by Stephen Hardy
Changing carrier requirements, both in terms of the types of services they want to provide and how they want to deliver them, have reinvigorated the market prospects for optical communications hardware vendors. However, these developments have created significant challenges for the back office systems and processes service providers use to manage their networks and interactions with customers. The software that composes the back office environment usually comprises a hodgepodge of tools from network equipment providers, outside vendors, and in-house staff. The rollout of next-generation networks has given carriers the opportunity to ponder a next-generation approach to their support processes-and vendors of operations support systems (OSS) stand ready to take advantage.
Broadly defined, OSS tools tackle a wide variety of tasks: element management and network management (often through EMS and NMS software provided by network equipment vendors), inventory control, service provision, fault monitoring, performance reporting, workflow and integration, customer care, trouble ticketing, order entry, and billing, potentially among other chores. The tools that help with customer care and billing are sometimes grouped into a subcategory called “business support systems,” or BSS.
The aforementioned would be a long list of tasks to manage in a stable environment. However, with the evolution away from SONET/SDH toward IP/MPLS or Ethernet or PBB/TE (or some combination), plus the addition of video for telcos and voice for multiple systems operators (MSOs), the world the back office processes must control is anything but static. The fact that network elements almost certainly have come from a wide variety of vendors, whose proprietary EMS and NMS tools may not talk to each other or provide all of the functions a carrier might require, only increases the burden.
Thus, it’s not surprising that carriers worldwide spend more than $50 billion a year on OSS functions, according to Larry Goldman, cofounder and senior analyst at market analysis firm OSS Observer (www.ossobserver.com). About $4 billion of this goes to network hardware vendors, and another $10 billion goes to independent software providers (ISVs). Most of the rest is spent internally, he says.
The current OSS environment clearly has worked well enough to bring carriers to the point of supplying triple-play services to residences while improving their Ethernet and IP offerings to business customers. However, to keep pace with the requirements these new services will create-as well as to do its part to decrease operational expenses-the OSS world will have to enable carriers to simplify their processes and increase their effectiveness. The burden likely will fall on equipment vendors, ISVs, and the service providers’ IT staffs alike.
For example, Goldman says the network equipment vendors have felt much of the OSS impact the evolution away from SONET/SDH has created. In some ways, the new generation of network equipment makes the OSS burden simpler because network equipment vendors have made their equipment smart enough to assume or streamline functions normally associated with some aspect of the OSS environment.
The move from a fairly static SONET/SDH circuit-switched environment to the more dynamic world of packet-based transport will have an impact on OSS requirements and probably create a demand for improved tools, however. “I think that IP VPN [virtual private network] has been good for the OSS community because what you have is an environment where people are looking for something they can operate a lot more dynamically,” Goldman says. “And especially in a shared IP VPN environment, if you’ve got a lot of things you need to keep track of to make sure that the people who are allowed to use that particular network and that particular capability of the network are in fact tracked properly… doing that accurately and in a timely way takes automation that we didn’t require in the past.”
The themes of network and service complexity and a need for automation resound strongly with ISVs. “With migration to IP networks, people are just seeing that it’s too much work, basically, to go there and try to integrate legacy networks and just do it themselves when there are best-of-breed solutions out there, people who can do it better than they can, more cheaply than they can,” asserts Michael Cabot, director of marketing at Visionael (www.visionael.com), an ISV that specializes in OSS for the transition to IP networking.
This is particularly true given that many service providers still do at least some OSS functions via internally developed spreadsheets, multiple sources claim. “Once they get to a certain point where that just becomes unmanageable, then they go to more of a COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] software piece-and that would be somebody like us,” Kristi Siple, Visionael’s director of product marketing, adds.
Part of the complexity that might drive a carrier to look outside for help comes from the increasing likelihood that rolling out new services will require working with multiple vendors. Vendor alliances that produce hardware that works together to provide “an end-to-end solution” may work fine at the physical level, but not necessarily at the OSS level.
“What we’ve seen is that the equipment vendors have provided usually an EMS-and sometimes two or three, depending on the breadth of their portfolio in these different areas-and then the service provider is left to integrate each of those into their higher-level OSS systems,” says Chris Chartrand, director of marketing at ISV Nakina Systems (www.nakinasystems.com). “And when you multiply that out across domains-your IP domain, your Ethernet domain, your optical domain-and you have a multivendor strategy, all of a sudden you have this proliferation of all these different EMS systems that need to be integrated.”
“If you look at it from a pure optical equipment vendor perspective, I can have a piece of equipment and I can support all this. I can look at it from a management perspective and, yes, I can support this great technology. In order for the service provider to actually roll this out, he has to have all of these systems talk to each other,” adds Mary O’Neill, vice president of business development at Nakina.
Nakina has developed a Common Element Management System that acts as a layer between the network elements and the service provider’s OSS. Sometimes this abstraction layer incorporates the EMS software provided by the equipment vendors, sometimes it replaces it. Success requires the ability to be transmission protocol agnostic and the provision of open interfaces that enable more or less any OSS tool, regardless of where it came from, to recognize and work with any network element independent of origin.
The OSS industry is working via the TeleManagement World Forum (www.tmforum.org) to develop appropriate interfaces. The forum also is working on plug-and-play OSS packages in its Prosspero program (www.prosspero.com) that will help service providers keep pace with growing OSS requirements.
Overall, the prospects for ISVs are looking up. Next-generation network and service deployments invite carriers to look for new, more efficient ways to manage their networks and customer interactions or to deliver services (such as telco video) that they haven’t had to accommodate previously. Some carriers have instituted “OSS transformation” projects to streamline their existing processes and reduce expense. And some network equipment providers, preferring to use their software resources to create new features or improve system performance, are looking to outsource the development of EMS and NMS tools.
“The trend is that the telcos are using ISVs more and more,” Goldman concludes. “As they need to support new services and the existing systems they have that were maybe internally developed, there’s more of a trend toward finding ISVs to provide at least part of that solution.”