roof-top-cellsI was excited to see our press release coverage today about F5 Networks and Bytemobile's ability to scale T-Mobile's 3G Network Capacity with our VIPRION product.  The article mentions the "explosive" growth of data  on mobile networks and how data network capacity has to be scaled to handle the tremendous growth.  As a sentence, this all makes sense, and most networking professionals wouldn't give it a second thought; it's a data network and it needs to be scaled.

On the other side of this datacenter-centric story is the world we see around us from day-to-day.  Most professional have some sort of mobile data device these days, from Apple iPhones, to Google Android to Blackberry devices, and no one is shy about using the mobile data services they come with.  The missing connection for many people I talk to casually about mobile data is where exactly their data goes, in other words, what is the path of the data and where does it run into limits? 

At home and work, our email, web pages and videos all take generally the same path.  This is not so true with mobile networks.  On mobile networks, Text messages (SMS) ride an out-of-band portion of the voice network (thus the 160 byte limitation), Blackberry email messages involve additional hops through RIM servers and involve their protocols as well, data such as web pages and other TCP content have yet another path.  The over-the-air part is just one small part of this path.

I see the light-bulb usually go off when I ask people "Where do you think the data goes from your phone?" and they say "oh, I've never thought about that".   To take a very high level view, when we make a request for a web page or a YouTube video from our 3G device, let's consider the path our data has to take. 

The request goes from the mobile device via over-the-air radio frequency to a local cell site.  This is the 3G network, and this is only the first "hop".  Your mobile request has traversed the over-the-air network in the fastest available way today, but now what?  It doesn't go straight to YouTube.

From the cell site it's either relayed to another cell site or relayed back via high-speed lines to the carrier's network.   At this point, depending on the network, there might be another conversion process to get to the TCP network and the request finally enters the "data network".  In most networks, there has to be an authentication process to authorize the connection.  Once the request has entered the carrier's network, it gets processed by all the standard mechanisms (DNS requests, proxy servers, caches, etc). This datacenter is the single point that all data communication go through and carriers work day-and-night to optimize the speed and reliability of these datacenters.

Once you realize that every single subscriber to your carrier's network is going through that same network, you realize just how important it is, certainly equally important to the 3G network, if not more.  Finally, once the request is processed it returns to the mobile phone via that great and speedy 3G network. 

And this is why today's news is so exciting to me.  Seeing investments being made at the Mobile Carrier's datacenter is good news for everybody.  It's these investments that will ultimately enable the "feature XYZ" or background applications or many of the other wish list items we crave on our mobile devices.  When people see the performance numbers of our VIPRION, they sometimes ask who could possibly push that much traffic, in the mobile providers we have one of the many examples of an answer to that question.