A services provider's choice: Architecture over features

Jan. 6, 2003
By JULIE WINGERTER, NetCracker Technology--Service providers are evaluating OSS platforms and discovering a new focus on platforms rather than features.

Service providers are evaluating OSS platforms and discovering a new focus on platforms rather than features.

NetCracker Technology

In the past, operations support system (OSS) software selection has often focused on the features and functions of specific applications. However, technology-savvy service providers are starting to realize that the underlying software architecture may be even more important than the specific functionality offered by vendors. As a result, service providers are placing a growing emphasis on understanding the underlying software platform, its inherent flexibility, scalability, and automation capabilities--and how it can grow and accommodate new technologies and services as they roll out next generation products.

Industry experts are emphasizing the importance of software solutions that can be expanded to host any number of new communications technologies and the necessity for a system that can be accessed anywhere. They are also emphasizing the importance of a modular, open solution in which data can be moved in and out with ease while minimizing integration and information technology (IT) support costs.

New focus on scalable OSS

Service providers are now selecting solutions based on three architectural factors--whether the solution is 100% web-based, 100% java, and/or has n-tier architecture as the software platform. Solutions with these characteristics have a number of advantages over their predecessors and are being embraced as the truly flexible, truly extensible applications that service providers have long been seeking.

First, web-based applications are easy to maintain at the IT level. No longer required to install and update clients on individual workstations, 100% web applications require only a simple browser at the client level. It is important for service providers selecting a solution to note the distinction between "web-based" and "web-enabled."

In an attempt to accommodate customer demands for web capabilities, some OSS vendors have wrapped their client server products in a "web" wrapper. While a step in the right direction, this quick fix allows only basic web viewing capabilities (versus full read/write/edit permissions) and still requires that the original client be maintained at the workstation level.

Second, with the introduction of java, the constraints of C++ code, including the inability to leverage the Internet and limited graphical capabilities, are eliminated. Significantly, unlike C++, the software industry has standardized on java. This means that java, not C++, will continue to be the programming language of choice in the software programming world.

Finally, the software industry appears to have standardized on the n-tier architecture as the software platform for flexibility and scalability. This is true not only in the telecom software world, but across the software industry as a whole. Sun Microsystems has been one of the prominent leaders in the movement to standardize on the n-tier architecture and object driven environments for software development.

These efforts have been the result of work by Sun Microsystems, Microsoft Corp., and others to determine the software platform that is most viable for long-term delivery of critical applications. From the standpoint of maintenance, scalability, and configurability, the n-tier J2EE architecture has been studied, documented and adapted to meet the long-term growth needs of any company running mission-critical software applications, regardless of whether it is for OSS, customer relationship management (CRM), or electronic commerce. This standardization eliminates the threat of n-tier java applications becoming legacy architecture and code.

Now that service providers are no longer focused on very specific features, such as the specific fields that are associated with a change order request, they are asking questions about the language the system is coded in, how new services can be added via intuitive interfaces without requiring programming skills, and how business processes can be changed with a flexible workflow. They understand that if these critical software items are in place, the software can be easily configured to address the specific fields of that service provider's change order request form. Instead of features, service providers today talk about reference architectures, open systems, and modularity.

Platforms first, features second

The result of these major changes in software capabilities is that requests for proposal (RFPs) now talk about platforms first and features second. OSS vendors must demonstrate that their platforms can accommodate new services and new configurations with minimal effort and cost--and solutions that are not java, n-tier and web-based are racing to migrate their code to reflect these new industry standards.

The handful of vendors that already have adopted this reference architecture have a significant lead because their code has been tested and deployed, enabling them to focus again on working with service providers to build out the specific features because the platform is in place. Vendors that are just beginning to migrate to a more scalable platform, however, may be left behind as they essentially re-code entire systems and suffer through the inevitable pain of beta versions and early releases. However, it is clear that only those that make this transition and have a product that addresses the increasingly explicit requirements of service providers will succeed.

Meanwhile, only those service providers implementing solutions that support their companies today and in the future will efficiently run their operations over the long haul. Increasingly, more service providers are considering the future when adopting new OSS solutions and analyzing the ability of these solutions to serve their needs for the long-term. These service providers are demanding that vendors provide them with a solution that has the flexibility and scalability they will require--including 100% web based, n-tier, configurable applications.

Julie R. Wingerter is vice president of strategy for NetCracker Technology, an IT and communication infrastructure management vendor. She can be reached by phone at 800-477-5785 or via e-mail at [email protected].