Unlocking SS7’s Potential
By Peter Meade
Unlocking and using information that always has been available–but not easily
accessible–in signaling system 7 (SS7) networks is emerging as a new way for service
providers to survive and thrive in these competitive times.
Rick Botting is so sure that accessing this knowledge is the key to unlocking SS7’s
potential that he walked away from almost three decades at BC TEL, Canada’s second largest
service provider, to help carriers everywhere utilize the secrets that are contained in
their networks’ call detail records (CDRs).
While at BC TEL, where he was responsible for the telco’s data management strategy,
Botting built one of the telecom world’s first data warehouses. It was during this time
that he began to appreciate the virtually untapped gold mine of data that is buried in
networks. When the process at BC TEL finally was in place, it was very clear to Botting
that his work could be replicated across all types and sizes of applicable service
providers–incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs), competitive local exchange carriers
(CLECs) and interexchange carriers (IXCs).
"ILECs, CLECs, IXCs–they’re all facing competition across the board, yet they’re
not equipped to compete," Botting says. "ILECs are 100-year-old [former]
monopolies. Their needs cannot be realized or met from within. IXCs use a traditionalist
approach while CLECs are ‘thin’ in the resources they have ready at hand."
Seizing the opportunity, Botting decided to leave his post at BC TEL to help service
providers optimize their networks to reduce costs. After serving as an independent
consultant, in 1996 he founded Botting Systems Inc. (BSI) to deliver a suite of software
tools that telecom companies could use to better understand their networks, as well as
better serve their myriad markets.
The response so far has been gratifying, he says, because even the few service
providers that have realized the wealth that is held in their SS7 networks are going about
the data warehousing process in the wrong way. "They take lots of money, people and
space, then build a huge wall around the data," he says.
The result: Most data warehouses are, in fact, "data prisons."
"The data there is held captive and only the ‘data heads’ can use or deliver the
data," Botting explains. "We’re trying to get the data out so it can be
accessed, used and manipulated by the common folk."
Using a Microsoft NT platform, Botting says BSI’s Total Network Knowledge (TNK)
software application delivers information "100 times faster at one-hundredth the
cost" of the application he built for BC TEL in 1992. The major inhibitor to service
providers unlocking that application then was the price of the key: such a system used to
cost $100 million, according to Botting.
With current prices in the $1 million range, TNK is poised to reach mainstream
acceptance. The application works by tabling calling data from networks and storing it in
a format that can be queried from a private network database. In contrast to network
monitoring systems such as Micromuse Inc.’s Netcool, Concord Communications Inc.’s Network
Health or Visual Networks Inc.’s Visual UpTime offerings, TNK delivers all call-event
records for analysis in near real-time speed, Botting says. In this way, TNK works in
conjunction with network monitoring systems to provide a "better" view of
network events. Think of the application as akin to watching "Gone with the
Wind" in a movie theater instead of on a 13-inch television set.
Achieving omnipotent network monitoring and management requires the coordination of
many parties and offerings, says Todd D. Benjamin, vice president of sales and marketing
for Ellipsys Technologies Inc., a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based provider of network testing,
monitoring and analysis gear.
Ellipsys’ expertise–on "the other side" of the switch, the local loop and
service delivery point–is quite complementary to BSI’s focus, he says. The two companies
someday may find themselves working together, he adds. Arguably, it "takes a
village" to run a trouble-free network.
"You can’t make a network more efficient just by looking at your infrastructure
any more than you can by only focusing on your customers," Benjamin says. "The
big challenge is not getting the data, but instead making relevant information out of
Freeing Network Knowledge
Not surprisingly, BC TEL serves as one of BSI’s first customers. According to Botting,
using TNK resulted in a 17 percent reduction in network capital costs for transport while
also improving its network configuration for Internet and voice mail traffic. TNK does
this by converting records of interswitch calls collected by a SS7 monitoring system and
tabling the data for modeling. The data then is converted into a format that works with
structured query language (SQL) interfaces and popular spreadsheet software programs.
This latter process is what takes the data from the aforementioned "data
prison" and makes it available to virtually any appropriate desktop. Then, Botting
explains, service providers can use the information to perform tasks such as identifying
network congestion points, resulting from where traffic may not be routed with top
efficiency. Armed with this information, carriers can determine the most effective and
efficient configurations for both existing and new services.
Being able to access and act on such information is an especially powerful element for
carriers that do not have excess capacity in their networks, according to Lisa Pierce,
director of telecommunications and carrier services for Giga Information Group Inc., a
Cambridge, Mass.-based consultancy.
"These carriers must keep a much keener eye [on their network traffic] because the
call that breaks a 5ESS’s back costs millions of dollars," she says. "In
addition to avoiding that circumstance, carriers have every reason in the world to want to
get every mile out of the network they have."
To survive in this highly competitive, deregulated market, service providers should
have the ability to analyze the information that is collected by every switch every time a
call is attempted or completed.
"The rapid growth in dial-up Internet usage and the advent of local competition
with its requirement to support local number portability (LNP) both cause unprecedented
strains in carriers’ networks," says Rod McIntosh Shand, BSI vice president of
network research. "When network traffic consisted of voice calls, traditional
monitoring and statistical measures sufficed. Now that traffic is very mixed, network
planning and maintenance has to take into account the purpose of the traffic–why a
subscriber made a call. Understanding the purpose, and using it to assess network
performance, requires far more detailed traffic analysis."
With the prices of computers and hard-disk storage continuing its dramatic price
decreases, service providers are in a better position than ever to collect and use network
data to facilitate cost reductions and increase competitive marketing programs. Even so,
service providers are not using SS7 to its fullest capabilities, says Hadi Danesh, senior
product manager for Coyote Technologies LLC, a Westlake Village, Calif.-based provider of
"There is not enough knowledge about what SS7 can do," he says. "SS7, at
least in North America, is almost as significant as dial tone."
While SS7’s powers may be understood for things such as accessing the 800-number
database or wireless roaming, Danesh says network management issues have been sadly
"Network management is a monster that most people are scared of," Danesh
says. "It requires around-the-clock monitoring and massive data-gathering. But having
the information is one thing; knowing what to do with it is another."
According to Danesh, part of the reason why SS7’s capabilities are not further utilized
is because its future has been either in the hands of the biggest of equipment
manufacturers, such as Lucent Technologies Inc., Murray Hill, N.J., and Nortel Networks,
Richardson, Texas, or the "old school" ILECs. "We need creative ideas from
users and other service providers," he says.
Market-watcher Pierce agrees that big ideas can come from small companies, such as BSI.
"I’m surprised that tools [such as BSI’s TNK] are not on the market already,"
she says. "It’s odd that Lucent or Bellcore [Bell Communi-cations Research] have not
come out with something. All I can think of is that people are anticipating that SS7
networks just are not that busy."
These people could not be more wrong, according to Pierce. "The increase in SS7
messaging is almost logarithmic," she says. "LNP is a huge hog on SS7 networks.
And SS7 actually makes IP [Internet protocol] look simple."
But Botting is more interested in making SS7, if not seem simple, at least seem less
daunting. "We’re just in time," he says of his two-year-old, Vancouver-based
company. "People who use information from the Information Age create whole new
markets that have less to do with the old telephone network."
Instead of analyzing a network by counting the number of events as they happen to gain
a count of busy, abandoned and blocked calls, Botting says TNK delivers details on every
call event. The result: Instead of knowing the individual counts, TNK reveals why the
calls were not completed.
"Understanding why the calls went uncompleted gets you to the root of network
problems," he says. "The result may be that a carrier can reroute traffic
instead of spending money to add to its facilities."
TNK can be just as effective in plotting network growth.
"Traditional network planning is always reactive," Botting says. "The
difference is to see where the growth areas will come from and plan ahead." Seeing
his company as "an idea farm," Botting says BSI is forming a consulting division
to teach others how to train their employees to collect and analyze their own data.
While shipments of TNK only recently became generally available, Giga Information’s
Pierce says don’t be surprised if Lucent or Nortel, or perhaps Cisco Systems Inc., San
Jose, Calif., down the road, take a big interest in Botting’s course plottings. Turning
data into opportunities may yield BSI’s biggest opportunity of all.
Peter Meade is a Carlsbad, Calif.-based freelance writer and former executive editor
for PHONE+, X-CHANGE and Sounding Board magazines.