ITEXPO begins in:   New Coverage :  Asterisk  |  Fax Software  |  SIP Phones  |  Small Cells

Feature Article
May 2001


From Connectivity To Value


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 connection itself.

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 high-margin revenue.

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 offer includes.

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 individual subscribers. 

[ Return To The May 2001 Table Of Contents ]

Today @ TMC
Upcoming Events
ITEXPO West 2012
October 2- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
The World's Premier Managed Services and Cloud Computing Event
Click for Dates and Locations
Mobility Tech Conference & Expo
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
Cloud Communications Summit
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas