Syniverse Secure Global Access: An Interview with John Wick

This article originally appeared in FraudTechJournal and is published here with permission.

By Dan Baker, Editor, FraudTechJournal, and Research Director, Technology Research Institute

Why have digital giants like Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon amassed huge levels of trust in the marketplace?

I think it’s because — year after year — they prove their competence.  When they launch new products or services, something in their genes kicks in that enables them to focus — laser-like — on solving the countless operating hurdles that block project success.

Then, through relentless trial and error, they consistently nail things down — and create smooth-running systems where only chaos existed before.

So what about the internet of things (IoT)?  For several years now we’ve been expecting IoT services to take off in consumer mass markets, but so far IoT investment by the big digital brands has been negligible.

And it’s uncharacteristic of companies like Amazon and Microsoft to delay their entry in consumer markets where there’s huge potential.

We can only conclude that something in the IoT ecosystem is not quite ready for prime time.  Something is not nailed down.

So where’s the bottleneck?  The technology we have today is certainly sufficient for many IoT use cases: the sensors are built, wireless networks are there, and so are the IT systems to support billing and partnering.

Well, I think the chief thing missing is a greater measure of security and control.  For IoT to really take off, a mechanism is needed to coordinate access-to and intelligence-on the vast number of non-human wireless devices and use cases in the IoT ecosystem.

Now, I’m not sure why anyone would take on the tough job of building such a mechanism.  After all, it would require a global IoT network and platform to oversee billions of IoT devices.  However, John Wick, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Connectivity and Mobility Solutions, of Syniverse, has a track record of successfully herding cats — and he’s been at the helm of Syniverse’s biggest global networks and platforms for 27 years.

In our interview, John provides an insightful overview of the IoT security and control problem — and the capabilities Syniverse has built into its Secure Global Access solution.  Also included is an interesting backgrounder on Syniverse’s IPX wireless private network which delivers secure signaling and bearer traffic for global wireless operators.

Finally, John gives his perspective on the new and revolutionary upgrade to SMS — RCS business messaging — a revenue-generating service for MNOs that Syniverse and Mavenir are jointly delivering worldwide.

Dan Baker, Editor, Top Operator: John, you’ve been with Syniverse through a few name changes, and you’ve seen Syniverse grow large enough to earn its tagline: “The world’s most connected company.”

John Wick: Dan, when I joined in 1991 we were a subsidiary of GTE and I managed a global IP backbone for wireless, at that time called GRX.

Back then, the wireless operators of the world had the foresight to know that wireless data was coming and headsets would arrive soon to actually enable IP on the phone.

And we knew when that day came, we’d need to exchange packet data between our networks and didn’t want to do that over the internet.  So that’s why GRX was commissioned as a private IPX network, and I’ve been running that program at Syniverse from the beginning.

Dan Baker, Editor, Top Operator: Please tell us more about the Syniverse IPX, its mission, and its supporting infrastructure.

John Wick: Well, I’m pleased to say that we now have the largest IPX network in the world.  It’s the largest in terms of scale, size of companies connected to it, and has the largest reach to phones who need to consume that data.  Today that network is growing with lightning speed.

This is a global backbone environment we own and operate.  We lease the fiber that runs to the switch and the real estate from quality providers like Equinix, but beyond that we own, operate, and control the whole network.

The constellation of this network includes 33 global locations which serve 280 wireless operators directly, plus we pair up with our competitors who reach other operators.

We buy our own bandwidth from the likes of Level 3, British Telecom, Centurylink, and other tier 1 wholesale carriers around the world.  But we install our own hardware and configure it, maintain it.  If something breaks at 3:00 in the morning, we’re the ones who go out and fix it.

Now not only is our IPX global private scalable ecosystem for the transport of critical IP packet data, it’s also highly secure.  It’s security compliant with everything the wireless operators expect of us — and it’s invisible to the internet.

I can tell you this with confidence because I know how it was designed and built.

Dan Baker, Editor, Top Operator: What sorts of traffic is being passed between the mobile operators on the IPX?

John Wick: There’s two primary streams. First is the signaling traffic that’s critical for authenticating devices.  Then there’s the bearer data, traffic that’s mostly in the roaming category.

So when a device is not on its home network, but on a foreign network, it still needs to exchange signaling traffic and still be able to consume data which is the bearer traffic.  So, we process six petabytes of data per day — that’s the equivalent of nearly 80 years of high-definition television processed by Syniverse every single day.

Dan Baker, Editor, Top Operator: Sounds like the IPX is a big efficiency play for the global wireless network.

John Wick: It is.  Imagine if each of the 700 to 800 mobile operators around the globe directly connected to each other.  Think about how many lines would be needed between the dots.  So this is the power of the network effect.

Let’s say you’re one of the big three in China, China Unicom, China Mobile and China Telecom, all three directly connect to Syniverse’s backbone network.  And they only connect once — from our network bases in Hong Kong or Singapore — and that gives them access to the world.

The other efficiency ingredient with our IPX is a globally routable domain built on top of a physical backbone network that is also global and uses a private IP address routing space.

Dan Baker, Editor, Top Operator: So the Syniverse IPX is already a key IP backbone for wireless operators around the globe, yet you need to add major new capabilities.  What market change is prompting this?

John Wick: Dan, it’s all about the arrival of new communication ecosystems, new device populations, and by populations I include human-interactive devices like phones, but also non-human devices.

Now the population of human-interactive devices is something like seven billion.  However, the population of non-human devices is probably going to dwarf that number.

There’s now a greater need than ever to be precise about how we classify devices.  For instance, a device is “wireless” because it’s not tethered to a desk.  When we say a device is “mobile” we mean it can move.  Likewise, we need to know which devices have a high appetite for data and which devices may or may not enable a highly sensitive, critical use case.

Now certainly, your home refrigerator is not a critical device.  However, the controller in your car is critical, and we want to make sure someone with nefarious intentions can’t hack into the car controller and cause a disaster.

And all of these devices are going to fit into one of these profile areas of high capacity/low capacity, latency sensitive/not latency sensitive, critical use case/not so critical use case.

Dan Baker, Editor, Top Operator: So that’s the mission of the Secure Global Access product that Syniverse launched back in June.

John Wick: Yes, we’ve now profiled a population of about 50,000 unique non-human devices that live in cars, in the logistical supply system, or in utility infrastructure.  And all these device need to be connected.

What Secure Global Access does is allows us to lock down, secure, and protect this population of non-human devices, while at the same time adhering to all the key tenets of IPX: isolation from the internet and scalable networks.

With Secure Global Access, we’ve basically engineered a secure bridge to all these devices.  And just as we define the IP address to the device when it lights up and tries to connect, Secure Global Access also evaluates each device and creates a profile for it so others in the ecosystem have the intelligence to create a policy for it.

Dan Baker, Editor, Top Operator: And depending on what the profile and use case of a special device in the network, these could be entirely different policies.  They will be heavy or light in data usage.  And they will be either critical or non-critical.

John Wick: That’s right.  And remember: these non-human devices are not as flexible or as tolerant as we humans are.

You and I are probably heavy mobile data users, and we pretty much expect our phones to work no matter where we are.  So if there’s a bit of a delay, that’s okay because we know mobile is a best-effort environment.

However, in a critical scenario requiring 20 millisecond latency, we can’t route packets across the backbone from Beijing to Georgia and back.  Instead, we must route those packets from Beijing to Tokyo via Hong Kong or Singapore, so we get a response back as quickly as possible.

Of course, given the high costs involved, we only want to do that when it’s necessary.  And this means we must have an intimate knowledge of the device and its context.  What privileges are expected of the device and what policies should we apply in communicating with it?

So it’s a matter of knowing the behaviors and profiles of use cases in this new world.  These non-human use cases will be very different from the human use cases, and putting that all together in a solution set is what we’ve done with Secure Global Access.

Dan Baker, Editor, Top Operator: I see parallels here to another key program.  Syniverse has teamed with network software vendor Mavenir to provide a full RCS Business managed service for mobile phones — a highly interactive way for non-carrier brands to converse and do business with phone users. RCS is basically a multimedia replacement for A2P messaging.  But as compelling as the interface is, if users can’t trust that the Starbucks logo they see on their phone is truly Starbucks, then things can unravel.

John Wick: It’s a valid point.  The whole mission of our RCS solution is to enable carriers to tap into a new revenue stream.  And trust is a big part of that.

Now we all know that enterprises — or brands such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, you name it — will pay massive amounts of money to have high quality access to eyeballs.  And that’s where RCS can really get interesting for the carriers because today the carriers running these networks have little control over the phones they are giving out to their customers.

The neat thing about RCS is it’s not an app that you pull down off the app store and only use a handful of times.  RCS is operating at the native level within the handset.  It’s no different than the dialer you use to call your mother.

So RCS gives you this rich, high-powered interactive model that’s enabled within the phone.  And it allows the carrier to put Bank of America directly into the customer base.  And gone is the notion of “Here, let me send you an SMS and see if I can get your attention.” It truly brings the experience on the phone to levels you experience on the desktop.

So, coming back to your point.  Dan.  If a massive amount of money is flowing through this ecosystem, then it also requires a massive need for controls to ensure trust, verification, and revenue assurance.  In the RCS solution, Syniverse is responsible for all the revenue settlement and brand/user authentication.

Companies like Syniverse who are at the center of billions of messages and interactions — including critical ones — have a duty to be especially careful in how we handle the enormous trust given to us by carriers and enterprises.

Dan Baker, Editor, Top Operator: John, thanks for this very timely briefing on Secure Global Access and beyond.  There’s no company in the world better positioned than Syniverse to deliver such a pivotal platform for global IoT.  Good luck with it.  I’m sure there are lots of IoT champions out there cheering you on.

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