Bringing service providers up to speed

March 1, 2001
Changing role of software

To make profits and improve customer satisfaction, service providers need to offer new value-added services, and instant provisioning of these services is vital for success.


The optical revolution promises to usher in a new world of networking. This new world will be filled with exciting opportunities for both service providers and their subscribers. However, there will be tremendous challenges, as well. Already, service providers operate in an extremely competitive marketplace that requires new differentiated services and strong focus on making profits quickly.

Offering new value-added services such as service-level agreements (SLAs), voice over Internet Protocol (IP), tiered-access service packages, bandwidth on demand, and virtual private networks (VPNs) enable service providers to differentiate themselves on something other than price-an important fact, considering few have been profitable utilizing that business model so far.

The rising tide of customer expectations for "instant provisioning" presents a huge operational challenge for service providers. Namely, how do they automate the process of provisioning new services? With customer demands rising and service providers' ability to react lagging, there are an increasing amount of dissatisfied customers. In many cases, it can take days, weeks, or even months to provision a new service and often, it doesn't get done right the first time. Numerous mistakes, multiple phone calls, and hours of sit ting on hold result in high customer frustration and poor customer retention.

For the service provider, this is even more frustrating. The manual process of provisioning new services is extremely slow and error-prone-and with this comes unsatisfied customers. In an age where customers are used to getting everything instantly, this simply isn't acceptable anymore. Customer loyalty quickly erodes when the service they expect at a certain time isn't there. Losing the customers that they worked so hard to acquire is a painful lesson.
Customer demands for more and better data services continue to grow and bandwidth-intensive applications multiply, spurred by phenomenal growth in the Internet and its hunger for more bandwidth.

Nevertheless, customer demands grow and applications multiply, spurred by phenomenal growth in data and its hunger for more bandwidth (see Figure on this page). That inevitably results in poor market responsiveness and failure to meet contracted SLAs. New bandwidth-intensive applications and the convergence of voice and data will inspire the next generation of service-whole new segments devoted to application and website hosting, controlled content distribution, managed extranet services, etc.

Further, the migration of the traditional telecommunication infrastructure from separate circuit-switched networks (for voice) and frame/cell-switched networks (for data) to a single, IP-based, converged infrastructure is well under way. Service providers must act now to position themselves as leaders by offering the most competitive differentiated services. Offering the services is simple. Delivering them satisfactorily is difficult.

So the challenge for service providers becomes how to deal with the enormous provisioning obstacles facing them, particularly in this new era of optical networking, and how they can exceed customer expectations, retain customers, and increase profits.

To date, the modus operandi for provisioning with most service providers relies upon manual provisioning. As a matter of fact, most rely on a large stable of "telnet cowboys" who have mastered the art of manually configuring routers and switches to turn on new services. When customers request a service change for their IP or frame-relay service, the service change request is captured in a database by a service representative. The service representative then puts it in a queue so one or more of these telnet cowboys can determine the necessary network-configuration changes and manually configure the different devices across the network to administer the service. The change is complex, slow, error-prone, and gets even more difficult as the number of subscribers and service changes increase. It's not exactly efficient.

With the e-commerce business model firmly in place and the doubling of IP traffic every six to nine months, service providers must be flexible enough to grow with the change. That means their networks must be tuned and ready for optimum effectiveness at a moment's notice.

Without automating the service provisioning process, service providers will have difficulty moving beyond offering simple connectivity and will constantly struggle to offer new services and reach profitability. Maximizing the use of bandwidth and turning on new scalable services quickly and efficiently is the key.

What is automated provisioning? Automated provisioning allows service providers to dynamically deliver value-added services to their subscribers by simplifying and automating complex network-infrastructure configurations. By using automated provisioning tools, service providers can leverage the optical-core network by layering new valued-added services on top.

One of the more popular services offered by today's providers is VPN service. Automated provisioning enables service providers to deliver more sophisticated tiered VPN service classes with operational characteristics, such as committed bandwidth and application priority. This enables service providers, for example, to offer VPN service profiles-gold service for business-critical or latency-sensitive applications, silver and bronze for basic productivity applications, e-mail, and Web browsing-and to charge a premium for higher service levels.
Open and easy integration with operation support systems and heterogeneous network devices allows for successful automated provisioning.

Another potentially lucrative service is bandwidth on demand. Automated provisioning allows service providers to instantly provision bandwidth when and where it's needed. It is even possible to allow subscribers to perform controlled self-provisioning via secure Web consoles. Self-provisioning allows subscribers to maintain greater control over their wide-area-network traffic and allows providers to differentiate themselves. Subscribers can even specify time constraints. For example, ABC Company can ensure that between 7 and 9 p.m. on Tuesday the bandwidth available to the Dallas, Atlanta, and San Jose, CA sites is increased by 0.5 Mbit/sec.

By taking advantage of the capacity and efficiency of optical networks, delivery of new services can be virtually instantaneous. What used to take weeks to deliver can now take seconds, and providers will start seeing their costly networks start to pay off and deliver revenue. Telnet cowboys can be deployed for more critical tasks, and the need to constantly hire an army of staff to keep up with manually activating services is eliminated.

Automated provisioning allows service providers to use plain language to have business goals translated into network device commands. What used to take 200 lines of complex code on multiple devices can now be completed in one simple line from one management console. For instance, "if" subscriber is ABC Company, "then" provision gold-level bandwidth for the Dallas, Atlanta, and San Jose sites.

The automated provisioning system automatically converts this business goal into network device configuration commands that can be understood by the various devices on the network. Automated provisioning mechanizes the configuration of network devices, VPNs, bandwidth allocation, and quality-of-service-related services, including class-of-service mappings, queuing discipline control parameters, and traffic-prioritization engineering.

Many have written about the benefits of automated provisioning, but few have discussed the essential characteristics needed for a successful implementation of an automated provisioning system. Some of the most important features are carrier-class scalability, redundancy, open application programming interfaces (APIs), and multivendor support.

For an IP-provisioning product to be successful in a service-provider environment, it must have carrier-class scalability. Until now, many service providers have developed their own provisioning software to try and automate the deployment of new services. The problem is they were built to automate only one specific process. So when it comes to provisioning new services or scaling to meet the complexities of today's networks, these applications fall short.

Today's IP-provisioning software is designed to scale to growing networks. A multitier architecture that provides centralized management and distributed server execution will allow a service provider to dynamically, rapidly, and accurately provision network changes. By automating the process, a service provider can configure thousands of network devices in a matter of seconds, thereby dramatically reducing the amount of time required to provision new services. This allows service providers to scale services to accommodate accelerated customer demand without having to keep the stable filled with telnet cowboys. The value proposition and return on investment can be quickly realized with reduced operational costs and soaring demand for new services.

Failure of an IP-provisioning system could cost a service provider thousands, even millions, of dollars. Therefore, a critical feature in the system should be the ability to have every component fully redundant with automatic hot standby components. A fault-tolerant architecture with a primary and secondary component configuration allows the secondary components to automatically take over without any loss of information in the event of primary failures. This fault tolerance is essential for reliable activation of new services and maximum customer satisfaction.

For the service provider who has a collection of homegrown and commercial operational support systems (OSSs) for applications such as billing, customer care, performance management, and fault management, finding a way to integrate these disparate applications into an integrated system is highly desirable. A robust provisioning system must also interface to these systems (see Figure on page 253). To accomplish this feat, it is imperative for the automated provisioning system to have flexible and open APIs. These open APIs will enable the integration by providing the service provider with a standard set of interfaces using technology such as extensible markup language (XML), common-object request broker architecture (CORBA), and lightweight directory-access protocol (LDAP).

Because the market is so fiercely competitive, service providers choose best-of-breed hardware for their networks to maintain an edge. New hardware and operating systems are constantly being added to the mix. That means all networks are heterogeneous, even though they may use a single-vendor management system to manage and monitor their network devices.

With equipment from multiple vendors, the ability to provision new services gets more complicated because each device needs to be configured appropriately. The inability to configure one device in the chain could make it impossible to activate the service accurately. Any automated provisioning system must be able to demonstrate multivendor interoperability. Because of the dynamic nature of service-provider networks, the automated provisioning system needs to be flexible enough to handle this. The ideal provisioning system supports an open and flexible interface-like a device driver-that enables rapid assimilation of new equipment without the need for upgrading the provisioning system. As a result, the service provider will be able to keep the provisioning of services flowing without interruption.

Today, no business can maintain a competitive edge without a reliable, scalable, and predictable network infrastructure. This infrastructure will require an IP-provisioning system that offers multiple levels of control and easily integrates with existing management and OSSs. Selling generic Internet access and raw bandwidth has proven a difficult path to profitability-competing on price alone doesn't excite shareholders or prospective customers.

Internet service providers and the subscribers they serve want and need differentiated services. The ability to rapidly activate new services is vital for long-term success. Automated provisioning allows service providers to deliver value-added services, such as user self-provisioning and instant service activation that can be customized and guaranteed at various service levels. That added value translates into more customers, improved satisfaction, higher revenues, and bigger profits.

Heather Howland is director of marketing at IPHighway Inc. (Westborough, MA), an IP provisioning software provider. She can be reached via the company's Website,

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