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Next Generation IP Networks Demand a Service Layer

By Sanjay Mewada

 

Migration to an IP-based NGN (next generation network) by the world�s telecommunications network operators is now well under way � the only issues concern timing and migration strategy as Communications Service Providers (CSPs) invest heavily in NGN infrastructure. The prize is clear too. By converging their voice, data, and video services onto a single IP infrastructure; by getting rid of network-embedded service logic; and by orchestrating services through software, CSPs can offer a plethora of new services at lower cost to replace the diminishing revenue streams associated with traditional wireline voice services.

Managed Business Assurance (MBA) is a new model, but one rooted and proceeded in the telecom industry by programs addressing cost management and Revenue Assurance. These disciplines grew up inside large and small telecommunication carriers during the volatile 90�s. These companies learned � often after years of unnecessary revenue loss and unchecked operating costs � the importance of ensuring monthly bills sent to their customers, and paid to their vendors were accurate. Similarly, MBA is about creating and maintaining effective controls over operational fundamentals in the drive to deliver next-generation triple-play services.

That�s the theory.

But there�s a catch. The problem is that, while CSPs are investing heavily in network technology, many have yet to properly invest in the all-important �back office� systems that can actually turn all that raw network capability into bankable services.

In business terms, while there�s been much talk of �transformation�, it hasn�t happened where it�s been needed most: in the strategic but often overlooked service layer. This is the �above network� software layer where services are created, delivered, managed, and assured, and where customers are touched by sales or technical support staff.

Until recently, telcos often introduced new technologies and services first and then, at a later stage, only if those services grew, did they work out how to manage them via operational and business support systems (OSS/BSS). In today�s market, such an approach will no longer work.






In fact, the complexity of converged next generation services and the intense competition they will engender means these OSSs must be designed in from the beginning. In other words, the old �back� office has to be moved to the front line if telcos are to succeed with next generation converged services.

That�s partly because converged services are highly complex. They involve �content� as well as voice, text, and video, and will often �blend� wired and wireless capabilities. They will be sold as both one-off, single services and as complex packages of services � say voice, broadband, TV, and mobile. Many will be sold direct through network operators� own retail arms, but an increasing proportion of services may be resold by affinity partners, MVNOs, and via other wholesale/retail relationships.

In addition, competition in this market will be fierce � not just from other �conventional� rivals, but from powerful players outside the communications sector, such as supermarket chains and online retailers. The rate of service change, too, will remain high into the future. New services or service features will be constantly introduced and packages and offers will require constant adaptation.

And expectations are high. Customers will expect reliability from inherently complex services, such as IPTV (News - Alert), and will want to be able to customize all their services online.

Until now, CSPs simply haven�t had to deal with this level of dynamism in their markets. Traditionally, service introductions were relatively rare and were designed over months or even years, with careful testing before launch. Services also tended to be very separate entities, often being developed on their own overlay networks and having completely separate top-to-bottom management and support systems.

That has left CSPs with a back office stuffed with dozens of incompatible legacy OSSs. Obviously, these difficult-to-integrate back office systems to support the all-important service layer are a nightmare in a converged world, where agility and the ability to get complex packages of services to market quickly is paramount.

So, while it�s one thing to develop technology and design new services, it�s another to market and deploy them economically. That�s why CSPs must develop a service layer to match their network technology. They must have an ability to create new services fast, provision them accurately, and manage the service experience. That means building service layer capabilities such as service-centric inventory systems, flow-through provisioning across all layers, and service centric optimization of resources. And it means building them in as a centerpiece BEFORE services are rolled out, not retrofitting them later, once the fulfillment and assurance problems are already apparent.

Today, much is being made in the telecom sector of the �customer experience�. This can be defined as the aggregate view a customer might form of a provider as he or she is �touched� (or not) by its processes. These �touches� might include waiting for a �help� call to be answered or querying a bill � such critical encounters will always heavily influence the overall �customer experience� for better or for worse.

The �Service Experience� � the customer�s day-to-day experience of service quality and reliability � can be thought of as a subset of the Customer Experience and will be highly influenced by the operator�s �Service Assurance� systems and processes.

To compete effectively, a service provider must understand how well it is delivering specific services to customers against the service commitments it�s made to them, and it must try to understand � and maximize � the customer�s experience of that service.

It is important to understand that network quality and service quality are very often not the same thing. A highly efficient and reliable network (at least from its performance measurements) may be delivering an unacceptable service experience to customers.

This is a significant shift for many CSPs, which, until recently had only one real service: voice delivered over a voice-only network. It was, therefore, possible to think of network performance and service performance as pretty-much the same thing. The network WAS the service.

The introduction of a non-deterministic IP infrastructure has turned this on its head. Now, understanding and correlating the network�s performance to the many services overlaying it is crucial, and network performance has to be viewed in the context of the services it supports and the customers it impacts. So the Service Layer and the assurance measures applied to it must be transformed to reflect this new reality.

Transforming the services layer is therefore, as important as transforming the network. Today the network alone will not provide the basis of a sustained competitive advantage. While achieving acceptable network performance will be critical given the non-deterministic nature of IP, a high-quality network will only be the foundation for differentiation, not a differentiating quality in its own right.

Real differentiation based on unique services and service bundles can only be engineered at the service layer, so it�s vital that CSPs move on from developing the �best network� to embracing instead the concept of developing the �best services�.

Service providers have always been good at gathering and analyzing network data � it�s an essential skill if you run a sprawling and highly complex network. But the time has come to change this predominantly southbound (network) facing focus to a service and customer facing functionality.

One option is to migrate the focus of the conventional Network Operations Center (NOC) so that it becomes a Service Operations Center. This expands the role of the NOC so that, in addition to its traditional network management role, it takes network performance data and correlates that information to the service infrastructure. This way the operator can understand the impact of network configuration or performance on the services that are layered on top of it.

More transformation at the service layer will be needed as operators develop their service fulfillment and assurance efforts to support services such as IPTV. With this service, CSPs will have to extend their reach and their domain of expertise right into the home and onto the set-top or desktop to deliver the service experience customers expect.

A new generation of service management systems is evolving that can help service providers meet these new �customer experience� imperatives. These systems can identify how network problems (including planned outages) are likely to hit specific services by synthesizing information from the systems responsible for fault management and trouble ticketing and then correlating this data with the data held on specific customer services.

Now it becomes possible to review an affected customer�s SLA, see whether it�s been breached, and attempt to fix it proactively. In circumstances where maintenance or upgrades are planned in advance, such systems can predict and identify any problems that might arise in order to give customers a quick and accurate estimate of when a problem is likely to be resolved.

CSPs must recognize that real competitive differentiation in telecom must involve an agile, transparent and optimized service layer that creates, delivers and manages services, and that maximizes network investments and delivers on customer needs.

Integrating this new generation of back office platforms to manage the service layer is going to be vital for all CSPs� success. The old �Network Layer Telecom�, where new services were designed, tested, and rolled out over months or even years is in the past. In the new Service Layer Telecom of today, not only must complex new services be managed so that they work right first time and every time for increasingly demanding customers, but the systems that orchestrate and manage them must be flexible and highly configurable in their own right. This is real Service Layer Transformation and it will prove to be the key to success for next generation service providers. IT

Sanjay Mewada is head of strategy at NetCracker. For more information, please visit the company online at www.netcracker.com.

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