NaaS is to networks what Agile is to software

After Telstra’s NaaS (Network as a Service) program won a TM Forum excellence award, I promised yesterday to share a post that describes why I’m so excited about the concept of NaaS.

As the title suggests above, NaaS has the potential to be as big a paradigm shift for networks (and OSS/BSS) as Agile has been for software development.

There are many facets to the Agile story, but for me one of the most important aspects is that it has taken end-to-end (E2E), monolithic thinking and has modularised it. Agile has broken software down into pieces that can be worked on by smaller, more autonomous teams than the methods used prior to it.

The same monolithic, E2E approach pervades the network space currently. If a network operator wants to add a new network type or a new product type/bundle, large project teams must be stood up. And these project teams must tackle E2E complexity, especially across an IT stack that is already a spaghetti of interactions.

But before I dive into the merits of NaaS, let me take you back a few steps, back into the past. Actually, for many operators, it’s not the past, but the current-day model.

Networks become Agile with NaaS (the TMN model)

As per the orange arrow, customers of all types (Retail, Enterprise and Wholesale) interact with their network operator through BSS (and possibly OSS) tools. [As an aside, see this recent post for a “religious war” discussion on where BSS ends and OSS begins]. The customer engagement occurs (sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly) via BSS tools such as:

  • Order Entry, Order Management
  • Product Catalog (Product / Offer Management)
  • Service Management
  • SLA (Service Level Agreement) Management
  • Billing
  • Problem Management
  • Customer Management
  • Partner Management
  • etc

If the customer wants a new instance of an existing service, then all’s good with the current paradigm. Where things become more challenging is when significant changes occur (as reflected by the yellow arrows in the diagram above).

For example, if any of the following are introduced, there are end-to-end impacts. They necessitate E2E changes to the IT spaghetti and require formation of a project team that includes multiple business units (eg products, marketing, IT, networks, change management to support all the workers impacted by system/process change, etc)

  1. A new product or product bundle is to be taken to market
  2. An end-customer needs a custom offering (especially in the case of managed service offerings for large corporate / government customers)
  3. A new network type is added into the network
  4. System and / or process transformations occur in the IT stack

If we just narrow in on point 3 above, fundamental changes are happening in network technology stacks already. Network virtualisation (SDN/NFV) and 5G are currently generating large investments of time and money. They’re fundamental changes because they also change the shape of our traditional OSS/BSS/IT stacks, as follows.

Networks become Agile with NaaS (the virtualisation model)

We now not only have Physical Network Functions (PNF) to manage, but Virtual Network Functions (VNF) as well. In fact it now becomes even more difficult because our IT stacks need to handle PNF and VNF concurrently. Each has their own nuances in terms of over-arching management.

The virtualisation of networks and application infrastructure means that our OSS see greater southbound abstraction. Greater southbound abstraction means we potentially lose E2E visibility of physical infrastructure. Yet we still need to manage E2E change to IT stacks for new products, network types, etc.

The diagram below shows how NaaS changes the paradigm. It de-couples the network service offerings from the network itself. Customer Facing Services (CFS) [as presented by BSS/OSS/NaaS] are de-coupled from Resource Facing Services (RFS) [as presented by the network / domains].

NaaS becomes a “meet-in-the-middle” tool. It effectively de-couples

  • The products / marketing teams (who generate customer offerings / bundles) from
  • The networks / operations teams (who design, build and maintain the network).and
  • The IT teams (who design, build and maintain the IT stack)

It allows product teams to be highly creative with their CFS offerings from the available RFS building blocks. Consider it like Lego. The network / ops teams create the building blocks and the products / marketing teams have huge scope for innovation. The products / marketing teams rarely need to ask for custom building blocks to be made.

You’ll notice that the entire stack shown in the diagram below is far more modular than the diagram above. Being modular makes the network stack more suited to being worked on by smaller autonomous teams. The yellow arrows indicate that modularity, both in terms of the IT stack and in terms of the teams that need to be stood up to make changes. Hence my claim that NaaS is to networks what Agile has been to software.

Networks become Agile with NaaS (the NaaS model)

You will have also noted that NaaS allows the Network / Resource part of this stack to be broken into entirely separate network domains. Separation in terms of IT stacks, management and autonomy. It also allows new domains to be stood up independently, which accommodates the newer virtualised network domains (and their VNFs) as well as platforms such as ONAP.

The NaaS layer comprises:

  • A TMF standards-based API Gateway
  • A Master Services Catalog
  • A common / consistent framework of presentation of all domains

The ramifications of this excites me even more that what’s shown in the diagram above. By offering access to the network via APIs and as a catalog of services, it allows a large developer pool to provide innovative offerings to end customers (as shown in the green box below). It opens up the long tail of innovation that we discussed last week.
Networks become Agile with NaaS (the developer model)

Some telcos will open up their NaaS to internal or partner developers. Others are drooling at the prospect of offering network APIs for consumption by the market.

You’ve probably already identified this, but the awesome thing for the developer community is that they can combine services/APIs not just from the telcos but any other third-party providers (eg Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, etc, etc, etc). I could’ve shown these as East-West services in the diagram but decided to keep it simpler.

Developers are not constrained to offering communications services. They can now create / offer higher-order services that also happen to have communications requirements.

If you weren’t already on board with the concept, hopefully this article has convinced you that NaaS will be to networks what Agile has been to software.

Agree or disagree? Leave me a comment below.

PS1. I’ve used the old TMN pyramid as the basis of the diagram to tie the discussion to legacy solutions, not to imply size or emphasis of any of the layers.

PS2. I use the terms OSS/BSS as per TMN pyramid. The actual demarcation line between what OSS and BSS does tend to be grey and trigger religious wars, as per the post earlier this week.

PS3. Similarly, the size of the NaaS layer is to bring attention to it rather than to imply it is a monolithic stack in it’s own right. In reality, it is actually a much thinner shim layer architecturally

PS4. The analogy between NaaS and Agile is to show similarities, not to imply that NaaS replaces Agile. They can definitely be used together

PS5. I’ve used the term IT quite generically (operationally and technically) just to keep the diagram and discussion as simple as possible. In reality, there are many sub-functions like data centre operations, application monitoring, application control, applications development, product owner, etc. These are split differently at each operator.

Inverting the pyramid of OSS and network innovation

Back in the earliest days of OSS (and networks for that matter), it was the telcos that generated almost all of the innovation. That effectively limited innovation to being developed by the privileged few, those who worked for the government-owned, monopoly telcos.

But over time, the financial leaders at those telcos felt the costs of their amazing research and development labs outweighed the benefits and shut them down (or starved them at best). OSS (and network) vendors stepped into the void to assume responsibility for most of the innovation. But there was a dilemma for the vendors (and for telcos and consumers too) – they needed to innovate fast enough to win work against their competitors, but slow enough to accrue revenues from the investment in their earlier innovations. And innovation was still being constrained to the privileged few, those who worked for vendors and integrators.

Now, the telcos are increasingly pushing to innovate wider and faster than the current vendor collective can accommodate. It means we have to reach further out to the long-tail of innovators. To open the floor beyond the privileged few. Excitingly, this opportunity appears to be looming.

“How?” you may ask.

Network as a Service (NaaS) and API platform offerings.

If every telco offers consumption of their infrastructure via API, it provides the opportunity for any developer to bundle their own unique offering of products, services, applications, hosting, etc and take it to market. If you’re heading to TM Forum’s Digital Transformation World (DTW) in Nice next week, there are a number of Catalyst projects on display in this space, including:

Zero-touch partnering could make platform ‘utopia’ real for telcos

Packaging Open APIs for NaaS

The challenge for the telcos is in how to support the growth of this model. To foster the vendor market, it was easy enough for the telcos to identify the big suppliers and funnel projects (and funding) through them. But now they have to figure out a funnel that’s segmented at a much smaller scale – to facilitate take-up by the millions of developers globally who might consume their products (network APIs in this case) rather than the hundreds/thousands of large suppliers.

This brings us back to smart contracts and micro-procurement as well as the technologies such as blockchain that support these models. This ties in with another TM Forum initiative to revolutionise the procurement event:

Time to kill the RFP? Reinventing IT procurement for the 2020s: Volume 1

But an additional benefit for the telcos, if and when the NaaS platform model takes hold, is that the developers also become a unpaid salesforce for the telcos. The developers will be responsible for marketing and selling their own bundles, which will drive consumption and revenues on the telcos’ assets.

Exciting new business models and supply chains are bound to evolve out of this long tail of innovation.

Is your OSS squeaking like an un-oiled bearing?

Network operators spend huge amounts on building and maintaining their OSS/BSS every year. There are many reasons they invest so heavily, but in most cases it can be distilled back to one thing – improving operational efficiency.

And our OSS/BSS definitely do improve operational efficiency, but there are still so many sources of friction. They’re squeaking like un-oiled bearings. Here are just a few of the common sources:

  1. First-time Installation
  2. Identifying best-fit tools
  3. Procurement of new tools
  4. Update / release processes
  5. Continuous data quality / consistency improvement
  6. Navigating to all features through the user interface
  7. Non-intuitive functionality / processes
  8. So many variants / complexity that end-users take years to attain expert-level capability
  9. Integration / interconnect
  10. Getting new starters up to speed
  11. Getting proficient operators to expertise
  12. Unlocking actionable insights from huge data piles
  13. Resolving the root-cause of complex faults
  14. Onboarding new customers
  15. Productionising new functionality
  16. Exception and fallout handling
  17. Access to supplier expertise to resolve challenges

The list goes on far deeper than that list too. The challenge for many OSS product teams, for any number of reasons, is that their focus is on adding new features rather than reducing friction in what already exists.

The challenge for product teams is diagnosing where the friction  and risks are for their customers / stakeholders. How do you get that feedback?

  • Every vendor has a product support team, so that’s a useful place to start, both in terms of what’s generating the most support calls and in terms of first-hand feedback from customers
  • Do you hold user forums on a regular basis, where you get many of your customers together to discuss their challenges, your future roadmap, new improvements / features
  • Does your process “flow” data show where the sticking points are for operators
  • Do you conduct gemba walks with your customers
  • Do you have a program of ensuring all developers spend at least a few days a year interacting directly with customers on their site/s
  • Do you observe areas of difficulty when delivering training
  • Do you go out of your way to ask your customers / stakeholders questions that are framed around their pain-points, not just framed within the context of your existing OSS
  • Do you conduct customer surveys? More importantly, do you conduct surveys through an independent third-party?

On the last dot-point, I’ve been surprised at some of the profound insights end-users have shared with me when I’ve been conducting these reviews as the independent interviewer. I’ve tended to find answers are more open / honest when being delivered to an independent third-party than if the supplier asks directly. If you’d like assistance running a third-party review, leave us a note on the contact page. We’d be delighted to assist.

Would you hire a furniture maker as an OSS CEO?

Well, would you hire a furniture maker as CEO of an OSS vendor?

At face value, it would seem to be an odd selection right? There doesn’t seem to be much commonality between furniture and OSS does there? It seems as likely as hiring a furniture maker to be CEO of a car maker?

Oh wait. That did happen.

Ford Motor Company made just such a decision last year when appointing Jim Hackett, a furniture industry veteran, as its CEO. Whether the appointment proves successful or not, it’s interesting that Ford made the decision. But why? To focus on user experience and design as it’s next big differentiator. Clever line of thinking Bill Ford!!

I’ve prepared a slightly light-hearted table for comparison purposes between cars and OSS. Both are worth comparing as they’re both complex feats of human engineering:

Idx Comparison Criteria Car OSS
1 Primary objective Transport passengers between destinations Operationalise and monetise a comms network
2 Claimed “Business” justification Personal freedom Reducing the cost of operations
3 Operation of common functionality without conscious thought (developed through years of operator practice) Steering

Changing gears

Indicating

Hmmm??? Depends on which sales person or operator you speak with
4 Error detection and current-state monitoring Warning lights and instrument cluster/s Alarm lists, performance graphs
5 Key differentiator for customers (1970’s) Engine size Database / CPU size
6 Key differentiator for customers (2000’s) Gadgets / functions / cup-holders Functionality
7 Key differentiator for customers (2020+) User Experience

Self-driving

Connected car (car as an “experience platform”)

User Experience??

Zero-touch assurance?

Connected OSS (ie OSS as an experience platform)???

I’d like to focus on three key areas next:

  1. Item 3
  2. Item 4 and
  3. The transition between items 6 and 7

Item 3 – operating on auto-pilot

If we reference against item 1, the primary objective, experienced operators of cars can navigate from point A to point B with little conscious thought. Key activities such as steering, changing gears and Indicating can be done almost as a background task by our brains whilst doing other mental processing (talking, thinking, listening to podcasts, etc).

Experienced operators of OSS can do primary objectives quickly, but probably not on auto-pilot. There are too many “levers” to pull, too many decisions to make, too many options to choose from, for operators to background-process key OSS activities. The question is, could we re-architect to achieve key objectives more as background processing tasks?

Item 4 – error detection and monitoring

In a car, error detection is also a background task, where operators are rarely notified, only for critical alerts (eg engine light, fuel tank empty, etc). In an OSS, error detection is not a background task. We need full-time staff monitoring all the alarms and alerts popping up on our consoles! Sometimes they scroll off the page too fast for us to even contemplate.

In a car, monitoring is kept to the bare essentials (speedo, tacho, fuel guage, etc). In an OSS, we tend to be great at information overload – we have a billion graphs and are never sure which ones, or which thresholds, actually allow us to operate our “vehicle” effectively. So we show them all.

Transitioning from current to future-state differentiators

In cars, we’ve finally reached peak-cup-holders. Manufacturers know they can no longer differentiate from competitors just by having more cup-holders (at least, I think this claim is true). They’ve also realised that even entry-level cars have an astounding list of features that are only supplementary to the primary objective (see item 1). They now know it’s not the amount of functionality, but how seamlessly and intuitively the users interact with the vehicle on end-to-end tasks. The car is now seen as an extension of the user’s phone rather than vice versa, unlike the recent past.

In OSS, I’ve yet to see a single cup holder (apart from the old gag about CD trays). Vendors mark that down – cup holders could be a good differentiator. But seriously, I’m not sure if we realise the OSS arms race of features is no longer the differentiator. Intuitive end-to-end user experience can be a huge differentiator amongst the sea of complex designs, user interfaces and processes available currently. But nobody seems to be talking about this. Go to any OSS event and we only hear from engineers talking about features. Where are the UX experts talking about innovative new ways for users to interact with machines to achieve primary objectives (see item 1)?

But a functionality arms race isn’t a completely dead differentiator. In cars, there is a horizon of next-level features that can be true differentiators like self-driving or hover-cars. Likewise in OSS, incremental functionality increases aren’t differentiators. However, any vendor that can not just discuss, but can produce next-level capabilities like zero touch assurance (ZTA) and automated O2A (Order to Activate) will definitely hold a competitive advantage.

Hat tip to Jerry Useem, whose article on Atlantic provided the idea seed for this OSS post.

The no accounts receivable OSS model

Unfortunately for OSS vendors / integrators, their business models have a dependency (and major risk) on accounts receivable.

Investopedia states, “Accounts receivable are amounts of money owed by customers to another entity for goods or services delivered or used on credit but not yet paid for by clients.”

One of the earliest OSS projects I worked on was worth in excess of $30m for the vendor. It was a multi-year implementation. Two years in, they’d only received the initial mobilisation payment. With implementation costs blowing out, it was proving to be a major challenge for the company to continue operating.

The team had delivered a majority of the functionality written into the contract, as well as many other features negotiated in-flight. It was successfully being used in production, helping to deliver revenues to the customer. Unfortunately for the vendor, there was some key functionality that was still a way off being delivered. That meant contractual objectives hadn’t all lined up for payments to occur.

The balance of financial power was definitely in the hands of the customer.

Whether it’s in a large, complex implementation or ongoing license fees, accounts receivable can be the bane of OSS vendors.

That’s why I try to establish a no accounts receivable model for OSS vendors. That means up-front payment, but as shown below, means up-front value also needs to be delivered. It’s one of the attractive aspects of cloud-delivery business models.

The project I mentioned above had a product suite that worked out of the box, but only delivered value after features, data, integrations and automations were custom built… over a period of years.

So a couple of questions for the OSS vendors out there:

  1. How to deliver value, not just functionality, early in a project and then ongoing through the product lifecycle?
  2. How to give the customer enough confidence that they’ll receive up-front (and recurring) value that they’re prepared to pay up-front (and recurring)?

Leave me a comment below if accounts receivable is a bane of your organisation’s existence or whether you’ve found a way to have less reliance on AR.

Only do the OSS that only you can do

A friend of mine has a great saying, “only do what only you can do.”

Do you think that this holds true for the companies undergoing digital transformation? Banks are now IT companies. Insurers are IT companies. Car manufacturers are now IT companies. Telcos are, well, some are IT companies.

We’ve spoken before about the skill transformations that need to happen within telcos if they’re to become IT companies. Some are actively helping their workforce to become more developer-centric. Some of the big telcos that I’ve been assisting in the last few years are embarking on bold Agile-led IT transformations. They’re cutting more of their own code and managing their own IT developments.

That’s exciting news for all of us in OSS. Even if it loses the name OSS in future, telcos will still need software that efficiently operationalises their networks. We have the overlapping skills in software, networks, business and operations.

But I wonder about the longevity of the in-house approach unless we come focus clearly on the first quote above. If all development is brought in-house, we end up with a lot of duplication across the industry. I’m not really sure that it makes sense doing all the heavy-lifting of all custom OSS tools when the heavy-lifting has already been done elsewhere.

It’s the old ebb and flow between in-house and outsourced OSS.

In my very humble opinion, it’s not just a choice between in-house and outsourced that matters. The more important decisions are around choosing to only develop the tools in-house that only you can do (ie the strategic differentiators).

A single glass of pain or single pane of glass??

Is your OSS a single pane of glass, or a single glass of pain?

You can tell I’m being a little flippant here. People often (perhaps idealistically) talk about OSS as being the single pane of glass (SPOG) to manage a network.

I say “idealistically” for a couple of reasons:

  1. There are usually many personas who interact with an OSS, each with vastly different user interface (UI) needs
  2. There is usually more than one OSS product in a client’s OSS suite, often from different vendors, with varying levels of integration

Where a single pane of glass can be a true ambition is as a consolidated health-status dashboard / portal, Invariably, this portal is used by executive / leader / manager personas who want to quickly see a single-screen health status that covers all networks and/or parts of the OSS suite. When things go wrong, this portal becomes the single glass of pain.

These single panes tend to be heavily customised for each organisation as every one has a unique set of metrics-that-matter. For those designing these panes, the key is to not just include vanity metrics, but to show information that the leader can action.

But the interesting perspective here is whether the single glass of pain is even relevant within your organisation’s culture. It’s just my opinion, but I prefer for coal-face workers to be empowered to make rapid recovery actions rather than requiring direction from up high in the org-chart. Coal-face workers generally have different tools with UIs that *should* help them monitor, manage and repair super-efficiently.

To get back to the “idealistic” comment above, each OSS UI needs to be fit-for-purpose for each unique persona (eg designers, product owners, network operations, etc). To me this implies that there is no single pane of glass…

I should caveat that by citing the example of an OSS search interface, something I’ve yet to see in OSS… although that’s just a front end to dozens of persona-specific panes of glass.

OSS orgitecture

So far this week we’ve been focusing on ways to improve the OSS transformation process. Monday provided 7 models for achieving startup-like efficiency for larger OSS transformations. Tuesday provided suggestions for speeding up the transition from OSS PoC to getting the solution into production, specifically strategies for absorbing an OSS PoC into production.

Both of these posts talk about the speed of getting things done outside the bureaucracy of big operators, big networks and big OSS. Today, as the post title suggests, we’re going to look at orgitecture – how re-designing the structure and culture of an organisation can help streamline digital transformations.

Do you agree with the premise that smaller entities (eg Agile autonomous groups, partners, consultants, etc) can get OSS tasks done more efficiently when operating at arms-length of the larger entity (eg the carrier)? I believe that this is a first principle of physics at play.

If you’ve worked under this arms-length arrangement in the past, you’ll also know that at some point those delivery outcomes need to get integrated back into the big entity. It’s what we referred to yesterday as absorption, where the level of integration effort falls on a continuum between minimally absorbed to fully absorbed.

OSS orgitecture is the re-architecture of the people, processes, culture and org structure to better allow for the absorption process. In the past, all the safety-checks (eg security, approvals, ops handover, etc) were designed on the assumption that internal teams were doing the work. They’re not always a great fit, especially when it comes to documentation review and approval.

For example, I have a belief that the effectiveness of documentation review and approval is inversely proportional to the number of reviewers (in most, but not all cases). Unfortunately, when an external entity is delivering, there tends to be inherently less trust than if an internal entity was delivering. As such, the safety-checks increase.

Another example is when the large organisation uses Agile delivery models, but use supply partners to deliver scope of works. The partners are able to assign effort in a sequential / waterfall manner, but can be delayed by only getting timeslices of attention from client’s staff (ie resources are available according to Agile sprint planning).

Security and cutover planning mechanisms such as Change Review Boards (CRB) have also been designed around old internal delivery models. They also need to be reconsidered to facilitate a pipeline of externally-implemented change.

Perhaps the biggest orgitecture factor is in getting multiple internal business units to work together effectively. In the old world we needed all the business units to reach consensus for a new product to come to market. Sales/Marketing/Products had to work with OSS/IT and Networks. Each of these units tend to have vastly different cultures and different cadences for getting their tasks done. Delivering a new product was as much an organisational challenge as it was a technical challenge and often took months. Those times-to-market are not feasible in a world of software where competitive advantages are fleeting. External entities can potentially help or hinder these timeframes. Careful design of small autonomous teams have the potential to improve abstraction at the interlocks, but culture remains the potential roadblock.

I’m excited by the opportunity for OSS delivery improvement coming from leveraging the gig economy. But if big OSS transformations are to make use of these efficiency gains, then we may also need to consider culture and process refinement as part of the change management.

Seven OSS transformation efficiency models

Do you work in a large organisation? Have you also worked in smaller organisations?
Where have you felt more efficient?

I’ve been lucky enough to work on some massive OSS transformations for large T1 telcos. But I’ve always noticed the inefficiency of working on these projects when embedded inside the bureaucracy of the beast. With all of the documentation, sign-offs, meetings, politics, gaining consensus, budget allocations, etc it can sometimes feel so inefficient. On some past projects, I’ve felt I can accomplish more in a day outside than a week or more inside the beast.

This makes sense when applying the fundamental law of physics F = M x a to OSS projects. In other words, the greater the mass (of the organisation), the more force must be applied to reach a given acceleration (ie to effect a change).

It’s one of the reasons I love working within a small entity (Passionate About OSS), but into big entities (the big telcos and utilities). It’s also why I strongly believe that the big entities need to better leverage smaller working groups to facilitate big OSS change. Not just OSS transformation, but any project where the size of the culture and technology stack are prohibitive.

Here are a few ways you can use to bring a start-up’s efficiency to a big OSS transformation:

  1. Agile methodologies – If done well, Agile can be great at breaking transformations down into smaller, more manageable pieces. The art is in designing small autonomous teams / responsibilities and breakdown of work to minimise dependencies
  2. Partnerships – Using smaller, external partners to deliver outcomes (eg product builds or service offerings) that can be absorbed into the big organisation. There are varying levels of absorption here – from an external, “clip-the-ticket” offering to offerings that are fully absorbed into the large entity’s OSS/BSS stack
  3. Consultancies – Similar to partnerships, but using smaller teams to implement professional services
  4. Spin-out / spin-in teams – Separating small teams of experts out from the bureaucracy of the large organisation so that they can achieve rapid progress
  5. Smart contracts / RFPs – I love the potential for smart contracts to automate the offer of small chunks of work to trusted partners to bid upon and then deliver upon
  6. Externalised Proofs of Concept (PoC) – One of the big challenges in implementing for large organisations is all of the safety checks that slow progress. Many, such as security and privacy mechanisms, are completely justified for a production network. But when a concept needs to be proved, such as user journeys, product integrations, sand-pit environments, etc, then cloud-based PoCs can be brilliant
  7. Alternate brands – Have you also noticed that some of the tier-1 telcos have been spinning out low-cost and/or niche brands with much leaner OSS/BSS stacks, offerings and related culture lately? It’s a clever business model on many levels. Combined with the strangler fig transformation approach, this might just represent a pathway for the big brand to shed many of their OSS/BSS legacy constraints

Can you think of other models that I’ve missed?

The key to these strategies is not so much the carve-out, the process of getting small teams to do tasks efficiently, but the absorb-in process. For example, how to absorb a cloud-based PoC back into the PROD network, where all safety checks (eg security, privacy, operations acceptance, etc) still need to be performed. More on that in tomorrow’s post.

All OSS products are excellent. So where’s the advantage?

“You don’t get differential advantage from your products, it’s from the way you speak to and relate to your customers . All products are excellent these days.”

The quote above paraphrases Malcolm McDonald from a podcast about his book, “Malcolm McDonald on Value Propositions: How to Develop Them, How to Quantify Them.”

This quote had nothing to do with OSS specifically, but consider for a moment how it relates to OSS.

Consider also in relation to the diagram below.
Long-tail features

Let’s say the x-axis on this graph shows a list of features within any given OSS product. And the y-axis shows a KPI that measures the importance of each feature (eg number of uses, value added by using that feature, etc).

As Professor McDonald indicates, all OSS products are excellent these days. And all product vendors know what the most important features are. As a result, they all know they must offer the features that appear on the left-side of the image. Since all vendors do the left-side, it seems logical to differentiate by adding features to the far-right of the image, right?

Well actually, there’s almost no differential advantage at the far-right of the image.

Now what if we consider the second part of Prof McDonald’s statement on differential advantage, “…it’s from the way you speak to and relate to your customers.”

To me it implies that the differential advantage in OSS is not in the products, but in the service wrapper that is placed around it. You might be saying, “but we’re an OSS product company. We don’t want to get into services.” As described in this earlier post, there are two layers of OSS services.

One of the layers mentioned is product-related services (eg product installation, product configuration, product release management, license management, product training, data migration, product efficiency / optimisation, etc). None of these items would appear as features on the long-tail diagram above. Perhaps as a result, it’s these items that are often less than excellent in vendor offerings. It’s often in these items where complexity, time, cost and risk are added to an OSS project, increasing stress for clients.

If Prof McDonald is correct and all OSS products are excellent, then perhaps it’s in the services wrapper where the true differential advantage is waiting to be unlocked. This will come from spending more time relating to customers than cutting more code.

What if we take it a step further? What if we seek to better understand our clients’ differential advantages in their markets? Perhaps this is where we will unlock an entirely different set of features that will introduce new bands on the left-side of the image. I still feel that amazing OSS/BSS can give carriers significant competitive advantage in their marketplace. And the converse can give significant competitive disadvantage!

Are you desperately seeking to increase your OSS‘s differential advantage? Contact us at Passionate About OSS to help map out a way.

The 7 truck-roll fail

In yesterday’s post we talked about the cost of quality. We talked about examples of primary, secondary and tertiary costs of bad data quality (DQ). We also highlighted that the tertiary costs, including the damage to brand reputation, can be one of the biggest factors.

I often cite an example where it took 7 truck rolls to connect a service to my house a few years ago. This provider was unable to provide an estimate of when their field staff would arrive each day, so it meant I needed to take a full day off work on each of those 7 occasions.

The primary cost factors are fairly obvious, for me, for the provider and for my employer at the time. On the direct costs alone, it would’ve taken many months, if not years, for the provider to recoup their install costs. Most of it attributable to the OSS/BSS and associated processes.

Many of those 7 truck rolls were a direct result of having bad or incomplete data:

  • They didn’t record that it was a two storey house (and therefore needed a crew with “working at heights” certification and gear)
  • They didn’t record that the install was at a back room at the house (and therefore needed a higher-skilled crew to perform the work)
  • The existing service was installed underground, but they had no records of the route (they went back to the designs and installed a completely different access technology because replicating the existing service was just too complex)

Customer Experience (CX), aka brand damage, is the greatest of all cost of quality factors when you consider studies such as those mentioned below.

A dissatisfied customer will tell 9-15 people about their experience. Around 13% of dissatisfied customers tell more than 20 people.”
White House Office of Consumer Affairs
(according to customerthink.com).

Through this page alone, I’ve told a lot more than 20 (although I haven’t mentioned the provider’s name, so perhaps it doesn’t count! 🙂  ).

But the point is that my 7 truck-roll example above could’ve been avoided if the provider’s OSS/BSS gave better information to their field workers (or perhaps enforced that the field workers populated useful data).

We’ll talk a little more tomorrow about modern Field Services tools and how our OSS/BSS can impact CX in a much more positive way.

OSS transformation is hard. What can we learn from open source?

Have you noticed an increasing presence of open-source tools in your OSS recently? Have you also noticed that open-source is helping to trigger transformation? Have you thought about why that might be?

Some might rightly argue that it is the cost factor. You could also claim that they tend to help resolve specific, but common, problems. They’re smaller and modular.

I’d argue that the reason relates to our most recent two blog posts. They’re fast to install (don’t need to get bogged down in procurement) and they’re easy to run in parallel for comparison purposes.

If you’re designing an OSS can you introduce the same concepts? Your OSS might be for internal purposes or to sell to market. Either way, if you make it fast to build and easy to use, you have a greater chance of triggering transformation.

If you have a behemoth OSS to “sell,” transformation persuasion is harder. The customer needs to rally more resources (funds, people, time) just to compare with what they already have. If you have a behemoth on your hands, you need to try even harder to be faster, easier and more modular.

Re-framing an OSS replacement strategy

Friday’s post posed a re-framing exercise that asked you (whether customer, seller or integrator) to run a planning exercise as if you MUST offer a money-back guarantee on your OSS (whether internal or external). It’s designed to force a change in mindset from risk mitigation to risk removal.

We have another re-framing exercise for you today.

As we all know, incumbent OSS can be really difficult to replace / usurp. It becomes a massive exercise for a customer to change the status quo. And when you’re on the team that’s trying to instigate change (again whether you’re internal or external to the OSS customer organisation), you want to minimise the barriers to change.

The ideal replacement approach is to put a parallel pilot in place (which also bears some similarity with the strangler fig analogy). Unfortunately the pilot approach doesn’t get used as often as it could because pilot implementation projects tend to take months to stand up. This implies significant effort and cost, which in turn implies a major procurement event needs to occur.

If the parallel pilot could be stood-up in days or a couple of weeks, then it becomes a more useful replacement persuasion strategy.

So today’s re-framing exercise is to ask yourself what you could do to stand up a pilot version of your OSS in only days/weeks and at very little cost?

Let me add an extra twist to that exercise. When I say stand up the OSS in days/weeks, I also mean to hand over to the users, which means that it has to be intuitive enough for operators to begin using with almost no training. Don’t forget that the parallel solution is unlikely to have additional resources to operate it. It’s likely that the same workforce will need to operate incumbent and pilot, performing a comparison.

So, what you could do to stand up a pilot version of your OSS in only days/weeks, at very little cost and with almost immediate take-up by users?

What’s the one big factor holding back your OSS? And the exercise to reduce it

We’ve talked about some of the emotions we experience in the OSS industry earlier this week, the trauma of OSS and anxiety relating to OSS.

To avoid these types of miserable feelings, it’s human nature to seek to limit them. We over-analyse, we over-specify, we over-engineer, we over-document, we over-contract, we over-react, we over-estimate (nah, actually we almost never over-estimate do we?), we over-resource (well, actually, we don’t seem to do that very often either). Anyway, you get the “over” idea.

What is the one big factor that leads to all of these overs? What is the one big factor that makes our related costs and delivery times become overs too?

Have you guessed yet?

The answer is…… drum-roll please…… RISK.

Let’s face it. OSS projects are as full as a centipede’s sock drawer when it comes to risk. The customer carries risks, the supplier carries risk, the integrators carry risk, the sponsors carry risk, the end-users carry risk, the implementers carry risk. What a burden! And it is a burden that impacts in many ways, as indicated in the triple constraint of OSS projects.

Anyone who’s done more than a few OSS projects knows there are many risks and they tend to respond by going into over-mode (ie all the overs mentioned above). That’s a clever strategy. It’s called risk mitigation.

But today’s post isn’t about risk mitigation. It takes a contrarian approach. Let me explain.

Have you noticed how many companies build risk reduction techniques into their sales models? Phrases like “money-back guarantee” abound. This technique is designed to remove most of the risk for the customer and also remove the associated barrier to purchase. To be fair, it might not actually be a case of removing the risk, but directing all of the risk onto the seller. Marketers call it risk reversal.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “well that’s fine for high-volume, low-cost products like burgers or books, but not so easy for complex, customised solutions like OSS.” I hear you!

I’m not actually asking you to offer a money-back guarantee for your OSS, although Passionate About OSS does offer that all the way from our products through to our high-end consultancy services.

What I am asking you to do (whether customer, seller or integrator) is to run a planning exercise as if you MUST offer a money-back guarantee. What that forces is a change of mindset from risk mitigation to risk removal. It forces consideration of what are the myriad risks “in the system” (for customer, seller and integrator) and how can they be removed? Here are a few risk planning suggestions FWIW.

Set the following challenge for your analysts and engineers – Don’t come to me with a business case for the one-million-and-first feature to add, but prove your brilliance by showing me the business case for the risks you will remove. Risk reduction rather than feature-add or cost-out business cases.

Let me know what you discover and what your results are.

Becoming the Microsoft of the OSS industry

On Tuesday we pondered, “Would an OSS duopoly be a good thing?

It cited two examples of operating systems amongst other famous duopolies:

  • Microsoft / Apple (PC operating systems)
  • Google / Apple (smartphone operating systems)

Yesterday we provided an example of why consolidation is so much more challenging for OSS companies than say for Coke or Pepsi.

But maybe an operating system model could represent a path to overcome many of the challenges faced by the OSS industry. What if there were a Linux for OSS?

  • One where the drivers for any number of device types is already handled and we don’t have to worry about south-bound integrations anymore (mostly). When new devices come onto the market, they need to have agents designed to interact with the common, well-understood agents on the operating system
  • One where the user interface is generally defined and can be built upon by any number of other applications
  • One where data storage and handling is already pre-defined and additional utilities can be added to make data even easier to interact with
  • One where much of underlying technical complexity is already abstracted and the higher value functionality can be built on top

It seems to me to be a great starting point for solving many of the items listed as awaiting exponential improvement is this OSS Call for Innovation manifesto.

Interestingly, I can’t foresee any of today’s biggest OSS players developing such an operating system without a significant mindset shift. They have the resources to become the Microsoft / Apple / Google of the OSS market, but appear to be quite closed-door in their thinking. Waiting for disruption from elsewhere.

Could ONAP become the platform / OS?

Let me relate this by example. TM Forum recently ran an event called DTA in Kuala Lumpur. It was an event for sharing ideas, conversations and letting the market know all about their products. All of the small to medium suppliers were happy to talk about their products, services and offerings. By contrast, I was ordered out of the rooms of one leading, but some might say struggling, vendor because I was only a walk-up. A walk-up representing a potential customer of them, but they didn’t even ask the question about how I might be of value to them (nor vice versa).

A sad example of the challenges facing OSS supplier consolidation

Yesterday’s post, “Would an OSS duopoly be a good thing?” talked about the benefits and challenges of consolidation of the number of suppliers in the OSS market.

I also promised that today I’ll share an example of the types of challenge that can be faced.

An existing OSS supplier (Company A) had developed a significant foot-hold in the T1 telco market around Asia. They had quite a wide range of products from their total suite installed at each of these customers.

Another OSS supplier (Company X) then acquired Company A. I wasn’t privy to the reasoning behind the purchase but I can surmise that it was a case of customer and revenue growth, primarily to up-sell Company X’s complementary products into Company A’s customers. There was a little bit of functionality overlap, but not a huge amount. In fact Company A’s functionality, if integrated into Company X’s product suite, would’ve given them significantly greater product reach.

To date, the acquisition hasn’t been a good one for Company X. They haven’t been able to up-sell to any of Customer A’s existing customers, probably because there are some significant challenges relating to the introduction of that product into Asia. Not only that, but Company A’s customers had been expecting greater support and new development under new management. When it didn’t arrive (there were no new revenues to facilitate Company X investing in it), those customers started to plan OSS replacement projects.

I understand some integration efforts were investigated between Company A and Company X products, but it just wasn’t an easy fit.

As you can see, quite a few of the challenges of consolidation that were spoken about yesterday were all present in this single acquisition.

Would an OSS duopoly be a good thing?

The products/vendors page here on PAOSS has a couple of hundred entries currently. We’re currently working on an extended list that will almost double the number on it. More news on that shortly.

The level of fragmentation fascinates me, but if I’m completely honest, it probably disappoints me too. It’s great that it’s providing the platform for a long-tail of innovation. It’s exciting that there’s so many niche opportunities that exist. But it disappoints me because there’s so much duplication. How many alarm / performance / inventory / etc management tools are there? Can you imagine how many developer hours have been duplicated on similar feature development between products? And because there are so many different patterns, it means the total number of integration variants across the industry is putting a huge integration tax on us all.

Compare this to the strength of duopoly markets such as:

  • Microsoft / Apple (PC operating systems)
  • Google / Apple (smartphone operating systems)
  • Boeing / Airbus (commercial aircraft)
  • Visa / Mastercard (credit cards / payments)
  • Coca Cola / Pepsi (beverages, etc)

These duopolies have allowed for consolidation of expertise, effort, revenues/profits, etc. Most also provide a platform upon which smaller organisations / suppliers can innovate without having to re-invent everything (eg applications build upon operating systems, parts for aircraft, etc).

Buuuut……

Then I think about the impediments to achieving drastic consolidation through mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in the OSS industry.

There are opportunities to find complementary product alignment because no supplier services the entire OSS estate (where I’m using TM Forum’s TAM as a guide to the breadth of the OSS estate). However, it would be much harder to approach duopoly in OSS for a number of reasons:

  • Almost every OSS implementation is unique. Even if some of the products start out in common, they usually become quickly customised in terms of integrations, configurations, processes, etc
  • Interfaces to networks and other systems can vary so much. Modern EMS / devices / systems are becoming a little more consistent with IP, SNMP, Web APIs, etc. However, our networks still tend to have a lot of legacy protocols to interface with our networks
  • Consolidation of product lines becomes much harder, partly because of the integrations above, but partly because the functionality-sets and workflows differ so vastly between similar products (eg inventory management tools)
  • Similarly, architectures and build platforms (eg programming languages) are not easily compatible
  • Implementations are often regional for a variety of reasons – regulatory, local partnerships / relationships, language, corporate culture, etc
  • Customers can be very change-averse, even when they’re instigating the change

By contrast, we regularly hear of Coca Cola buying up new brands. It’s relatively easy for Coke to add a new product line/s without having much impact on existing lines.

We also hear about Google’s acquisitions, adding complementary products into its product line or simple for the purpose of acquiring new talent / expertise. There’s also acquisitions for the purpose of removing competitors or buying into customer bases.

Harder in all cases in the OSS industry.

Tomorrow we’ll share a story about an M&A attempting to buy into a customer base.

Then on Thursday, a story awaits on a possibly disruptive strategy towards consolidation in OSS.

To link or not to link your OSS. That is the question

The first OSS project I worked on had a full-suite, single vendor solution. All products within the suite were integrated into a single database and that allowed their product developers to introduce a lot of cross-linking. That has its strengths and weaknesses.

The second OSS suite I worked with came from one of the world’s largest network vendors and integrators. Their suite primarily consisted of third-party products that they integrated together for the customer. It was (arguably) a best-of-breed all implemented as a single solution, but since the products were disparate, there was very little cross-linking. This approach also has strengths and weaknesses.

I’d become so used to the massive data migration and cross-referencing exercise required by the first OSS that I was stunned by the lack of time allocated by the second vendor for their data migration activities. The first took months and a significant level of expertise. The second took days and only required fairly simple data sets. That’s a plus for the second OSS.

However, the second OSS was severely lacking in cross-domain data, which impacted the richness of insight that could be easily unlocked.

Let me give an example to give better context.

We know that a trouble ticketing system is responsible for managing the tracking, reporting and resolution of problems in a network operator’s network. This could be as simple as a repository for storing a problem identifier and a list of notes performed to resolve the problem. There’s almost no cross-linking required.

A more referential ticketing system might have links to:

  • Alarm management – to show the events linked to the problem
  • Inventory management – to show the impacted resources (or possibly impacted)
  • Service management – to show the services impacted
  • Customer management – to show the customers impacted and possibly the related customer interactions
  • Spares management – to show the life-cycle of physical resources impacted
  • Workforce management – to manage the people / teams performing restorative actions
  • etc

The referential ticketing system gives far richer information, obviously, but you have to trade that off against the amount of integration and data maintenance that needs to go into supporting it. The question to ask is what level of linking is justifiable from a cost-benefit perspective.

Treating your OSS/BSS suite like a share portfolio

Like most readers, I’m sure your OSS/BSS suite consists of many components. What if you were to look at each of those components as assets? In a share portfolio, you analyse your stocks to see which assets are truly worth keeping and which should be divested.

We don’t tend to take such a long-term analytical view of our OSS/BSS components. We may regularly talk about their performance anecdotally, but I’m talking about a strategic analysis approach.

If you were to look at each of your OSS/BSS components, where would you put them in the BCG Matrix?
BCG matrix
Image sourced from NetMBA here.

How many of your components are giving a return (whatever that may mean in your organisation) and/or have significant growth potential? How many are dogs that are a serious drain on your portfolio?

From an investor’s perspective, we seek to double-down our day-to-day investment in cash-cows and stars. Equally, we seek to divest our dogs.

But that’s not always the case with our OSS/BSS porfolio. We sometimes spend so much of our daily activity tweaking around the edges, trying to fix our dogs or just adding more things into our OSS/BSS suite – all of which distracts us from increasing the total value of our portfolio.

To paraphrase this Motley Fool investment strategy article into an OSS/BSS context:

  • Holding too many shares in a portfolio can crowd out returns for good ideas – being precisely focused on what’s making a difference rather than being distracted by having too many positions. Warren Buffett recommends taking 5-10 positions in companies that you are confident in holding forever (or for a very long period of time), rather than constantly switching. I shall note though that software could arguably be considered to be more perishable than the institutions we invest in – software doesn’t tend to last for decades (except some OSS perhaps  😀 )
  • Good ideas are scarce – ensuring you’re not getting distracted by the latest trends and buzzwords
  • Competitive knowledge advantage – knowing your market segment / portfolio extremely well and how to make the most of it, rather than having to up-skill on every new tool that you bring into the suite
  • Diversification isn’t lost – ensuring there is suitable vendor/product diversification to minimise risk, but also being open to long-term strategic changes in the product mix

Day-trading of OSS / BSS tools might be a fun hobby for those of us who solution them, but is it as beneficial as long-run investment?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

My favourite OSS saying

My favourite OSS saying – “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

OSS are amazing things. They’re designed to gather, process and compile all sorts of information from all sorts of sources. I like to claim that OSS/BSS are the puppet masters of any significant network operator because they assist in every corner of the business. They assist with the processes carried out by almost every business unit.

They can be (and have been) adapted to fulfill all sorts of weird and wonderful requirements. That’s the great thing about software. It can be *easily* modified to do almost anything you want. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

In many cases, we have looked at a problem from a technical perspective and determined that our OSS can (and did) solve it. But if the same problem were also looked at from business and/or operational perspectives, would it make sense for our OSS to solve it?

Some time back, I was involved in a micro project that added 1 new field to an existing report. Sounds simple. Unfortunately by the time all the rigorous deploy and transition processes were followed, to get the update into PROD, the support bill from our team alone ran into tens of thousands of dollars. Months later, I found out that the business unit that had requested the additional field had a bug in their code and wasn’t even picking up the extra field. Nobody had even noticed until a secondary bug prompted another developer to ask how the original code was functioning.

It wasn’t deemed important enough to fix. Many tens of thousands of dollars were wasted because we didn’t think to ask up the design tree why the functionality was (wasn’t) important to the business.

Other examples are when we use the OSS to solve a problem by expensive customisation / integration when manual processes can do the job more cash efficiently.

Another example was a client that had developed hundreds of customisations to resolve annoying / cumbersome, but incredibly rare tasks. The efficiency of removing those tasks didn’t come close to compensating for the expense of building the automations / tools. Just one sample of those tools was a $1000 efficiency improvement for a ~$200,000 project cost… on a task that had only been run twice in the preceding 5 years.