Managing in a virtualised world

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GTB Editor
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Legacy OSS and BSS systems may not match the aspirations of service providers to transform themselves into true digital players. Is a full rethink needed? Guy Matthews investigates

Service providers are being driven to rethink their approach to OSS and BSS in response to the dramatic changes their businesses are going through. Any OSS and BSS solution worthy of the name must be up to the task of supporting the delivery of a range of services in the cloud, of facilitating the instant analysis of large quantities of unstructured customer data and of ensuring that the service provider is not held back from engaging in vital upcoming service opportunities like 5G and the internet of things. 

Operational and billing software must furthermore be harmonious with the increasingly software-driven nature of the network at the heart of the business, as well as the evolution of network functions as they run on a virtualised basis. 

Other challenges include

Other challenges might include the adoption of Carrier Ethernet 2.0 as the basis of services and the need to comply with the Metro Ethernet Forum’s ‘third network’ vision. Any OSS or BSS solution that is not actively supporting all of these transformational elements is potentially inhibiting the development of the business and even risking its future viability.

“There’s a virtualisation revolution, both with IT in the cloud and in the network with the rise of the software-defined network,” says Daniela Perlmutter, head of product and solution marketing with OSS and BSS vendor Amdocs. “Just look at AT&T and its goal of virtualising 75% of its network by 2020.”

The primary goal of service providers, and by definition of their BSS and OSS, is now, says Perlmutter, to drive business agility: “Service providers are competing these days with disruptive players like Netflix, and not simply pitting themselves against their own local service providers and the competition,” she observes. 

She says that service providers are keenly aware of the need to be able to introduce services in a quicker manner than has typically been the case, and also to be able to experiment with the introduction of new types of service in a frictionless manner: “They need to introduce new features into services that their customers already get elsewhere, like shopping carts,” she adds.

Mobile World Congress this year was alive, says Perlmutter, with talk among operators of the need to move away from the straight provision of communications services towards becoming a digital provider, with players from Telefónica to Verizon openly articulating such a vision: “Service providers are becoming technology companies, and it is having the right OSS and BSS that is enabling this,” she concludes.

Making the customer experience rich

OSS and BSS, she believes, must play their part in delivering greater personalisation and a better and more immediate response to what customers really want.

“The customer experience must be rich, personalised and fast, perhaps in real time,” she says. “And whether an enterprise customer or a consumer, intelligence is fundamental. The state of the network must be continually analysed. It utilisation must be smart, adaptable according to the service being consumed.” 

There must be a comparable move to greater openness, particularly in the form of open APIs. Service providers are now embracing open source culture in numbers as part of the process of virtualisation and digital transformation. This is opening them to innovation and to new and more creative types of partnership as well as innovative business models. 

This transitional phase is being experienced not just by service providers, but by every stakeholder in the wider communications sector, argues Nokia’s OSS portfolio marketing executive Bill Stanley. “We are dealing with that as an industry, just as Nokia is dealing with it as a supplier,” he says. “It’s all about creating a new type of digital service provider with its increased focus on the customer.”

The move to cloud and virtualisation is no longer a matter of doubt and debate, with the only question remaining being how best service providers can get there, whether by ripping up historic OSS and BSS investments or by living for a period of time in a hybrid environment half way between the legacy and the next generation solutions.  

Parallel or hybrid solutions may run

“Legacy OSS systems are probably still running the networks you are pulling your revenues down from today, while you are introducing this new virtual environment,” says Stanley. “For some period of time a parallel or hybrid solution will be ongoing. You will most likely be leveraging your legacy OSS, but incorporating this new environment. Service providers are asking themselves: ‘Do I forklift in a new environment, or do I look to bridge the legacy with the new and have a wrapper around them so they can coexist?’”

The BSS side, argues Stanley, sits relatively close to the network and is obviously more immediately affected by the virtualisation of that network, thanks to innovations like real time charging.

“Service providers of course have a significant installed base in BSS, and this is now working well after being integrated with everything else,” says Stanley. “But those systems no longer work well in the new virtualised world we’re moving to, either in terms of the network or of customer expectations.”

Ravi Palepu, global head of telco solutions with VirtusaPolaris, a consultancy that works with telcos to transform their business processes, believes that many service providers are struggling with legacy investment in OSS and BSS. 

“They are looking at a virtualised world and seeing that it’s all about a flexible and agile way of delivering products and services,” he says. “So what to do? The first task is to try to consolidate separate legacy stacks into a single stack, and then enhance that stack to move it away from static functioning and towards what I’d call more dynamic functioning. So far we’ve seen fairly few instances where the OSS and BSS investments that service providers already have can fit into this new world.”

Palepu believes that as telcos launch networking-on-demand and infrastructure-on-demand services, they are often driven to move to a greenfield stack with no integration with legacy: “The consolidation process in this case could take a long time,” he fears. “We are doing an IT and business process assessment with telco clients, setting up a roadmap for them.” 

A new generation of OSS and BSS is emerging, but it’s not only network virtualization that is driving it, says Joonas Ojala, management consultant with Northstream, a Stockholm-based provider of independent advice for mobile operators.

“Current BSS is built to run on-premise and support a range of different voice and value added service price plans to be operated by operators’ own sales and customer support staff,” he says. “However, the focus is now on data and third party services, self-service, cloud-run SaaS and agile DevOps. Network virtualisation adds its own flavour to this. In many cases these trigger a need for complete system re-write – this change is so big that incremental upgrades just won’t work.”

Graham Moore, product director at vendor Telsis, believes that many service providers are taking a disjointed approach to upgrading both their networks and their OSS and BSS systems. 

“As operators look to refresh their systems and take advantage of the operational savings that virtualisation can give them, they often introduce incompatibilities between old and new systems,” he fears. “We have experienced this particularly in the billing area where either the billing or the telephony system has been upgraded to a new system based around Diameter, but the other platform has not been upgraded.”

Operator revenues are in consequence being put under pressure: “Operators are sometimes no longer able to afford bespoke integration from the major vendors, and have to look to more standards-based, off the shelf solutions,” believes Moore. “This has led to an increasing demand for flexible system integration-friendly platforms that can be used to provide intelligent mediation between the telephony and the OSS/BSS systems.”

Jaco Fourie, head of technology management with Ericsson, agrees that the most challenging shift is to move from a siloed type of environment to a more horizontal form of OSS.

Fourie is expecting the number of OSS and BSS transformation projects to hugely increase as the year progresses. “Last year was an all-time high,” he says. “It is about a move from what we used to call just ‘OSS and BSS’ and now can call something more like digital support systems – or DSS. The two are no longer separate, but part of the same end to end system. We have been transforming our own portfolio for this for the past few years.” 

Certainly a clear separation between OSS and BSS appears to be a thing of the past. Even a simple job like the capturing and provisioning of a customer order no longer happens in isolation. 

Providing a good service today is about agility and flexibility that runs through the entire service provider organisation. 

The aim of addressing customer needs, or indeed of allowing customers to self-manage their own needs, will need to flow through the whole service provider business. []