Achieving flow-through provisioning in the optical world

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Flow-through provisioning is increasingly important to carriers of all types, and optical-network carriers are no exception.

JULIE WINGERTER, NetCracker Technology Corp.

The introduction and proliferation of fiber-optic technology has been one of the significant developments in telecommunications in recent years. A quick review of those telecom companies that have received large amounts of funding from venture capitalists in the last two years shows that more than 30% of them are tied in some way to fiber-optic technologies.

In addition, some industry heavyweights have divested other businesses to focus on the fiber-optic market. Enthusiasm for fiber-optic technologies, and the high-speed data transmission they deliver, is due to the advantages of fiber over other communications technologies-virtually unlimited bandwidth, increased speed, and reliability, just to name a few.

The seemingly limitless funds for and advantages of optical technologies resulted in service providers scrambling to lay cable across the United States and throughout the world. But unlike a few years ago when simply having an optical network was a significant competitive advantage, service providers today realize that true competitive advantage comes from efficiently operating these networks. To achieve greater efficiencies, service providers must streamline their operations to reduce the amount of equipment required to service the market, reduce the number of people required to deliver these services, and reduce the time required to activate and troubleshoot network problems.

As part of these efforts, many service providers are renewing their focus on the operational support systems (OSSs). Service providers have always depended on their OSS to manage their networks and improve service delivery. But today, they are realizing that an efficient OSS is critical for gaining a competitive edge. Forward-looking service providers are benefiting from the significant efficiencies that result from the introduction of today's new generation of OSSs. The functionality in these new OSSs accommodates new communications protocols and transmission technologies such as IP, Ethernet, ATM, and frame relay. In particular, these modern-day OSSs are yielding significant advantages due to the introduction of automated flow-through provisioning.

Service providers' nirvana
Also known as "touchless provisioning," flow-through provisioning has long been the nirvana in the service-provider world. When flow-through provisioning is in place, services can be automatically activated and provisioned upon receipt of a customer order with limited human interaction required for routine tasks. The benefits of that are obvious-faster delivery of services, ability to use employees in value-added versus routine capacities, and additional revenues from capturing customers at the time of order. In addition, more efficient network usage and lower operating costs from carefully considered business (service provisioning) processes emerge. But while long sought after, only recently developed OSS software has made achieving flow-through provisioning possible.

Within the last three to five years, many of the programming languages and software protocols that enable flow-through provisioning have emerged. Specific technological developments-the emergence of scalable, Web-based applications; extensible markup language (XML) for data transfer; Java; Java message services message bus and middleware applications; work flow engines; n tier architecture; and object-driven environments-are providing the tools required to automate the provisioning process. Th 96470

Figure 1. Achieving flow-through provisioning requires the seamless coordination of activities across various software and hardware platforms, geographic locations, and communications technologies.

All these tools provide the foundation for a dynamic OSS that supports efficient network management and intelligent routing. Workflow and messaging tools are particularly important developments, since they are enabling service providers to script these rules into dynamic software applications having the intelligence required to automate routine tasks while flagging and escalating any problems that arise.

Changes in hardware technology have also enabled flow-through provisioning. New, "smart" devices such as softswitches, passive-optical-network devices, and intelligent routers make it possible to "talk" directly to the network elements (NEs) via interfacing software applications and can be integrated with other OSS software. In addition, auto-discovery tools use the element-management systems of these devices to document and map the network and transmit information regarding network status and the specific devices being monitored.

A more subtle change driving flow-through provisioning is the emergence of new communications technologies-specifically, the emergence of technologies that enable point-to-many-point and many-point-to-many-point connections. These mostly IP-based technologies that support such constructs as virtual private networks (VPNs) and MPLS permit service pro viders to use bandwidth more effi ciently, using com -plex algorithms to allocate limited bandwidth among end customers according to usage patterns.

Provisioning optical networks
For networks that incorporate optical technologies, automatic provisioning is particularly advantageous, because it enables service providers to capitalize on one of the key benefits of fiber: the ability to be "lit" immediately. This ability to quickly turn up service to a customer can enable service providers to keep customers from turning to another service provider that can provide service faster and enables them to capture customer revenues faster. But actually capitalizing on this potential value can be challenging.

Despite its advantages, provisioning fiber optics is more complex than provisioning other technologies. Because many optical service providers are "carriers' carriers," they require several levels of provisioning. That requires optimizing the optical backbone through a number of business rules such as shortest path, fewest hops, shortest delay, most available bandwidth, and lowest utilization.

Also, since optical networks have a large number of customers running across a single path or equipment, it is extremely important that network problems affecting service delivery be identified and resolved quickly. Attention to detail is imperative when defining provisioning processes. There are more components assigned to an optical circuit than to other technologies. These components must be assigned, then released when service is no longer required. Often, service providers do not accurately track unassigned components. When untracked equipment inventory gets "lost," the end result is waste in the form of unused, unknown capacity.

There are also significant differences in provisioning dark and lit fiber. Many of the provisioning processes for dark versus lit fiber are the same-the rules must be defined, the path identified, and the circuit reserved. However, lit fiber is already inherently more complex and therefore more difficult to provision as well. Additional details regarding various network devices, bandwidth availability, and allocation must be considered when outlining a process for the automation of fiber-optic provisioning. Service providers that deliver dark and lit fiber must have a provisioning process in place that can handle both.

Provisioning methodology
Many service providers choose to provision their optical services based on the first available circuit path. That's a relatively simple algorithm that should quickly provide a circuit layout record that can be used to provide services. Other companies choose to employ a least-cost routing standard. Still others choose to use a more complex standard based on a combination of cost, customer status, and the service levels purchased (e.g., gold, silver, and bronze with varying levels of guaranteed uptime or availability). A more complicated algorithm, this standard strives to maximize efficiency by incorporating a number of variables that include NE costs, human costs, and opportunity costs of lost revenue.Th 96471

Figure 2. Flow-through provisioning starts with a customer order and ends with service activation and customer billing. For seamless service, all processes must be closely linked.

Because of the complexities in provisioning fiber, it is essential that service providers have in place a provisioning solution that can address the unique challenges of fiber optics. Such a solution must be flexible enough to accommodate the various rules by which services may be provisioned. It must accurately track the inventory itself, including both available and utilized capacity. This tracking must be truly comprehensive, covering passive as well as intelligent devices and cabling, from the central office or network operations center through all of the routers and right to the customer premises.

The provisioning solution must be configurable so that specific customer information, maintenance information, and network performance levels can be tracked and readily available for technicians, customer service representatives, and field engineers. Such a system allows for automation and manual intervention and has built-in flexibility that enables service providers to adjust provisioning pro cesses as their business changes. For that to happen, an automated, streamlined provisioning process is essential for taking customer orders, designing circuit paths, and activating services.

With the complexities in provisioning fiber, working with a vendor that has an understanding of fiber-optic technology and business practices can be invaluable to service providers implementing OSS solutions.

Key features
To accommodate the complexities of provisioning fiber, the OSS, particularly the portions directly tied to service provisioning, must be flexible, configurable, and support provisioning in a dynamic environment. Applications that support flow-through provisioning will have a number of critical features, including:

  • Configurable workflows that can be scripted to trigger manual intervention.
  • Systems that can be configured and reconfigured with relative ease as rules change and new technologies emerge.
  • Open architecture to facilitate integration with other systems.
  • Tools for facilitating network design and planning.
  • Friendly, intuitive interfaces and wizards to minimize the need for expensive programming efforts and highly skilled technicians.
  • Scalable, accessible systems that can be easily maintained and accessed from anywhere.

Flow-through provisioning is increasingly important to all carriers, including those using optical technologies. In fact, flow-through provisioning in a fiber-optic environment delivers even greater operational efficiencies because of the increased complexity of issues involved in provisioning optical networks.

To the shortsighted service pro vider, the discipline required to define provisioning rules and select provisioning software that can accommodate these rules may seem overwhelming and too costly. However, from a total cost of ownership perspective, the addition of flow-through provisioning and the resulting efficiencies have the potential for significant savings and, in the process, a redefining of the game.

Julie Wingerter is vice president of strategy for NetCracker Technology Corp. (Waltham, MA). She can be reached via the company's Website,

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