connection, that was having to Push data every X hours via IPv4 because you couldn’t pull data from it as it had no public IP, then moving it to IPv6 so you can pull the data on the public IP, on demand, will save you data. That’s a win with IPv6.

If you’re a mobile user, watching YouTube, getting push notifications and using your phone like a normal human, probably not, but if you’re using data like a normal user, you’ve probably got a sizable data allowance that you don’t end up fully consuming, and the extra 20 bytes per packet will be nothing in comparison to the data used to watch a 2k video on your small phone screen.

What’s the maximum speed for LTE and 5G?

Even before 5G was released, the arms race to claim the “fastest” speeds on LTE, NSA and SA networks has continued, with pretty much every operator claiming a “first” or “fastest”.

I myself have the fastest 5G network available* but I thought I’d look at how big the values are we can put in for speed, these are the Maximum Bitrate Values (like AMBR) we can set on an APN/DNN, or on a Charging Rule.

*Measurement is of the fastest 5G network in an eastward facing office, operated by a person named Nick, in a town in Australia. Other networks operated by people other than those named Nick in eastward facing office outside of Australia were not compared.

The answer for Release 8 LTE is 4294967294 bytes per second, aka 4295 Mbps 4.295 Gbps.

Not bad, but why this number?

The Max-Requested-Bandwidth-DL AVP tells the PGW the max throughput allowed in bits per second. It’s a Unsigned32 so max value is 4294967294, hence the value.

But come release 15 some bright spark thought we may in the not to distant future break this barrier, so how do we go above this?

The answer was to bolt on another AVP – the “Extended-Max-Requested-BW-DL” AVP ( 554 ) was introduced, you might think that means the max speed now becomes 2x 4.295 Gbps but that’s not quite right – The units was shifted.

This AVP isn’t measuring bits per second it’s measuring kilobits per second.

So the standard Max-Requested-Bandwidth-DL AVP gives us 4.3 Gbps, while the Extended-Max-Requested-Bandwidth gives us a 4,295 Gbps.

We add the Extended-Max-Requested-Bandwidth AVP (4295 Gbps) onto the Max-Requested Bandwidth AVP (4.3 Gbps) giving us a total of 4,4299.3 Gbps.

So the short answer:

Pre release 15: 4.3 Gbps

Post release 15: 4,4299.3 Gbps

BSF Addresses

The Binding Support Function is used in 4G and 5G networks to allow applications to authenticate against the network, it’s what we use to authenticate for XCAP and for an Entitlement Server.

Rather irritatingly, there are two BSF addresses in use:

If the ISIM is used for bootstrapping the FQDN to use is:

bsf.ims.mncXXX.mccYYY.pub.3gppnetwork.org

But if the USIM is used for bootstrapping the FQDN is

bsf.mncXXX.mccYYY.pub.3gppnetwork.org

You can override this by setting the 6FDA EF_GBANL (GBA NAF List) on the USIM or equivalent on the ISIM, however not all devices honour this from my testing.

Will 5GC be used in Wireline Access? No. Here’s why.

One of the hyped benefits of a 5G Core Networks is that 5GC can be used for wired networks (think DSL or GPON) – In marketing terms this is called “Wireless Wireline Convergence” (5G WWC) meaning DSL operators, cable operators and fibre network operators can all get in on this sweet 5GC action and use this sexy 5G Core Network tech.

This is something that’s in the standards, and that the big kit vendors are pushing heavily in their marketing materials. But will it take off? And should operators of wireline networks (fixed networks) be looking to embrace 5GC?

Comparing 5GC with current wireline network technologies isn’t comparing apples to apples, it’s apples to oranges, and they’re different fruits.

At its heart, the 3GPP Core Networks (including 5G Core) address one particular use cases of the cellular industry: Subscriber mobility – Allowing a customer to move around the network, being served by different kit (gNodeBs) while keeping the same IP Address.

The most important function of 5GC is subscriber mobility.

This is achieved through the use of encapsulating all the subscriber’s IP data into a GTP (A protocol that’s been around since 2G first added data).

Do I need a 5GC for my Fixed Network?

Wireline networks are fixed. Subscribers don’t constantly move around the network. A GPON customer doesn’t need to move their OLT every 30 minutes to a new location.

Encapsulating a fixed subscriber’s traffic in GTP adds significant processing overhead, for almost no gain – The needs of a wireline network operator, are vastly different to the needs of a cellular core.

Today, you can take a /24 IPv4 block, route it to a DSLAM, OLT or CMTS, and give an IP to 254 customers – No cellular core needed, just a router and your access device and you’re done, and this has been possible for decades.
Because there’s no mobility the GTP encapsulation that is the bedrock for cellular, is not needed.

Rather than routing directly to Access Network kit, most fixed operators deploy BRAS systems used for fixed access. Like the cellular packet core, BRAS has been around for a very long time, with a massive install base and a sea of engineering experience in house, it meets the needs of the wireline industry who define its functions and roles along with kit vendors of wireline kit; the fixed industry working groups defined the BRAS in the same way the 3GPP and cellular industry working groups defined 5G Core.

I don’t forsee that we’ll see large scale replacement of BRAS by 5GC, for the same reason a wireless operator won’t replace their mobile core with a BRAS and PPPoE – They’re designed to meet different needs.

All the other features that have been added to the 3GPP Core Network functionality, like limiting speed, guaranteed throughput bearers, 5QI / QCI values, etc, are addons – nice-to-haves. All of these capabilities could be implemented in wireline networks today – if the business case and customer demand was there.

But what about slicing?

With dropping ARPUs across the board, additional services relating to QoS (“Network Slicing”) are being held up as the saving grace of revenues for cellular operators and 5G as a whole, however this has yet to be realized and early indications suggest this is not going to be anywhere near as lucrative as previously hoped.

What about cost savings?

In terms of cost-per-bit of throughput, the existing install base wireline operators have of heavy-metal kit capable of terabit switching and routing has been around for some time in fixed world, and is what most 5G Cores will connect to as their upstream anyway, so there won’t be any significant savings on equipment, power consumption or footprint to be gained.

Fixed networks transport the majority of the world’s data today – Wireline access still accounts for the majority of traffic volumes, so wireline kit handles a higher magnitude of throughput than it’s Packet Core / 5GC cousins already.

Cutting down the number of parts in the network is good though right?

If you’re operating both a Packet Core for Cellular, and a fixed network today, then you might think if you moved from the traditional BRAS architecture fore the wired network to 5GC, you could drop all those pesky routers and switches clogging up your CO, Exchanges and Data Centers.

The problem is that you still need all of those after the 5GC to be able to get the traffic anywhere users want to go. So the 5GC will still need all of that kit, all your border routers and peering routers will remain unchanged, as well as domestic transmission, MPLS and transport.

The parts required for operating fixed networks is actually pretty darn small in comparison to that of 5GC.

TL;DR?

While cellular vendors would love to sell their 5GC platform into fixed operators, the premise that they are willing to replace existing BRAS architectures with 5GC, is as unlikely in my view as 5GC being replaced by BRAS.

Getting to know the PCRF for traffic Policy, Rules & Rating

Misunderstood, under appreciated and more capable than people give it credit for, is our PCRF.

But what does it do?

Most folks describe the PCRF in hand wavy-terms – “it does policy and charging” is the answer you’ll get, but that doesn’t really tell you anything.

So let’s answer it in a way that hopefully makes some practical sense, starting with the acronym “PCRF” itself, it stands for Policy and Charging Rules Function, which is kind of two functions, one for policy and one for rules, so let’s take a look at both.

Policy

In cellular world, as in law, policy is the rules.

For us some examples of policy could be a “fair use policy” to limit customer usage to acceptable levels, but it can also be promotional packages, services like “free Spotify” packages, “Voice call priority” or “unmetered access to Nick’s Blog and maximum priority” packages, can be offered to customers.

All of these are examples of policy, and to make them work we need to target which subscribers and traffic we want to apply the policy to, and then apply the policy.

Charging Rules

Charging Rules are where the policy actually gets applied and the magic happens.

It’s where we take our policy and turn it into actionable stuff for the cellular world.

Let’s take an example of “unmetered access to Nick’s Blog and maximum priority” as something we want to offer in all our cellular plans, to provide access that doesn’t come out of your regular usage, as well as provide QCI 5 (Highest non dedicated QoS) to this traffic.

To achieve this we need to do 3 things:

  • Profile the traffic going to this website (so we capture this traffic and not regular other internet traffic)
  • Charge it differently – So it’s not coming from the subscriber’s regular balance
  • Up the QoS (QCI) on this traffic to ensure it’s high priority compared to the other traffic on the network

So how do we do that?

Profiling Traffic

So the first step we need to take in providing free access to this website is to filter out traffic to this website, from the traffic not going to this website.

Let’s imagine that this website is hosted on a single machine with the IP 1.2.3.4, and it serves traffic on TCP port 443. This is where IPFilterRules (aka TFTs or “Traffic Flow Templates”) and the Flow-Description AVP come into play. We’ve covered this in the past here, but let’s recap:

IPFilterRules are defined in the Diameter Base Protocol (IETF RFC 6733), where we can learn the basics of encoding them,

They take the format:

action dir proto from src to dst

The action is fairly simple, for all our Dedicated Bearer needs, and the Flow-Description AVP, the action is going to be permit. We’re not blocking here.

The direction (dir) in our case is either in or out, from the perspective of the UE.

Next up is the protocol number (proto), as defined by IANA, but chances are you’ll be using 17 (UDP) or 6 (TCP).

The from value is followed by an IP address with an optional subnet mask in CIDR format, for example from 10.45.0.0/16 would match everything in the 10.45.0.0/16 network.

Following from you can also specify the port you want the rule to apply to, or, a range of ports.

Like the from, the to is encoded in the same way, with either a single IP, or a subnet, and optional ports specified.

And that’s it!

So let’s create a rule that matches all traffic to our website hosted on 1.2.3.4 TCP port 443,

permit out 6 from 1.2.3.4 443 to any 1-65535
permit out 6 from any 1-65535 to 1.2.3.4 443

All this info gets put into the Flow-Information AVPs:

With the above, any traffic going to/from 1.23.4 on port 443, will match this rule (unless there’s another rule with a higher precedence value).

Charging Actions

So with our traffic profiled, the next question is what actions are we going to take, well there’s two, we’re going to provide unmetered access to the profiled traffic, and we’re going to use QCI 4 for the traffic (because you’ll need a guaranteed bit rate bearer to access!).

Charging-Group for Profiled Traffic

To allow for Zero Rating for traffic matching this rule, we’ll need to use a different Rating Group.

Let’s imagine our default rating group for data is 10000, then any normal traffic going to the OCS will use rating group 10000, and the OCS will apply the specific rates and policies based on that.

Rating Groups are defined in the OCS, and dictate what rates get applied to what Rating Groups.

For us, our default rating group will be charged at the normal rates, but we can define a rating group value of 4000, and set the OCS to provide unlimited traffic to any Credit-Control-Requests that come in with Rating Group 4000.

This is how operators provide services like “Unlimited Facebook” for example, a Charging Rule matches the traffic to Facebook based on TFTs, and then the Rating Group is set differently to the default rating group, and the OCS just allows all traffic on that rating group, regardless of how much is consumed.

Inside our Charging-Rule-Definition, we populate the Rating-Group AVP to define what Rating Group we’re going to use.

Setting QoS for Profiled Traffic

The QoS Description AVP defines which QoS parameters (QCI / ARP / Guaranteed & Maximum Bandwidth) should be applied to the traffic that matches the rules we just defined.

As mentioned at the start, we’ll use QCI 4 for this traffic, and allocate MBR/GBR values for this traffic.

Putting it Together – The Charging Rule

So with our TFTs defined to match the traffic, our Rating Group to charge the traffic and our QoS to apply to the traffic, we’re ready to put the whole thing together.

So here it is, our “Free NVN” rule:

I’ve attached a PCAP of the flow to this post.

In our next post we’ll talk about how the PGW handles the installation of this rule.

Diameter Routing Agents – Part 5 – AVP Transformations with FreeDiameter and Python in rt_pyform

In our last post we talked about why we’d want to perform Diameter AVP translations / rewriting on our Diameter Routing Agent.

Now let’s look at how we can actually achieve this using rt_pyform extension for FreeDiameter and some simple Python code.

Before we build we’ll need to make sure we have the python3-devel package (I’m using python3-devel-3.10) installed.

Then we’ll build FreeDiameter with the rt_pyform, this branch contains the rt_pyform extension in it already, or you can clone the extension only from this repo.

Now once FreeDiameter is installed we can load the extension in our freeDiameter.conf file:

LoadExtension = "rt_pyform.fdx" : "<Your config filename>.conf";

Next we’ll need to define our rt_pyform config, this is a super simple 3 line config file that specifies the path of what we’re doing:

DirectoryPath = "."        # Directory to search
ModuleName = "script"      # Name of python file. Note there is no .py extension
FunctionName = "transform" # Python function to call

The DirectoryPath directive specifies where we should search for the Python code, and ModuleName is the name of the Python script, lastly we have FunctionName which is the name of the Python function that does the rewriting.

Now let’s write our Python function for the transformation.

The Python function much have the correct number of parameters, must return a string, and must use the name specified in the config.

The following is an example of a function that prints out all the values it receives:

def transform(appId, flags, cmdCode, HBH_ID, E2E_ID, AVP_Code, vendorID, value):
    print('[PYTHON]')
    print(f'|-> appId: {appId}')
    print(f'|-> flags: {hex(flags)}')
    print(f'|-> cmdCode: {cmdCode}')
    print(f'|-> HBH_ID: {hex(HBH_ID)}')
    print(f'|-> E2E_ID: {hex(E2E_ID)}')
    print(f'|-> AVP_Code: {AVP_Code}')
    print(f'|-> vendorID: {vendorID}')
    print(f'|-> value: {value}')
    
    return value

Note the order of the arguments and that return is of the same type as the AVP value (string).

We can expand upon this and add conditionals, let’s take a look at some more complex examples:

def transform(appId, flags, cmdCode, HBH_ID, E2E_ID, AVP_Code, vendorID, value):
    print('[PYTHON]')
    print(f'|-> appId: {appId}')
    print(f'|-> flags: {hex(flags)}')
    print(f'|-> cmdCode: {cmdCode}')
    print(f'|-> HBH_ID: {hex(HBH_ID)}')
    print(f'|-> E2E_ID: {hex(E2E_ID)}')
    print(f'|-> AVP_Code: {AVP_Code}')
    print(f'|-> vendorID: {vendorID}')
    print(f'|-> value: {value}')
    #IMSI Translation - if App ID = 16777251 and the AVP being evaluated is the Username
    if (int(appId) == 16777251) and int(AVP_Code) == 1:
        print("This is IMSI '" + str(value) + "' - Evaluating transformation")
        print("Original value: " + str(value))
        value = str(value[::-1]).zfill(15)

The above look at if the App ID is S6a, and the AVP being checked is AVP Code 1 (Username / IMSI ) and if so, reverses the username, so IMSI 1234567 becomes 7654321, the zfill is just to pad with leading 0s if required.

Now let’s do another one for a Realm Rewrite:

def transform(appId, flags, cmdCode, HBH_ID, E2E_ID, AVP_Code, vendorID, value):

    #Print Debug Info
    print('[PYTHON]')
    print(f'|-> appId: {appId}')
    print(f'|-> flags: {hex(flags)}')
    print(f'|-> cmdCode: {cmdCode}')
    print(f'|-> HBH_ID: {hex(HBH_ID)}')
    print(f'|-> E2E_ID: {hex(E2E_ID)}')
    print(f'|-> AVP_Code: {AVP_Code}')
    print(f'|-> vendorID: {vendorID}')
    print(f'|-> value: {value}')
    #Realm Translation
    if int(AVP_Code) == 283:
        print("This is Destination Realm '" + str(value) + "' - Evaluating transformation")
    if value == "epc.mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org":
        new_realm = "epc.mnc999.mcc999.3gppnetwork.org"
        print("translating from " + str(value) + " to " + str(new_realm))
        value = new_realm
    else:
        #If the Realm doesn't match the above conditions, then don't change anything
        print("No modification made to Realm as conditions not met")
    print("Updated Value: " + str(value))

In the above block if the Realm is set to epc.mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org it is rewritten to epc.mnc999.mcc999.3gppnetwork.org, hopefully you can get a handle on the sorts of transformations we can do with this – We can translate any string type AVPs, which allows for hostname, realm, IMSI, Sh-User-Data, Location-Info, etc, etc, to be rewritten.

NB-IoT NIDD Basics

NB-IoT introduces support for NIDD – Non-IP Data Delivery (NIDD) which is one of the cool features of NB-IoT that’s gaining more widespread adoption.

Let’s take a deep dive into NIDD.

The case against IP for IoT

In the over 40 years since IP was standardized, we’ve shoehorned many things onto IP, but IP was never designed or optimized for low power, low throughput applications.

For the battery life of an IoT device to be measured in years, it has to be very selective about what power hungry operations it does. Transmitting data over the air is one of the most power-intensive operations an IoT device can perform, so we need to do everything we can to limit how much data is sent, and how frequently.

Use Case – NB-IoT Tap

Let’s imagine we’re launching an IoT tap that transmits information about water used, as part of our revolutionary new “Water as a Service” model (WaaS) which removes the capex for residents building their own water treatment plant in their homes, and instead allows dynamic scaling of waterloads as they move to our new opex model.

If I turn on the tap and use 12L of water, when I turn off the tap, our IoT tap encodes the usage onto a single byte and sends the usage information to our rain-cloud service provider.

So we’re not constantly changing the batteries in our taps, we need to send this one byte of data as efficiently as possible, so as to maximize the battery life.

If we were to transport our data on TCP, well we’d need a 3 way handshake and several messages just to transmit the data we want to send.

Let’s see how our one byte of data would look if we transported it on TCP.

That sliver of blue in the diagram is our usage component, the rest is overhead used to get it there. Seems wasteful huh?

Sure, TCP isn’t great for this you say, you should use UDP! But even if we moved away from TCP to UDP, we’ve still got the IPv4 header and the UDP header wasting 28 bytes.

For efficiency’s sake (To keep our batteries lasting as long as possible) we want to send as few messages as possible, and where we do have to send messages, keep them very short, so IP is not a great fit here.

Enter NIDD – Non-IP Data Delivery.

Through NIDD we can just send the single hex byte, only be charged for the single hex byte, and only stay transmitting long enough to send this single byte of hex (Plus the NBIoT overheads / headers).

Compared to UDP transport, NIDD provides us a reduction of 28 bytes of overhead for each message, or a 96% reduction in message size, which translates to real power savings for our IoT device.

In summary – the more sending your device has to do, the more battery it consumes.
So in a scenario where you’re trying to maximize power efficiency to keep your batter powered device running as long as possible, needing to transmit 28 bytes of wasted data to transport 1 byte of usable data, is a real waste.

Delivering the Payload

NIDD traffic is transported as raw hex data end to end, this means for our 1 byte of water usage data, the device would just send the hex value to be transferred and it’d pop out the other end.

To support this we introduce a new network element called the SCEFService Capability Exposure Function.

From a developer’s perspective, the SCEF is the gateway to our IoT devices. Through the RESTful API on the SCEF (T8 API), we can send and receive raw hex data to any of our IoT devices.

When one of our Water-as-a-Service Taps sends usage data as a hex byte, it’s the software talking on the T8 API to the SCEF that receives this data.

Data of course needs to be addressed, so we know where it’s coming from / going to, and T8 handles this, as well as message reliability, etc, etc.

This is a telco blog, so we should probably cover the MME connection, the MME talks via Diameter to the SCEF. In our next post we’ll go into these signaling flows in more detail.

If you’re wondering what the status of Open Source SCEF implementations are, then you may have already guessed I’m working on one!

Hopefully by now you’ve got a bit of an idea of how NIDD works in NB-IoT, and in our next posts we’ll dig deeper into the flows and look at some PCAPs together.

Diameter Routing Agents – Part 5 – AVP Transformations

Having a central pair of Diameter routing agents allows us to drastically simplify our network, but what if we want to perform some translations on AVPs?

For starters, what is an AVP transformation? Well it’s simply rewriting the value of an AVP as the Diameter Request/Response passes through the DRA. A request may come into the DRA with IMSI xxxxxx and leave with IMSI yyyyyy if a translation is applied.

So why would we want to do this?

Well, what if we purchased another operator who used Realm X, and we use Realm Y, and we want to link the two networks, then we’d need to rewrite Realm Y to Realm X, and Realm X to Realm Y when they communicate, AVP transformations allow for this.

If we’re an MVNO with hosted IMSIs from an MNO, but want to keep just the one IMSI in our HSS/OCS, we can translate from the MNO hosted IMSI to our internal IMSI, using AVP transformations.

If our OCS supports only one rating group, and we want to rewrite all rating groups to that one value, AVP transformations cover this too.

There are lots of uses for this, and if you’ve worked with a bit of signaling before you’ll know that quite often these sorts of use-cases come up.

So how do we do this with freeDiameter?

To handle this I developed a module for passing each AVP to a Python function, which can then apply any transformation to a text based value, using every tool available to you in Python.

In the next post I’ll introduce rt_pyform and how we can use it with Python to translate Diameter AVPs.

Diameter Routing Agents – Part 4 – Advanced FreeDiameter DRA Routing

Way back in part 2 we discussed the basic routing logic a DRA handles, but what if we want to do something a bit outside of the box in terms of how we route?

For me, one of the most useful use cases for a DRA is to route traffic based on IMSI / Username.
This means I can route all the traffic for MVNO X to MVNO X’s HSS, or for staging / test subs to the test HSS enviroment.

FreeDiameter has a bunch of built in logic that handles routing based on a weight, but we can override this, using the rt_default module.

In our last post we had this module commented out, but let’s uncomment it and start playing with it:

#Basic Diameter config for this box
Identity = "dra.mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";
Realm = "mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";
Port = 3868;

LoadExtension = "dbg_msg_dumps.fdx" : "0x8888";
LoadExtension = "rt_redirect.fdx":"0x0080";
LoadExtension = "rt_default.fdx":"rt_default.conf";

TLS_Cred = "/etc/freeDiameter/cert.pem", "/etc/freeDiameter/privkey.pem";
TLS_CA = "/etc/freeDiameter/cert.pem";
TLS_DH_File = "/etc/freeDiameter/dh.pem";

ConnectPeer = "mme01.mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" { ConnectTo = "10.98.0.10"; No_TLS; };
ConnectPeer = "hss01" { ConnectTo = "10.0.1.252"; No_TLS; Port = 3868; Realm = "mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";};
ConnectPeer = "hss02" { ConnectTo = "10.0.1.253"; No_TLS; Port = 3868; Realm = "mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";};
ConnectPeer = "hss-mvno-x" { ConnectTo = "10.98.0.22"; No_TLS; Port = 3868; Realm = "mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";};
ConnectPeer = "hss-lab" { ConnectTo = "10.0.2.2"; No_TLS; Port = 3868; Realm = "mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";};

In the above code we’ve uncommented rt_default and rt_redirect.

You’ll notice that rt_default references a config file, so we’ll create a new file in our /etc/freeDiameter directory called rt_default.conf, and this is where the magic will happen.

A few points before we get started:

  • This overrides the default routing priorities, but in order for a peer to be selected, it has to be in an Open (active) state
  • The peer still has to have advertised support for the requested application in the CER/CEA dialog
  • The peers will still need to have all been defined in the freeDiameter.conf file in order to be selected

So with that in mind, and the 5 peers we have defined in our config above (assuming all are connected), let’s look at some rules we can setup using rt_default.

Intro to rt_default Rules

The rt_default.conf file contains a list of rules, each rule has a criteria that if matched, will result in the specified action being taken. The actions all revolve around how to route the traffic.

So what can these criteria match on?
Here’s the options:

Item to MatchCode
Any*
Origin-Hostoh=”STR/REG”
Origin-Realmor=”STR/REG”
Destination-Hostdh=”STR/REG”
Destination-Realmdr=”STR/REG”
User-Nameun=”STR/REG”
Session-Idsi=”STR/REG”
rt_default Matching Criteria

We can either match based on a string or a regex, for example, if we want to match anything where the Destination-Realm is “mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org” we’d use something like:

#Low score to HSS02
dr="mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" : dh="hss02" += -70 ;

Now you’ll notice there is some stuff after this, let’s look at that.

We’re matching anything where the destination-host is set to hss02 (that’s the bit before the colon), but what’s the bit after that?

Well if we imagine that all our Diameter peers are up, when a message comes in with Destination-Realm “mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org”, looking for an HSS, then in our example setup, we have 4 HHS instances to choose from (assuming they’re all online).

In default Diameter routing, all of these peers are in the same realm, and as they’re all HSS instances, they all support the same applications – Our request could go to any of them.

But what we set in the above example is simply the following:

If the Destination-Realm is set to mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org, then set the priority for routing to hss02 to the lowest possible value.

So that leaves the 3 other Diameter peers with a higher score than HSS02, so HSS02 won’t be used.

Let’s steer this a little more,

Let’s specify that we want to use HSS01 to handle all the requests (if it’s available), we can do that by adding a rule like this:

#Low score to HSS02
dr="mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" : dh="hss02" += -70 ;
#High score to HSS01
dr="mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" : dh="hss01" += 100 ;

But what if we want to route to hss-lab if the IMSI matches a specific value, well we can do that too.

#Low score to HSS02
dr="mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" : dh="hss02" += -70 ;
#High score to HSS01
dr="mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" : dh="hss01" += 100 ;
#Route traffic for IMSI to Lab HSS
un="001019999999999999" : dh="hss-lab" += 200 ;

Now that we’ve set an entry with a higher score than hss01 that will be matched if the username (IMSI) equals 001019999999999999, the traffic will get routed to hss-lab.

But that’s a whole IMSI, what if we want to match only part of a field?

Well, we can use regex in the Criteria as well, so let’s look at using some Regex, let’s say for example all our MVNO SIMs start with 001012xxxxxxx, let’s setup a rule to match that, and route to the MVNO HSS with a higher priority than our normal HSS:

#Low score to HSS02
dr="mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" : dh="hss02" += -70 ;
#High score to HSS01
dr="mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" : dh="hss01" += 100 ;
#Route traffic for IMSI to Lab HSS
un="001019999999999999" : dh="hss-lab" += 200 ;
#Route traffic where IMSI starts with 001012 to MVNO HSS
un=["^001012.*"] : dh="hss-mvno-x" += 200 ;

Let’s imagine that down the line we introduce HSS03 and HSS04, and we only want to use HSS01 if HSS03 and HSS04 are unavailable, and only to use HSS02 no other HSSes are available, and we want to split the traffic 50/50 across HSS03 and HSS04.

Firstly we’d need to add HSS03 and HSS04 to our FreeDiameter.conf file:

...
ConnectPeer = "hss02" { ConnectTo = "10.0.1.253"; No_TLS; Port = 3868; Realm = "mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";};
ConnectPeer = "hss03" { ConnectTo = "10.0.3.3"; No_TLS; Port = 3868; Realm = "mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";};
ConnectPeer = "hss04" { ConnectTo = "10.0.4.4"; No_TLS; Port = 3868; Realm = "mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";};
...

Then in our rt_default.conf we’d need to tweak our scores again:

#Low score to HSS02
dr="mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" : dh="hss02" += 10 ;
#Medium score to HSS01
dr="mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" : dh="hss01" += 20 ;
#Route traffic for IMSI to Lab HSS
un="001019999999999999" : dh="hss-lab" += 200 ;
#Route traffic where IMSI starts with 001012 to MVNO HSS
un=["^001012.*"] : dh="hss-mvno-x" += 200 ;
#High Score for HSS03 and HSS04
dr="mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" : dh="hss02" += 100 ;
dr="mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" : dh="hss04" += 100 ;

One quick tip to keep your logic a bit simpler, is that we can set a variety of different values based on keywords (listed below) rather than on a weight/score:

BehaviourNameScore
Do not deliver to peer (set lowest priority)NO_DELIVERY-70
The peer is a default route for all messagesDEFAULT5
The peer is a default route for this realmDEFAULT_REALM10
REALM15
Route to the specified Host with highest priorityFINALDEST100
Rather than manually specifying the store you can use keywords like above to set the value

In our next post we’ll look at using FreeDiameter based DRA in roaming scenarios where we route messages across Diameter Realms.

Diameter Routing Agents – Part 3 – Building a DRA with FreeDiameter

I’ve covered the basics of Diameter Routing Agents (DRAs) in the past, and even shared an unstable DRA built using Kamailio, but today I thought I’d cover building something a little more “production ready”.

FreeDiameter has been around for a while, and we’ve covered configuring the FreeDiameter components in Open5GS when it comes to the S6a interface, so you may have already come across FreeDiameter in the past, but been left a bit baffled as to how to get it to actually do something.

FreeDiameter is a FOSS implimentation of the Diameter protocol stack, and is predominantly used as a building point for developers to build Diameter applications on top of.

But for our scenario, we’ll just be using plain FreeDiameter.

So let’s get into it,

You’ll need FreeDiameter installed, and you’ll need a certificate for your FreeDiameter instance, more on that in this post.

Once that’s setup we’ll need to define some basics,

Inside freeDiameter.conf we’ll need to include the identity of our DRA, load the extensions and reference the certificate files:

#Basic Diameter config for this box
Identity = "dra.mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";
Realm = "mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";
Port = 3868;

LoadExtension = "dbg_msg_dumps.fdx" : "0x8888";
#LoadExtension = "rt_redirect.fdx":"0x0080";
#LoadExtension = "rt_default.fdx":"rt_default.conf";

TLS_Cred = "/etc/freeDiameter/cert.pem", "/etc/freeDiameter/privkey.pem";
TLS_CA = "/etc/freeDiameter/cert.pem";
TLS_DH_File = "/etc/freeDiameter/dh.pem";

Next up we’ll need to define the Diameter peers we’ll be routing between.

For each connection / peer / host we’ll need to define here:

ConnectPeer = "mme01.mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org" { ConnectTo = "10.98.0.10"; No_TLS; };
ConnectPeer = "hss01" { ConnectTo = "10.0.1.252"; No_TLS; Port = 3868; Realm = "mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org";};

And we’ll configure our HSS and MME defined in the ConnectPeers to connect/accept connections from, dra.mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org.

Now if we start freeDiameter, we can start routing between the hosts. No config needed.

If we define another HSS in the ConnectPeers, any S6a requests from the MME may get routed to that as well (50/50 split).

In our next post, we’ll look at using the rt_default extension to control how we route and look at some more advanced use cases.

Diameter Routing Agents (Why you need them, and how to build them) – Part 2 – Routing

What I typically refer to as Diameter interfaces / reference points, such as S6a, Sh, Sx, Sy, Gx, Gy, Zh, etc, etc, are also known as Applications.

Diameter Application Support

If you look inside the Capabilities Exchange Request / Answer dialog, what you’ll see is each side advertising the Applications (interfaces) that they support, each one being identified by an Application ID.

CER showing support for the 3GPP Zh Application-ID (Interface)

If two peers share a common Application-Id, then they can communicate using that Application / Interface.

For example, the above screenshot shows a peer with support for the Zh Interface (Spoiler alert, XCAP Gateway / BSF coming soon!). If two Diameter peers both have support for the Zh interface, then they can use that to send requests / responses to each other.

This is the basis of Diameter Routing.

Diameter Routing Tables

Like any router, our DRA needs to have logic to select which peer to route each message to.

For each Diameter connection to our DRA, it will build up a Diameter Routing table, with information on each peer, including the realm and applications it advertises support for.

Then, based on the logic defined in the DRA to select which Diameter peer to route each request to.

In its simplest form, Diameter routing is based on a few things:

  1. Look at the DestinationRealm, and see if we have any peers at that realm
  2. If we do then look at the DestinationHost, if that’s set, and the host is connected, and if it supports the specified Application-Id, then route it to that host
  3. If no DestinationHost is specified, look at the peers we have available and find the one that supports the specified Application-Id, then route it to that host
Simplified Diameter Routing Table used by DRAs

With this in mind, we can go back to looking at how our DRA may route a request from a connected MME towards an HSS.

Let’s look at some examples of this at play.

The request from MME02 is for DestinationRealm mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org, which our DRA knows it has 4 connected peers in (3 if we exclude the source of the request, as we don’t want to route it back to itself of course).

So we have 3 contenders still for who could get the request, but wait! We have a DestinationHost specified, so the DRA confirms the host is available, and that it supports the requested ApplicationId and routes it to HSS02.

So just because we are going through a DRA does not mean we can’t specific which destination host we need, just like we would if we had a direct link between each Diameter peer.

Conversely, if we sent another S6a request from MME01 but with no DestinationHost set, let’s see how that would look.

Again, the request is from MME02 is for DestinationRealm mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org, which our DRA knows it has 3 other peers it could route this to. But only two of those peers support the S6a Application, so the request would be split between the two peers evenly.

Clever Routing with DRAs

So with our DRA in place we can simplify the network, we don’t need to build peer links between every Diameter device to every other, but let’s look at some other ways DRAs can help us.

Load Control

We may want to always send requests to HSS01 and only use HSS02 if HSS01 is not available, we can do this with a DRA.

Or we may want to split load 75% on one HSS and 25% on the other.

Both are great use cases for a DRA.

Routing based on Username

We may want to route requests in the DRA based on other factors, such as the IMSI.

Our IMSIs may start with 001010001xxx, but if we introduced an MVNO with IMSIs starting with 001010002xxx, we’d need to know to route all traffic where the IMSI belongs to the home network to the home network HSS, and all the MVNO IMSI traffic to the MVNO’s HSS, and DRAs handle this.

Inter-Realm Routing

One of the main use cases you’ll see for DRAs is in Roaming scenarios.

For example, if we have a roaming agreement with a subscriber who’s IMSIs start with 90170, we can route all the traffic for their subs towards their HSS.

But wait, their Realm will be mnc901.mcc070.3gppnetwork.org, so in that scenario we’ll need to add a rule to route the request to a different realm.

DRAs handle this also.

In our next post we’ll start actually setting up a DRA with a default route table, and then look at some more advanced options for Diameter routing like we’ve just discussed.

One slight caveat, is that mutual support does not always mean what you may expect.
For example an MME and an HSS both support S6a, which is identified by Auth-Application-Id 16777251 (Vendor ID 10415), but one is a client and one is a server.
Keep this in mind!

Diameter Routing Agents (Why you need them, and how to build them) – Part 1

Answer Question 1: Because they make things simpler and more flexible for your Diameter traffic.
Answer Question 2: With free software of course!

All about DRAs

But let’s dive a little deeper. Let’s look at the connection between an MME and an HSS (the S6a interface).

Direct Diameter link between two Diameter Peers

We configure the Diameter peers on MME1 and HSS01 so they know about each other and how to communicate, the link comes up and presto, away we go.

But we’re building networks here! N+1 redundancy and all that, so now we have two HSSes and two MMEs.

Direct Diameter link between 4 Diameter peers

Okay, bit messy, but that’s okay…

But then our network grows to 10 MMEs, and 3 HSSes and you can probably see where this is going, but let’s drive the point home.

Direct Diameter connections for a network with 10x MME and 3x HSS

Now imagine once you’ve set all this up you need to do some maintenance work on HSS03, so need to shut down the Diameter peer on 10 different MMEs in order to isolate it and deisolate it.

The problem here is pretty evident, all those links are messy, cumbersome and they just don’t scale.

If you’re someone with a bit of networking experience (and let’s face it, you’re here after all), then you’re probably thinking “What if we just had a central system to route all the Diameter messages?”

An Agent that could Route Diameter, a Diameter Routing Agent perhaps…

By introducing a DRA we build Diameter peer links between each of our Diameter devices (MME / HSS, etc) and the DRA, rather than directly between each peer.

Then from the DRA we can route Diameter requests and responses between them.

Let’s go back to our 10x MME and 3x HSS network and see how it looks with a DRA instead.

So much cleaner!

Not only does this look better, but it makes our life operating the network a whole lot easier.

Each MME sends their S6a traffic to the DRA, which finds a healthy HSS from the 3 and sends the requests to it, and relays the responses as well.

We can do clever load balancing now as well.

Plus if a peer goes down, the DRA detects the failure and just routes to one of the others.

If we were to introduce a new HSS, we wouldn’t need to configure anything on the MMEs, just add HSS04 to the DRA and it’ll start getting traffic.

Plus from an operations standpoint, now if we want to to take an HSS offline for maintenance, we just shut down the link on the HSS and all HSS traffic will get routed to the other two HSS instances.

In our next post we’ll talk about the Routing part of the DRA, how the decisions are made and all the nuances, and then in the following post we’ll actually build a DRA and start routing some traffic around!

Filtering for 3GPP DNS in Wireshark

If you work with IMS or Packet Core, there’s a good chance you need DNS to work, and it doesn’t always.

When I run traces, I’ve always found I get swamped with DNS traffic, UE traffic, OS monitoring, updates, etc, all combine into a big firehose – while my Wireshark filters for finding EPC and IMS traffic is pretty good, my achilles heel has always been filtering the DNS traffic to just get the queries and responses I want out of it.

Well, today I made that a bit better.

By adding this to your Wireshark filter:

dns contains 33:67:70:70:6e:65:74:77:6f:72:6b:03:6f:72:67:00

You’ll only see DNS Queries and Responses for domains at the 3gppnetwork.org domain.

This makes my traces much easier to read, and hopefully will do the same for you!

Bonus, here’s my current Wireshark filter for working EPC/IMS:

(diameter and diameter.cmd.code != 280) or  (sip and !(sip.Method == "OPTIONS") and !(sip.CSeq.method == "OPTIONS")) or (smpp and (smpp.command_id != 0x00000015 and smpp.command_id != 0x80000015)) or (mgcp and !(mgcp.req.verb == "AUEP") and !(mgcp.rsp.rspcode == 500)) or isup or sccp or rtpevent or s1ap or gtpv2 or pfcp or (dns contains 33:67:70:70:6e:65:74:77:6f:72:6b:03:6f:72:67:00)

FreeDiameter – Generating Certificates

Even if you’re not using TLS in your FreeDiameter instance, you’ll still need a certificate in order to start the stack.

Luckily, creating a self-signed certificate is pretty simple,

Firstly we generate your a private key and public certificate for our required domain – in the below example I’m using dra01.epc.mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org, but you’ll need to replace that with the domain name of your freeDiameter instance.

openssl req -new -batch -x509 -days 3650 -nodes     \
   -newkey rsa:1024 -out /etc/freeDiameter/cert.pem -keyout /etc/freeDiameter/privkey.pem \
   -subj /CN=dra01.epc.mnc001.mcc001.3gppnetwork.org

Next we generate a new set of Diffie-Hellman parameter set using OpenSSL.

openssl dhparam -out /etc/freeDiameter/dh.pem 1024 

Lastly we’ll put all this config into the freeDiameter config file:

TLS_Cred = "/etc/freeDiameter/cert.pem", "/etc/freeDiameter/privkey.pem";
TLS_CA = "/etc/freeDiameter/cert.pem";
TLS_DH_File = "/etc/freeDiameter/dh.pem";

If you’re using freeDiameter as part of another software stack (Such as Open5Gs) the below filenames will contain the config for that particular freeDiameter components of the stack:

  • freeDiameter.conf – Vanilla freeDiameter
  • mme.conf – Open5Gs MME
  • pcrf.conf – Open5Gs PCRF
  • smf.conf – Open5Gs SMF / P-GW-C
  • hss.conf – Open5Gs HSS