From Connectivity To Value
BY KURT DOBBINS
For years, service providers have been in the bandwidth and connectivity
business: Furnishing leased lines, virtual circuits, and most recently,
virtual private networks. For providers, these services are a source of
revenue, but for users they are only a means to an end -- a way to send
e-mail, retrieve information, place catalog orders, invoke applications,
listen to music, or watch videos. To a user, the value of a network
connection is the content or application at the other end, not the
Consequently, traditional bandwidth and connectivity providers are
watching their margins erode, while content providers, Web portals, and
application service providers capture the hearts, minds, and wallets of
end-users. To get back in the game, traditional providers must augment their
portfolios with "value services" that attract and retain
Unfortunately, today's manual provisioning systems are a barrier to the
rapid delivery of customized, value IP services. With today's systems, it
can take weeks just to turn on a DSL link -- a delay that would be fatal to
value services. A recent study of video programming services, for example,
found that 80 percent of demand could be realized if material was delivered
within 50 minutes of ordering, while demand realization for an eight-hour
deferral would be insignificant.
Fortunately, help is on the way. New directory-driven service automation
systems give providers the flexibility to go beyond mere connectivity and
deliver high-value network, content, and application services over any
broadband infrastructure. Designed to promote mass customization,
directory-driven automation gives end-users individualized control over
their services and reduces provisioning time from weeks to seconds.
Directory-Driven Service Automation
As its name implies, directory-driven service automation is centered on a
shared directory and standard directory-access protocols like LDAP. A
purpose-built schema organizes the directory into a dual hierarchy of
services and users. The provider employs a new breed of service creation
manager, designed specifically for directory-driven service automation, to
populate the directory.
On the service side, the provider uses the service creation manager to
define low-level service elements and to gather the elements into services,
bundles, groups, and ultimately service "offers" for presentation
to customers. On the user side, the provider invokes the service creation
manager to define top-down user communities, perhaps starting with
geographic regions, then specific cities, then buildings within each city,
and finally to the individual end-user.
The service creation manager gives providers complete flexibility both to
define hierarchies that fit any business model and to create service
packages for multiple markets without starting over each time. For instance,
a provider might define a basic service group including Internet access, a
network-based firewall, a word processing application, and a travel
reservation service. The provider could then create a residential offer by
combining the basic group with video-on-demand and online games. A small
business offer might package the same basic group with network-based
bookkeeping and billing applications.
Once users and services are defined, service provisioning could not be
simpler -- or more scalable. From the service creation manager's graphical
interface, the network operator simply drags an offer onto a user, and the
offer is made available to that user in seconds. Even better, the operator
can drag an offer onto an entire user group, say an office building, and the
offer is immediately available to everyone in the building. Similarly, the
operator can add a service to an existing offer, and the new service is
instantly available to everyone subscribing to that offer. By exploiting the
built-in inheritance properties of the shared directory, one network
operator can quickly and easily provision services for thousands of users.
Automatic Service Activation
Of course the service definitions stored in the directory are only
templates. They still have to be turned into IP flows through the network.
That is the job of a next-generation service switch.
Sitting at the network edge, the service switch intercepts each user
login and, via LDAP, fetches the user's profile from the directory. The
profile describes what services the user can invoke, how the services can be
reached, each service's quality of service (QoS) requirements, and any
time-of-day or destination-specific parameters. For example, access to
online games by certain users may be limited to two hours per day, or access
to a particular online catalog may receive top forwarding priority.
The service switch interprets this information and automatically sets up
the necessary bandwidth, priorities, filters, and addressing for each
service. As packets flow between user and services, the switch inspects and
marks each packet -- for QoS or other purposes -- and steers it to the
proper destination. The service switch also generates raw accounting data
for relay to the provider's billing system.
Directory-driven service automation gives providers flexible centralized
control over service creation, while automatic service activation shrinks
provisioning delay to mere seconds. But a third element is needed to allow
customer self-service and mass customization. Dynamic portal generation,
working in concert with the service creation manager and the service switch,
gives end-users the power to provision their own services and to
individualize their portals into the network.
When a user logs in, a portal generator -- also designed specifically for
directory-driven service automation -- dynamically displays a personal
network portal as dictated by the user's directory profile. The portal
provides access to services: The World Wide Web, a corporate intranet,
online media, network-based word processing, or whatever the user's service
In addition, the portal generator lets each end-user reshape his or her
view of the network. Through the personal network portal, a user can access
the service creation manager and add or drop services (within the limits of
the user's service offer). With just a few mouse clicks, the user can, for
example, increase access bandwidth, turn on a stock ticker or subscribe to
an income tax application. The service creation manager quickly updates the
user's directory profile, the service switch reconfigures itself, the portal
generator modifies the user's portal display, and a record of the
transaction is sent to the provider's billing system. The new service and
modified portal are ready in seconds. Users can even select one-time
services like pay-per-view video. The service creation manager and service
switch cooperate to allocate the necessary network resources and to
automatically reclaim the resources when the session is over.
Turning Value Into Profit
Customer self-service not only reduces the provider's operating expense,
but also helps stop churn. It is easy for users to switch providers when the
offering is a "one size fits all," but more difficult to
contemplate when personal network portals reflect their individual
requirements. And customer retention is only one way in which
directory-driven service automation helps providers turn value into profit.
Customer self-service also makes it easy for end-users to spend money.
Hours of phone calls and weeks of waiting for a new service are replaced by
a few mouse clicks and instant gratification. The barriers to impulse buying
and one-time purchases like pay-per-view are no more. The service provider
becomes a service broker, not only selling its own services but also
including third-party wares in its service offers. Revenue goes up while
operational expense goes down.
Moreover, dynamic portals are an excellent medium for branding and
advertising. Rental of advertising space, perhaps augmented by commissions
from click-through sales, generates additional revenue. A persistent logo in
the corner of the portal display helps the provider capture mind share from
other, brand name portals.
Behind the scenes, the provider can add to its top line by offering
differential services. An online catalog company, for example, might pay the
provider to ensure that all flows to its Web site receive top forwarding
priority. For the provider, this entails a quick tweak to a service profile
in the directory. Automatic inheritance ensures that the policy change
immediately applies to all subscribers. Indeed, value service creation -- no
longer a high-tech exercise in connections and bandwidth -- moves out of the
provider's operations department and into its marketing department. The
opportunities for garnering incremental, high-margin revenue are limited
only by the service provider's imagination.
Kurt Dobbins is founder and chief technology officer at Ellacoya
Networks. Ellacoya Networks enables the Intelligent Services Network
that leverages the power of directories to uniquely enable the delivery of
customized service offerings down to individual markets or even to
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