Point-and-Click OSS Requires Cut, Paste
By Fred Dawson
Amidst the steady drumbeat of vendor announcements promising point-and-click bliss with implementation of next-generation operations support systems, the experiences of carriers seeking to create a customer-friendly operating environment attest to something closer to grunt and grind.
True, new IP-based, web-oriented approaches to OSS integration, provisioning and billing for highly customized service packages and for assuring real-time performance monitoring and fast-response trouble-shooting have a lot to offer when it comes to saving OSS set-up time. These approaches also can add to operational efficiency and service flexibility. Carrier executives make clear that their ability to offer their customers the operations platforms they’re looking for is limited by cost, immature vendor solutions, and a lack of standards in process management and across crucial points of interfaces among different software systems.
The fact that OSS solutions aren’t as optimum or as easy to implement as everyone would like them to be also has a lot to do with the fact that customer expectations constantly are raising the bar. Customers demand more and ever better performance, notes David Torline, CIO for Broadwing Inc. and for its network operations unit, Broadwing Communications. “We’re in a space unlike any I’ve ever seen in my years in telecom.”
He says, “There’s an increasing dominance of web-based services and applications which brings with it new operations requirements and new network topologies that are optimized for data.”
And this trend has moved in parallel with other major shifts in customer expectations.
“Over the past year we’ve seen a dramatic change in our need to be able to supply bandwidth on demand to customers who are no longer interested in buying bandwidth on terms that look out over long periods of time,” Torline says. “Bandwidth on demand is at the heart of what our primary IT customer base is looking for.”
So, too, he adds, is their need “to see SLA (service level agreement) information at the same time we do.”
All of this puts carriers, like Broadwing, which are exploiting the benefits of advanced optical networking in a good position, if they can figure out how to meet all these customer requirements.
“I believe in a new breed of OSS,” Torline says.
But while Broadwing has the luxury as a next-generation carrier of building OSS without having to worry about a lot of legacy baggage, Torline’s experience demonstrates how difficult the process can be.
For example, the customer view into SLA performance via real-time feedback from the network operating center (NOC) demands a coherent approach to creating network element inventories and being able to sense what’s happening across all elements. Network element inventory management has “always been a millstone,” Torline notes, adding, “In a burstable provisioning environment we have to have a single view of a customer with multiple locations, which is more than traditional OSS can do.”
Building the new OSS starts with using XML (extensible markup language), a standardized approach to defining data formats and building hierarchical structures, to create a core set of processes for event modeling and for transmitting all the information uniformly across a core message bus.
Torline notes that once this is done, adding new processes becomes a modular step. Such was the case when Broadwing was able to integrate its recently lit two-fiber, all-optical fiber network into the core OSS message bus and monitoring system in only 30 days.
But not everything goes so smoothly, even on a brand-new core operating platform. For example, the concept of real-time reporting on network performance back to the customer has proved to be a big challenge.
“There’s a lot of evolving, relatively immature technology here,” Torline says.
Indeed, the mediation space in general, where the flow from various information processes pertaining to network operations is organized, is populated by a lot of “relatively immature” platforms. One that Broadwing chose about a year ago has required “two major revisions already,” Torline notes, adding, “We’re spending a lot of time developing new solutions.”
And, when it’s all said and done, Broadwing finds it’s only 50 percent to 60 percent of the way toward completing its OSS architecture. “On the network monitoring side, we’ve completed 95 percent or more of what’s needed,” he says. In contrast, Torline’s group is still building the service activation component.
Smaller carriers in the greenfield mode are experiencing the same OSS advantages and problems that Broadwing is encountering. The smaller carriers have the added burden of setting priorities for fulfillment of OSS requirements to prevent costs from getting out of hand. “Crawl, walk, run is our approach to OSS implementation,” says Jameson Holcombe, vice president and CIO of Cambrian Communications LLC, a new wholesale MAN carrier offering gigabit Ethernet and SONET services in the mid-Atlantic region. “We don’t use VC money to build something that’s
From Holcombe’s perspective, there’s a lot that’s not yet proven when it comes to seeking off-the-shelf solutions for a next-generation operational environment. “The fact is, most OSS’s fail at some point, and when they fail, they fail spectacularly, so you have to be very careful,” he says.
As with Broadwing, the fundamentals for Cambrian’s OSS building project start with establishing a web-based core system approach that’s founded on business processes tied to a message bus, although Holcombe cautions he’s skeptical of middleware solutions that claim to be able to integrate everything across the message bus. Building an OSS business processes template entailed creating a business process task force where all the “stove pipes” linked to OSS, including sales, marketing, administration, etc., clearly mapped their business processes before outside systems integrators got involved at the OSS level.
Says Holcombe: “SI guys will say, ‘Where’s the process (in the individual departments),’ and if you don’t have one, they’ll say, ‘We’ll do it, no problem.’ But you’ll pay a high price.”
But even with all the efforts to ensure against wasteful spending, Cambrian finds it has to focus strictly on doing the things in OSS that are most vital to its success from the beginning, rather than trying to build a complete architecture from the outset. Thus, the starting point is to get the basic network element inventory and management structure in place and with it the means to accomplishing root cause analysis, performance management and reporting to customers.
Some other things just aren’t as vital, Holcombe says. “Automated provisioning is a buzz word that boils my blood,” he says. “What that means to the CEO is different from what it means to the marketing guys and different from what it means to network operations. It’s not something you can automate.”
Nor does Cambrian need to automate order-entry management or customer care at this stage of its evolution. “The answer isn’t automation,” Holcombe says. “I need account reps.”
At AFN Communications, a carriers’ carrier that recently began offering services in tier 2 and 3 cities over a long-haul footprint that extends across the northeastern quadrant of the United States, tackling the OSS cost and implementation issues has led the company to rely heavily on labor-intensive efforts to marry off-the-shelf software over a common information bus to a well-thought-out set of business processes.
“Our first goal was not to re-invent anything if we could leverage commercially available off-the-shelf software,” says Mike Henry, senior manager of OSS for AFN. “We knew we could accelerate our time to market this way, because the integration is worth more than the sum of the parts.”
Building the information bus and the way software interacts with it was vital to getting around the cumbersome problems of middleware, where making changes or upgrades in specific software components can make what once seemed a simple solution extremely costly, Henry notes. “I’m less concerned with what the application does in the graphic user interface than I am with how the API (applications program interface) extends the application into our value chain,” he says.
Off-the-shelf software APIs “didn’t support the complexity of our design requirements,” he adds. “The APIs were capable of doing what we wanted, but they assume I’m going through four discovery steps, which are unnecessary in an automated process environment. So we had to have the vendors and integrators write code to make sure the information gets out onto the bus.”
To keep things focused AFN concentrated on achieving real-time customer views of network activity, mirroring the top-priority objectives of Broadwing and Cambrian. This included not only the creation of a real-time information flow but a two-click approach to the customer’s creation of a trouble ticket and the ability to sink that ticket in the fault as the fault is reported. “The fault system updates the ticket when a new event occurs,” Henry says. “We want to make sure customer technicians don’t have to go looking for information, because we want to fix the fault fast enough to maintain five 9s performance.”
Eventually, the tightly integrated set of applications and middleware will be wrapped in XML and pushed into the web environment, which will be key to the “Holy Grail” of automated CRM, Henry notes. But, he adds, getting to the portal delivery stage, not only for CRM but also for bandwidth trading and other applications that integrate seamlessly with the OSS components AFN has chosen, will require better interoperability among various software tools, and that means waiting for standards to either mature or be created. It’s also important to keep software vendors informed of the direction the company is going in for future functionalities, he says. “I don’t want to have to buy somebody else’s software; I want them to be aware and ready,” he notes.
Sometimes, to hear vendors discuss the wonders of new integration systems, it might sound like resellers and SPs who are looking for transport suppliers can expect to have everything –from network-element management to SLA enforcement to CRM — handed them on a silver platter. And, some day, that will be the case. However, the experience of even those carriers who have the greenfield advantage of building OSS from scratch makes clear that the best carriers can hope for at this point is a well-thought-out approach to doing the things that are most important to that carrier’s line of business.