January 2008 | Volume 11/ Number 1
The Evolving World of BSS and OSS
By: Richard “Zippy” Grigonis
Both BSS (Billing Support Systems) and OSS (Operation Support Systems) are undergoing drastic transformations in the face of new service infrastructures such as IMS (IP-based Multimedia Subsystem) and market conditions of extreme competition and customer churn. Provisioning becomes customer self-provisioning. More and more automated tools emerge to help keep the complex back-end infrastructures working correctly. Testing, monitoring and management blur together so as to facilitate end-to-end service fulfillment and seamless service assurance. Obtaining accurate data becomes more problematic in an evolving, complicated next-gen environment inhabited with hackers and crackers, so billing ultimately becomes ‘revenue assurance’ and fraud management. And providers are finally getting a handle on inventory management.
We can see the evolution of the BSS/OSS field by looking at one of the oldest names in the business, Amdocs (http://www.amdocs.com), which offers customer care, billing and order management systems for telecom carriers and Internet services providers. As the next-gen world has encroached, Amdocs began to acquire technologies as needed. For example, in August 2006, they bought Cramer Systems, a U.K.-based company that provides telecom operator OSS solutions, to complement Amdocs’ BSS capabilities and thus giving it a complete BSS/OSS product suite. In November of 2006, Amdocs purchased a Canadian software company called Moria, known for its innovative account billing services. And in January 2007, Amdocs purchased SigValue, an Israeli-based vendor of prepaid billing systems for mobile operators based in low-cost markets.
Another august name, Telcordia (http://www.telcordia.com) offers their core OSS software systems that remain an integral part of many network operations. Telcordia continues to evolve these systems, imbuing them with features that add business value to existing customer installations. Telcordia says that two-thirds of a service provider’s customers will give up trying a new service after two failed attempts, so Telcordia has also focused on such things as service management products that unite disparate network resources, react quickly to potentially customer-infuriating issues with real-time and near-real-time service management monitoring and corrective actions, and proactively improve customer experience by identifying potential service management issues as they develop in today’s increasingly complex, multi-layered networks.
Axiom Systems (http://www.axiomsystems.com) is known for its AXIOSS service fulfillment platform, enabling services to be quickly designed, assembled for customers and delivered, thanks to reusable service components. It also offers end-to-end service fulfillment capability, converting customer orders into live services. Also, Axiom’s upcoming Active Catalog is a service design, assembly and process orchestration platform which will be fully integrated with the rest of the AXIOSS Service Fulfillment Suite and interoperable with other third party OSS products and platforms.
Tony O’Brien, Head of Research at Axiom Systems, says, “Axiom Systems is primarily in the service fulfillment field. We touch mainly on the OSS area and we’ve got a lot of experience in that field. We don’t work so much in the BSS area.”
“In terms of the approach of IMS,” says O’Brien, “we see that the smaller service providers are able to take on IMS and redo their OSS much more quickly than big ones, since they have a smaller subscriber base to move to a new systems environment. The larger telecom companies, on the other hand, are finding it a lot more difficult to migrate to it. It appears that they’re taking the path of picking a new service or new line of business, and then moving aggressively that new product into a more IMS-type stack, and even create a new OSS stack for that to work. And what we’re finding is that it’s becoming a sort of federated OSS world, where you have a multi-system, multi-vendor architecture, and you’ve got a lot of interesting systems at the bottom layers that handle presence, VoIP, IPTV and all of these other brand new services that are emerging.”
“But what we really need,” says O’Brien, “is something in the middle, between the BSS and OSS, to bridge the gap so as to reduce the time-to-market for new services. That’s the key driver – our customers ask for it all the time. If a competing operator comes out with a new service product, no one can afford to spend nine months or even six months trying to change their business as they build and debug a similar or better service or application of their own. They want to be able to develop interesting new offerings, and they want to be able to do that quickly.”
A Better Way: The PSA Initiative
“That’s why we’ve become involved in the PSA [Product and Service Assembly] Initiative [http://www.psainitiative.co.uk],” says O’Brien, “which, among other things, is figuring out ways to speed up the time-to-market when a provider does things such as re-bundle and reuse services. Customers normally take about nine months from an initial concept to actually being able to deploy a service in the marketplace, and the PSA Initiative is really trying to shorten that considerably. Basically, the PSA Initiative is developing an industry-wide service model which delivers a practical understanding of how telecom services and products can be designed, created, assembled and launched.”
But what about IMS?
Highdeal (http://www.highdeal.com) is a global provider of pricing and rating solutions (180 implementations in 50+ countries). They’ve successfully tackled the billing problem in a multiservice world by delivering unconstrained pricing and packaging flexibility coupled with real-time transaction management. The Yankee Group has named Highdeal the fastest growing billing and rating vendor defined in terms of announced service provider customers.
David McNierney, Highdeal’s Vice President of Market Development, says, “IMS is very exciting for service providers in terms of BSS and OSS. But it’s a pretty daunting task to change your back office infrastructure to address a new set of priorities. IMS involves a change in the network allowing any service to be delivered to any device anywhere at any point in time. The real challenges that IMS introduces concern marketing and how a provider can make money from it. This is something that traditional BSS and OSS systems have not been engineered to support. Part of the problem is that many products in the BSS and OSS area, particularly third-party products, were built around the considerations of the legacy services of the PSTN, cable TV and so forth. These had proven traffic volumes and revenue streams. It was more of an operational challenge in the old days, which is to say, you were concerned with things such as getting invoices out the door, responding to customer complaints and inquiries, doing the truck roll and turning up services.”
“But now IMS changes the game quite a bit,” says McNierney. “It forces service providers to think about how the back office infrastructure should be changed to support the new types of services enabled by IMS. How do they get from ‘here’ to ‘there’? Virtually all service providers looking at IMS are incumbents with extensive existing infrastructure built with millions of dollars of investment over the years. Do you just start with a clean slate and create a parallel BSS and OSS environment for next-gen and IMS services? Or do you try to create a sort of hybrid, delineating a migration path from the legacy infrastructure, and focusing your dollars on the high priority pain points that the new networks cause?”
“Very often the core capabilities of the BSS and OSS systems are just as applicable in IMS as they were in the old world,” says McNierney, “things such as generating an invoice and responding to customer inquiries. A real challenge, however, are some of the new business functions that must be supported in, for example, the IMS architecture. These are things such as marketing, implementing new business models, figuring out how to monetize content-based services, handling mash-ups, and dealing with the whole Telco 2.0 discussion, and finally settling with various third parties, be they application providers, content providers, or other wholesale applications and services.”
The Promise of NGOSS and OSS through Java
“What’s happening is that we’re seeing parallel next-gen networks evolving,” says McNierney, “but we also see the technology that enables BSS and OSS changing as well. That includes things such as service-oriented architectures, Web Services, even things that may not be so new but are enjoying increasing adoption, from middleware components to open environments such as Linux and mySQL. So as the business requirements change, IT owners such as the CIO and VPs that own the back office, are asking themselves how they can migrate from those old mainframe-like systems that supported the old PSTN business model and continue to leverage them while simultaneously moving to more of an open architecture. Certainly vendors find this idea attractive and are supporting it, and initiatives such as the Telemanagement Forum’s [http://www.tmforum.org] NGOSS are hugely beneficial.” (NGOSS, or New Generation OSS, is a comprehensive, integrated framework for developing, procuring and deploying operational and business support systems and software, available as a toolkit of industry-agreed specifications and guidelines that cover key business and technical areas. NGOSS enables OSS/BSS systems to achieve unprecedented levels of interoperability.)
“Also helpful is the TM Forum’s OSS through Java Initiative [OSS/J] to define open interfaces so that BSS and OSS systems can easily communicate amongst one another,” says McNierney, “and also communicate down to the network level, thus integrating with IMS architectures, SDPs [Service Delivery Platforms] and other things that link into the legacy environment such as prepaid INs.”
IMS, What IMS?
TierOne OSS Technologies (http://www.tieroneoss.com) specializes in providing OSS-related solutions, integration and consulting services and offerings to communications service providers (CSPs) around the globe. They have extensive expertise in back office systems that interact with wireline or wireless networks; systems that include inventory management, network surveillance, and service provisioning and activation.
Neil Hansen, TierOne’s Co-Founder and VP of Business Development, says, “We’re very much focused on the OSS space and have very good knowledge on the industry in general. As a company we’re not overly focused on IMS. IMS means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It depends on what product demo a vendor happens to be touting with respect to product capability. I’m referring here to things like someone calling you at home and the Caller ID pops up on your TV screen. If you own the network you can do those kinds of things easily, but if you’re a wireless carrier that doesn’t have a wireline practice, some of those functions will be more difficult to roll out.”
“IMS is not really where our target audience is,” says Hansen. “We’re really more focused on things relating to what I would call a ‘traditional’ type of OSS, such as inventory solutions, activation, network discovery, fault management and trouble-ticketing.”
“We’re unique in that we have partnerships with companies such as Oracle and Telcordia,” says Hansen. “We’ve done cursory work around various implementations, and we’ve pretty much seen everything that’s out there. There’s been a consolidation in the industry. You’re seeing the overall software or COTS products maturing. By that I mean companies are bringing things together so you really end up with many larger players. We realize that there’s not a whole lot of uniqueness in what the different vendors are offering. And whether you look at suites from Telcordia, Amdocs or Oracle, I think you’ll see that there’s much commonality among each of those offerings. Where you do see some differences are in the approaches. For example, look at companies such as Amdocs or Oracle. Whereas Oracle is very much a product company, I think Amdocs is more of a services company. That’s where you see the difference these days, rather than in the specific products themselves.”
“There’s also been an effort toward semi-automating certain OSS functions,” says Hansen. “For example, many equipment manufacturers are talking about things such as GMPLS [Generalized Multiprotocol Label Switching], also known as Multiprotocol Lambda Switching, which is a technology that enhances MPLS [Multiprotocol Label Switching]. They’re looking to create scenarios where they can manage the core, so you don’t have to provision in that, and then they manage connectivity, so all you have to worry about are the endpoints and provisioning those. That’s not here yet, of course, and things will take a while before such technology matures. Then there’s some question as to whether telcos will adopt such things, because they would have both less network visibility and they’d have less overall control. Telcos, as you know, are very slow at adopting new technologies because, at the end of the day, they must deliver a certain level of service to the end customer. They must feel that they have control over things.”
JacobsRimell (http://www.jacobsrimell.com) enables various types of communications service providers (wireline, wireless and cable) to handle residential services fulfillment, business IP fulfillment, and subscriber information management relating to VoIP, digital TV/video (DTV) and high speed Internet (HSI).
Joe Frost, VP of Marketing, says, “Operators have been talking about convergence for a long time, but they haven’t really been doing much about it. And if you think about where convergence sits, it exists internally at the operational level, and there’s also external convergence at the customer-facing level, be they business or residential customers. And there’s even convergence going on in the ‘silos’ themselves. Now, whatever industry conference you go to these days, all of the operators show up and say, yes, we’re attempting to achieve convergence. But I don’t think there’s been that much convergence in practice. Still, we see that convergence actually has started. We’ve seen a lot more interest from our customers and the prospects who we’re talking to are really now focusing on this becoming a reality in 2008. Primarily it’s coming from a customer-facing perspective, because the focus is switching to the management or control of the customer experience. The typical situation is that you pick up a phone and you dial one number for your voice service customer service, another number for TV and another number for your Internet service. Or you dial the operator’s central number and you press 1 for voice and 2 for the Internet access people, and so forth. People have had enough of those IVR front ends. We can change that.”
“So a lot of prospects are looking at how they can improve the customer experience,” says Frost. “They ask themselves, ‘How can we deliver a converged capability?’ There appear to be two ways: First is converging the operational and the customer support front-ends, if you like, so the call center operator you may be talking to at least knows what products you have and can do something about any of your problems, rather than transferring your call around to the wrong people. That’s all about converging the operational layer.”
“Second is placing much greater emphasis on subscriber self-care,” says Frost. “But this is products-and-features self-care, not billing self-care. So what you’re actually doing is moving the burden of subscriber Moves, Adds & Changes [MACs], features changes, and so forth, to the users/subscribers themselves, via the web or TV interface self-care. It doesn’t really matter how you do it, but it’s all about the user being able to make the changes, their feature requests, and so forth, by themselves, using an intuitive portal.”
“Again, if you compare how Verizon and Comcast does it, they are quite different,” says Frost, “From what we’ve seen of the Verizon system, it seems to be more of an information portal than a true self-care portal. You can’t really change many of the features or any of your packages. However, the Comcast portal, which we obviously know very well, having worked with them, you can, with the VoIP service, change pretty much any of your call features. You can change the rules of how you take the service. It is much more intuitive. In our experience, end users like that. They like to be able to go online and ‘do their own thing’ rather than hang around on the phone with a customer service representative or go through a multi-level IVR-type menu system.”
“The benefits of all this are of course improved customer satisfaction,” says Frost, “but also the operation itself doesn’t have to continually increase the staffing and training of their call centers. This becomes even more critical when you start to look at the range of products and services that people are using, the access technologies that they’re using to get to those products and services, and of course the customer premise equipment such as SIP and next-gen set-top boxes with DVRs and photo replay, and so forth. This is all complex stuff and it takes a considerable set-up. So, what you want to do is automate that and make it as easy as possible for customers to use but also make it as easy as possible for the customers to fix, upgrade, or otherwise modify their settings and features. If you can enable them to do that using an online portal, then you as a service provider have saved yourself a ton of money and have generally improved the customer’s quality of experience.”
Keeping a Handle on the Handles
Finally, as operators consolidate and modify complex systems, the issue of inventory management suddenly looms large.
That’s why Oracle Communications (http://www.oracle.com) recently introduced the Oracle Communications Unified Inventory Management (UIM), a new standards-based inventory management application that provides communications service providers, carriers and network operators with a real-time, unified view of customer, service and resource inventory.
David Sharpley, Vice President, Product Marketing and Channels, Oracle, recently told Yours Truly that, “Our new Unified Inventory Management [UIM] product has been on our development drawing board for well over two years, and I’d say closer to three years. This inventory system and how we’re approaching the market is different on a couple of fronts. First, it was architected from the ground up using an open standards-based architecture. So it is the first inventory product to be architected using what’s called the Shared Information/Data [SID] model from the Telemanagement Forum [http://www.tmforum.com]. That Shared Information/Data model is a common representation of key objects and their attributes, so things such as customers, service and so forth can then be leveraged across the organization as well as be integrated. SID is standards-based.”
So, life has become interesting once again for service providers. The challenge of delivering effective, economical BSS/OSS subsystems in the face of ongoing convergence and technical innovation will continue for years to come. IT
Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC’s IP Communications Group.
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