Availing Service Provider Networks to Developer Community Remains a Challenge

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  September 01, 2010

Historically, service creation in the telecom world took place on a platform-by-platform basis. You’d have your Alcatel-Lucent environment or your Ericsson platform, as two examples, but they didn’t come together especially well.

Today, some of the large vendors, like ALU, Ericsson, Huawei (News - Alert) and Nokia Siemens Networks, are delivering complete service creation solutions that live in a Web services environment. Meanwhile, some of the big systems integrators are responding to the challenge of bringing telcos into the Web world by leveraging middleware from companies like IBM and Oracle to offer customized service creation solutions within a Java environment. However, these solutions are frequently knocked for their inability to scale. A third group, including Telcordia Technologies Inc., believes there will be an SOA-type infrastructure and integrated development environment, but that it doesn’t make sense to go one place to get everything.

The history lesson and current state of things noted thus far come courtesy of Grant Lenahan, vice president and strategist of service delivery for Telcordia.

“We are not a location vendor. We are not a content management vendor, at least not now. We are not a SOA vendor,” says Lenahan.

What Telcordia does, and does well, is OSS, charging, policy, session and event control, advertising control and profile control, he says. And the company provides a rich set of solutions carriers can expose into a broader environment.

“Ultimately, we think that approach has merit,” he says.

Meanwhile, Alcatel-Lucent has been building tools and a wide-ranging ecosystem through which it hopes to marry service providers like the telcos and developers in an effort to unleash a bounty of new applications on carrier networks.

Its latest move involved the acquisition of ProgrammableWeb. Five-year-old ProgrammableWeb has created a repository of all the important Web APIs – more than 2,000 of them. The company, whose resources are used by hundreds of thousands of developers, will continue to operate as a separate entity; however, Alcatel-Lucent plans to pull those APIs into its Open API Service and Developer Platform in an effort to help accelerate developer activities related to its service provider customers, says Laura Merling, ALU’s vice president of global development strategy.

“If you look at any organization that launches an API, you quickly realize that the one thing the most successful APIs have in common is a vibrant developer ecosystem,” says Merling. “Our goal is to protect the uniqueness and independence of ProgrammableWeb as an API repository and developer resource, while adding beneficial technologies and service provider relationships to the mix for everyone’s benefit.”

This move advances Alcatel-Lucent’s earlier announced Application Enablement strategy. In line with that strategy, the company in December unveiled a trio of new offers aimed at helping network operators and developers more easily enable and create new applications that are manageable, reliable, scalable and secure. The trio includes the Application Exposure Suite, the Open API Service and Transformation Services.

The Application Exposure Suite allows service providers and enterprises to accelerate application innovation by outfitting them with a simple way to expose various APIs to the developer community. The idea behind the suite is to enable service providers to monetize their capabilities by allowing developers to access and use functionalities such as billing, location or connection optimization in their applications. The suite allows for the composition of and normalization related to various APIs. For example, APIs can be created around things like certain legacy interfaces in the network, and interface definitions within various standards, as just two examples. There are also systems management and reporting components included in the suite to allow for end-to-end visibility into application performance, user experience and resource use.

Alcatel-Lucent’s Open API Service, meanwhile, is being sold primarily to application developers, which can use the service’s Web-based portal at http://developer.openapiservice.com to access network enablers such as SMS, location and more. The benefit to service provider partners, according to Alcatel-Lucent, is that the Open API Service eliminates the expense of registering, provisioning and supporting multiple developers. Sprint was the first user of this solution, which it employed to expose location and geofencing capabilities.

Transformation Services are a collection of professional services around integration of multivendor networks and applications; migration to IP-based networks; and the automation of processes.

Following that news in December Alcatel-Lucent in February announced cloud-based efforts to open carrier APIs to application folks, as well as to outfit these software types with tools to test and distribute their wares.

Merling at the time told NGN Magazine that the cloud-based initiative took its previously announced efforts to the next level by not only exposing APIs, but also providing an end-to-end ecosystem through which developers can build, test, manage and distribute their applications. That includes developer tools, available through the cloud, that provide an abstraction layer to enable applications to run on any device; support for debugging; and more. It also includes a “sandbox in the sky” that allows developers to test their applications at scale. A developer dashboard, meanwhile, allows developers to track traffic on their applications, look at what other developers are charging for their apps, and more. The management piece Merling mentions has to do with exposing APIs; she says it enables carriers to expose APIs securely, and in a rate limiting way so they don’t bring down the network. From a distribution standpoint, Alcatel-Lucent offers a platform on which developers can load applications, and those applications can be tested as well as made available to interested parties.

Lenahan describes a recent roundtable involving advertisers, ad agencies and telcos as a battle of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

The ecosystem is paid for by those carriers that wish to expose their APIs, says Merling. She notes that’s an important change from the current model in which developers typically have to prepay something like $8,000 to $10,000 a month for access to particular network resources, like SMS. This way, she says, it’s a pure revenue share model in which only the service provider assumes risk, but in which the service provider also has a lot to gain.

She adds that in this model developers also get a lot of added value given that they are offered bundles of APIs for specific verticals.

The first version of this SaaS-based ecosystem is Alcatel-Lucent branded. Longer term, the goal is to give service providers the dashboard to offer as part of their developer programs.

Merling in February noted that while the developer community is clearly the target of the cloud-based ecosystem initiative, it would also make sense for over-the-top service providers as well as enterprise network operators to get in on the action. For example, she says, Netflix might want to take advantage of a carrier’s API to ensure QoS for a video-on-demand service. Conversely, she says, enterprise network operators might want to open their networks with APIs to enable new capabilities on their networks. In fact, she says, enterprises such as Best Buy (News - Alert), the BBC and Tesco are already opening their networks in efforts to drive customer engagement and otherwise meet their business objectives.

With this part of the discussion, Merling alludes to a key point. Figuring out the business cases around such environments and being sure the right companies join the party will be among the key challenges to make them live up to their potential.

“It has far more to do with the business model than it has to do with technology,” says Telcordia’s Lenahan.

Inconsistencies between telco ecosystems and environments could be one barrier to telco success in attracting new apps, he says, although he notes that China Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Vodafone (News - Alert) and Softbank are making a lot of noise around their Joint Innovation Lab effort.

Lenahan goes on to say that telcos also need to make sure the developer community can leverage their network assets without too heavy a toll in upfront costs, whether those costs be related to API access, legal costs around them, or both. (Alcatel-Lucent does address that, as noted above.)

All that said, he continues, telcos have a lot to offer, especially in terms of helping the advertising industry deliver targeted ads. However, again, there are big challenges here.

Lenahan describes a recent roundtable involving advertisers, ad agencies and telcos as a battle of the Hatfields and the McCoys. The ad side didn’t understand the telco play, but when it was explained they indicated disinterest in sharing advertising proceeds in any case. While at the time he listened to the conversation in disbelief, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, he says, given the telcos and their partners probably haven’t been active enough in reaching out to advertising types as well as the strategy folks at the content companies. NGN