An OSS doomsday scenario

If I start talking about doomsday scenarios where the global OSS job industry is decimated, most people will immediately jump to the conclusion that I’m predicting an artificial intelligence (AI) takeover. AI could have a role to play, but is not a key facet of the scenario I’m most worried about.
OSS doomsday scenario

You’d think that OSS would be quite a niche industry, but there must be thousands of OSS practitioners in my home town of Melbourne alone. That’s partly due to large projects currently being run in Australia by major telcos such as nbn, Telstra, SingTel-Optus and Vodafone, not to mention all the smaller operators. Some of these projects are likely to scale back in coming months / years, meaning less seats in a game of OSS musical chairs. But this isn’t the doomsday scenario I’m hinting at in the title either. There will still be many roles at the telcos and the vendors / integrators that support them.

There are hundreds of OSS vendors in the market now, with no single dominant player. It’s a really fragmented market that would appear to be ripe for M&A (mergers and acquisitions). Ripe for consolidation, but massive consolidation is still not the doomsday scenario because there would still be many OSS roles in that situation.

The doomsday scenario I’m talking about is one where only one OSS gains domination globally. But how?

Most traditional telcos have a local geographic footprint with partners/subsidiaries in other parts of the world, but are constrained by the costs and regulations of a wired or cellular footprint to be able to reach all corners of the globe. All that uniqueness currently leads to the diversity of OSS offerings we see today. The doomsday scenario arises if one single network operator usurps all the traditional telcos and their legacy network / OSS / BSS stacks in one technological fell swoop.

How could a disruption of that magnitude happen? I’m not going to predict, but a satellite constellation such as the one proposed by Starlink has some of the hallmarks of such a scenario. By using low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites (ie lower latency than geostationary satellite solutions), point-to-point laser interconnects between them and peering / caching of data in the sky, it could fundamentally change the world of communications and OSS.

It has global reach, no need for carrier interconnect (hence no complex contract negotiations or OSS/BSS integration for that matter), no complicated lead-in negotiations or reinstatements, no long-haul terrestrial or submarine cable systems. None of the traditional factors that cost so much time and money to get customers connected and keep them connected (only the complication of getting and keeping the constellation of birds in the sky – but we’ll put that to the side for now). It would be hard for traditional telcos to compete.

I’m not suggesting that Starlink can or will be THE ubiquitous global communications network. What if Google, AWS or Microsoft added this sort of capability to their strengths in hosting / data? Such a model introduces a new, consistent network stack without the telcos’ tech debt burdens discussed here. The streamlined network model means the variant tree is millions of times simpler. And if the variant tree is that much simpler, so is the operations model and so is the OSS… with one distinct contradiction. It would need to scale for billions of customers rather than millions and trillions of events.

You might be wondering about all the enterprise OSS. Won’t they survive? Probably not. Comms networks are generally just an important means-to-an-end for enterprises. If the one global network provider were to service every organisation with local or global WANs, as well as all the hosting they would need, and hosted zero-touch network operations like Google is already pre-empting, would organisation have a need to build or own an on-premises OSS?

One ubiquitous global network, with a single pared back but hyperscaled OSS, most likely purpose-built with self-healing and/or AI as core constructs (not afterthoughts / retrofits like for existing OSS). How many OSS roles would survive that doomsday scenario?

Do you have an alternative OSS doomsday scenario that you’d like to share?

Hat tip again to Jay Fenton for pointing out what Starlink has been up to.

The OSS farm equipment analogy

OSS End of Financial Year
It’s an interesting season as we come up to the EOFY (end of financial year – on 30 June). Budget cycles are coming to an end. At organisations that don’t carry un-spent budgets into the next financial year, the looming EOFY triggers a use-it-or-lose-it mindset.

In some cases, organisations are almost forced to allocate funds on OSS investments even if they haven’t always had the time to identify requirements and / or model detailed return projections. That’s normally anathema to me because an OSS‘ reputation is determined by the demonstrable value it creates for years to come. However, I can completely understand a client’s short-term objectives. The challenge we face is to minimise any risk of short-term spend conflicting with long-term objectives.

I take the perspective of allocating funds to build the most generally useful asset (BTW, I like Robert Kiyosaki’s simple definition of an asset as, “in reality, an asset is only something that puts money in your pocket,”) In the case of OSS, putting money in one’s pocket needs to consider earnings [or cost reductions] that exceed outgoings such as maintenance, licensing, operations, etc as well as cost of capital. Not a trivial task!

So this is where the farm equipment analogy comes in.

If we haven’t had the chance to conduct demand estimation (eg does the telco’s market want the equivalent of wheat, rice, stone fruit, etc) or product mix modelling (ie which mix of those products will bear optimal returns) then it becomes hard to predict what type of machinery is best fit for our future crops. If we haven’t confirmed that we’ll focus efforts on wheat, then it could be a gamble to invest big in a combine harvester (yet). We probably also don’t want to invest capital and ongoing maintenance on a fruit tree shaker if our trees won’t begin bearing fruit for another few years.

Therefore, a safer investment recommendation would be on a general-purpose machine that is most likely to be useful for any type of crop (eg a tractor).

In OSS terminology, if you’re not sure if your product mix will provision 100 customers a day or 100,000 then it could be a little risky to invest in an off-the-shelf orchestration / provisioning engine. Still potentially risky, but less so, would be to invest in a resource and service inventory solution (if you have a lot of network assets), alarm management tools (if you process a lot of alarms), service order entry, workforce management, etc.

Having said that, a lot of operators already have a strong gut-feel for where they intend to get returns on their investment. They may not have done the numbers extensively, but they know their market roadmap. If wheat is your specialty, go ahead and get the combine harvester.

I’d love to get your take on this analogy. How do you invest capital in your OSS without being sure of the projections (given that we’re never sure on projections becoming reality)?

1.045 Trillion reasons to re-consider your OSS strategy

The global Internet of Things (IoT) market will be worth $1.1 trillion in revenue by 2025 as market value shifts from connectivity to platforms, applications and services. By that point, there will be more than 25 billion IoT connections (cellular and non-cellular), driven largely by growth in the industrial IoT market. The Asia Pacific region is forecast to become the largest global IoT region in terms of both connections and revenue.
Although connectivity revenue will grow over the period, it will only account for 5 per cent of the total IoT revenue opportunity by 2025, underscoring the need for operators to expand their capabilities beyond connectivity in order to capture a greater share of market value
.”
GSMA Intelligence
, referred to here.

Let’s look at these projected numbers. The GSMA Intelligence report forecasts only 5 cents in every dollar of IoT spend (of a $1.1T market opportunity) will be allocated to connectivity. That leaves $1.045T on the table if network operators just focus on connectivity.

Traditional OSS tend to focus on managing connectivity – less so on managing marketplaces, customer-facing platforms and applications. Does that headline number – $1.045T – provide you with an incentive to re-consider what your OSS manages and future use cases?

IoT OSS market opportunity

IoT requires slightly different OSS thinking:

  • Rather than integrating to a (relatively) small number of device types, IoT will have an almost infinite number of sensor types from a huge range of suppliers.
  • Rather than managing devices individually, their sheer volume means that devices will need to be increasingly managed in cohorts via policy controls.
  • Rather than a fairly narrow set of network-comms based services, functionality explodes into diverse areas like metering, vehicle fleets, health-care, manufacturing, asset controls, etc, etc so IoT controllers will need to be developed by a much longer-tail of suppliers (meaning open development platforms and/or scalable certification processes to integrate into the IoT controller platforms).
  • There are undoubtedly many, many additional differences.

Caveat: I haven’t evaluated the claims / numbers in the GSMA Intelligence report. This blog is just to prompt a thought-experiment around hypothetical projections.

How economies of unscale change the OSS landscape

For more than a century, economies of scale made the corporation an ideal engine of business. But now, a flurry of important new technologies, accelerated by artificial intelligence (AI), is turning economies of scale inside out. Business in the century ahead will be driven by economies of unscale, in which the traditional competitive advantages of size are turned on their head.
Economies of unscale are enabled by two complementary market forces: the emergence of platforms and technologies that can be rented as needed. These developments have eroded the powerful inverse relationship between fixed costs and output that defined economies of scale. Now, small, unscaled companies can pursue niche markets and successfully challenge large companies that are weighed down by decades of investment in scale — in mass production, distribution, and marketing
.”
Hemant Taneja with Kevin Maney
in their Sloan Review article, “The End of Scale.”

There are two pathways I can envisage OSS playing a part in the economies of unscale indicated in the Sloan Review quote above.

The first is the changing way of working towards smaller, more nimble organisations, which includes increasing freelancing. There are already many modularised activities managed within an OSS, such as field work, designs, third-party service bundling, where unscale is potentially an advantage. OSS natively manages all these modules with existing tools, whether that’s ticketing, orchestration, provisioning, design, billing, contract management, etc.

Add smart contract management and John Reilly’s value fabric will undoubtedly increase in prevalence. John states that a value fabric is a mesh of interwoven, cooperating organizations and individuals, called parties, who directly or indirectly deliver value to customers. It gives the large, traditional network operators the chance to be more creative in their use of third parties when they look beyond their “Not Invented Here” syndrome of the past. It also provides the opportunity to develop innovative supply and procurement chains (meshes) that can generate strategic competitive advantage.

The second comes with an increasing openness to using third-party platforms and open-source OSS tools within operator environments. The OSS market is already highly fragmented, from multi-billion dollar companies (by market capitalisation) through to niche, even hobby, projects. However, there tended to be barriers to entry for the small or hobbyist OSS provider – they either couldn’t scale their infrastructure or they didn’t hold the credibility mandated by risk averse network operators.

As-a-Service platforms have changed the scale dynamic because they now allow OSS developers to rent infrastructure on a pay-as-you-eat model. In other words, the more their customers consume, the more infrastructure an OSS supplier can afford to rent from platforms such as AWS. More importantly, this become a possibility because operators are now increasingly open to renting third-party services on shared (but compartmentalised / virtualised) infrastructure. BTW. When I say “infrastructure” here, I’m not just talking about compute / network / storage but also virtualisation, containerisation, databases, AI, etc, etc.

Similarly, the credibility barrier-to-entry is being pulled down like the Berlin Wall as operators are increasingly investing in open-source projects. There are large open-source OSS projects / platforms being driven by the carriers themselves (eg ONAP, OpenStack, OPNFV, etc) that are accommodative of smaller plug-in modules. Unlike the proprietary, monolithic OSS/BSS stacks of the past, these platforms are designed with collaboration and integration being front-of-mind.

However, there’s an element of “potential” in these economies of unscale. Andreas Hegers likens open-source to the wild west, as many settlers seek to claim their patch of real-estate in an uncharted map. Andreas states further, “In theory, vendor interoperability from open source should be convenient — even harmonious — with innovations being shared like recipes. Unfortunately for many, the system has not lived up to this reality.”

Where do you sit on the potential of economies of unscale and open-source OSS?

A new phenomenon for IT

In the past, business-oriented groups have had ideas about what they want to do and then they come to us… Now, they want to know what technology can bring to the table and then they’ll work on the business plan.
So there’s a big gap here. It’s a phenomenon that’s been happening in the last year and it’s an uncomfortable place for IT. We’re not used to having to lead in that way. We have been more in the order-taker business.

Veenod Kurup
, Liberty Global, Group CIO.

That’s a really thought-provoking insight from Veenod isn’t it? Technology driving the business rather than business driving the technology. Technology as the business advantage.

I’ll be honest here – I never thought I’d see that day although I… guess… as e-business increases, the dependency on tech increases in lockstep. I’m passionate about tech, but also of the opinion that the tech is only a means to an end.

So if what Veenod says is reflective of a macro-trend across all industry then he’s right in saying that we’re going to have some very uncomfortable situations for some tech experts. Many will have to widen their field of view from a tech-only vision to a business vision.

Maybe instead the business-oriented groups could just come to the OSS / BSS department and speak with our valuable tripods. After all, we own and run the information and systems where business (BSS) meets technology (OSS) right? Or as previously reiterated on this blog, we have the opportunity to take the initiative and demonstrate the business value within our OSS / BSS.

PS. hat-tip to Dawn Bushaus for unearthing the quote from Veenod in her article on Inform.

Reducing the lumps with OSS services

As promised in yesterday’s post about lumpy revenues for OSS product companies, today we’ll discuss OSS professional services revenues and the contrasting mindset compared with products.

Professional services revenues are a great way of smoothing out the lumpy revenue streams of traditional OSS product companies. There’s just one problem though. Of all the vendors I’ve worked with, I’ve found that they always have a predilection – they either have a product mindset or a services mindset and struggle to do both well because the mindsets are quite different.

Not only that but we can break professional services into two categories:

  1. Product-related services – the installation and commissioning of products; and
  2. Consultancy-based services – the value-add services that drive business value from the OSS / BSS

Product companies provide product-related services, naturally. I can’t help but think that if we as an industry provided more of the consultancy-based services, we’d have more justification for greater spend on OSS / BSS (and smoother revenue streams in the process).

Having said that, PAOSS specialises in consultancy-based services (as well as install / commission / delivery services), so we’re always happy to help organisations that need assistance in this space!!

It’s all a bit lumpy

Being an OSS product supplier to telecom operators is a tough business. There is a constant stream of outgoings on developer costs, cost of sale, general overheads, etc. Unfortunately revenue streams are rarely so smooth. In fact, they tend to be decidedly lumpy – unpredictable (in terms of timelines when forecasting inflows years in advance) but large spikes of income stemming from customer implementations.

Not only that, but the risks are high due to the complexity and unknowns of OSS implementation projects as well as the lack of repeatability that was discussed in yesterday’s post.

Enduringly valuable businesses achieve their status through predictable, diversified, recurring (and preferably growing) revenue streams, so they need to be objectives of our OSS business models.

Annual maintenance fees (usually in the order of 20-22% of up-front list prices) is the most common recurring revenue model used by OSS product suppliers. Transaction-based pricing is another common model.

Cloud subscription (consumption) based models are also becoming more common, although there are always challenges around convincing carriers of the security and sovereignty of such important tools and data being hosted off-site.

I’m fascinated with the platform-plays, like Salesforce, which is a mushrooming form of the subscription model because there’s an ecosystem (or marketplace) of sellers contributing to transaction volumes. OSS and BSS are the perfect platform play but I haven’t seen any built around this style of revenue model yet. [Please let me know if I’ve missed any].

It has also been interesting to observe Cisco’s market success on the back of a perceived revenue shift towards more software and services.

Whenever considering alternate revenue models, I refer back to this great image from Ross Dawson:
Revenue Models
Do any apply to your OSS? Can any apply to your OSS?

Tomorrow we’ll discuss OSS professional services revenues and the contrasting mindset compared with products.

Have I got an OSS deal for you!?!

Tending to be a low-volume, high-customisation, high-uniqueness product, OSS has a significantly different selling proposition than most “box drop” products.

Can you imagine if OSS salespeople used any of these “great deal” propositions (as described by Gary Halbert)?
“I’m going out of business.”
“I just had a fire and I’m having a fire sale.”
“I’m crazy.” (all used car dealers)
“I owe taxes and I’ve got to raise money fast to pay them.”
“I’ve lost my lease and I’ve got to sell this merchandise right away before it gets thrown into the sheet.”
“I’ve got to make space for some new merchandise that is arriving soon so I will sell you what I have on hand real cheap.”

Did the image of an OSS salesperson saying any of those, especially the first, bring a smile to your face?

Anyway, Gary’s article also goes on to say, “…I wrote: “and if you can find a way to use it, you can dramatically increase your sales volume.”
Now, compare that to this: “and if you can find a way to use it, you can make yourself a bushel of money!”
Isn’t that a lot more powerful? You bet! The words “dramatically increase your sales volume” do not even begin to conjure up the visual imagery of “a bushel of money
.””

From what I’ve experienced on the client side of the buying equation, OSS selling propositions seem to be driven by functionality. I call it the functionality arms-race, where vendors compete on functionality rather than efficacy. In a way, it’s the “sales volume” variant mentioned by Gary above.

The other approach that does align more closely with the “bushel of money” variant is the cost-out discussion. It’s the, “if you implement this OSS, you’ll be able to reduce head-count in your operations team,” argument. That’s definitely important for any operator that sees their OSS as a cost-centre. However, it’s a “save a bushel of money” argument rather than the more powerful “make a bushel of money” argument.

In reply to a recent post, James Crawshaw of Light Reading wrote, “OSS/BSS represents around 2-3% of revenue and takes up around 10% of capex.” I initially read this as OSS/BSS contributing 2-3% of revenue (ie the higher the percentage the better). However, James clarified that our IT/OSS/BSS tend to consume 2-3% of revenue (ie the lower the percentage the better).

Can you imagine how these tiny wording/perspective differences could change the credibility of the whole OSS/BSS industry? As soon as our OSS make a bushel of money, then the selling proposition becomes a whole lot stronger.

Powerful ranking systems with hidden variables

There are ratings and rankings that ostensibly exist to give us information (and we are supposed to use that information to change our behavior).
But if we don’t know what variables matter, how is it supposed to be useful?
Just because it can be easily measured with two digits doesn’t mean that it’s accurate, important or useful.
[Marketers learned a long time ago that people love rankings and daily specials. The best way to boost sales is to put something in a little box on the menu, and, when in doubt, rank things. And sometimes people even make up the rankings.]

Seth Godin
here.

Are there any rankings that are made up in OSS? Our OSS collect an amazing amount of data so there’s rarely a need to make up the data we present.

Are they based on hidden variables? Generally, we use raw counters and / or well known metrics so we’re usually quite transparent with what our OSS present.

What about when we’re trying to select the right vendor to fulfill the OSS needs of our organisation? As Seth states, Just because it can be easily measured with two digits* doesn’t mean that it’s accurate, important or useful. [* In this case, I’m thinking of a 2 x 2 matrix].

The interesting thing about OSS ranking systems is that there is so much nuance in the variables that matter. There are potentially hundreds of evaluation criteria and even vast contrasts in how to interpret a given criteria.

For example, a criteria might be “time to activate a service.” A vendor might have a really efficient workflow for activating single services manually but have no bulk load or automation interface. For one operator (which does single activations manually), the TTAS metric for that product would be great, but for another operator (which does thousands of activations a day and tries to automate), the TTAS metric for the same product would be awful.

As much as we love ranking systems… there are hundreds of products on the market (in some cases, hundreds of products in a single operator’s OSS stack), each fitting unique operator needs differently… so a 2 x 2 matrix is never going to cut it as a vendor selection tool… not even as a short-listing tool.

Better to build yourself a vendor selection framework. You can find a few OSS product / vendor selection hints here based on the numerous vendor / product selections I’ve helped customers with in the past.

Training network engineers to code, not vice versa

Did any of you read the Light Reading link in yesterday’s post about Google creating automated network operations services? If you haven’t, it’s well worth a read.

If you did, then you may’ve also noticed a reference to Finland’s Elisa selling its automation smarts to other telcos. This is another interesting business model disruption for the OSS market, although I’ll reserve judgement on how disruptive it will be until Elisa sells to a few more operators.

What did catch my eye in the Elisa article (again by Light Reading’s Iain Morris), is this paragraph:
Automation has not been hassle-free for Elisa. Instilling a software culture throughout the organization has been a challenge, acknowledges [Kirsi] Valtari. Rather than recruiting software expertise, Elisa concentrated on retraining the people it already had. During internal training courses, network engineers have been taught to code in Python, a popular programming language, and to write algorithms for a self-optimizing network (or SON). “The idea was to get engineers who were previously doing manual optimization to think about automating it,” says Valtari. “These people understand network problems and so it is a win-win outcome to go down this route.”.

It provides a really interesting perspective on this diagram below (from a 2014 post about the ideal skill-set for the future of networking)

There is an undoubted increase in the level of network / IT overlap (eg SDN). Most operators appear to be taking the path of hiring for IT and hoping they’ll grow to understand networks. Elisa is going the opposite way and training their network engineers to code.

With either path, if they then train their multi-talented engineers to understand the business (the red intersect), then they’ll have OSS experts on their hands right folks?? 😉

Automated Network Operations as a Service (ANOaaS)

Google has started applying its artificial intelligence (AI) expertise to network operations and expects to make its tools available to companies building virtual networks on its global cloud platform.
That could be a troubling sign for network technology vendors such as Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), which now see AI in the network environment as a potential differentiator and growth opportunity…
Google already uses software-defined network (SDN) technology as the bedrock of this infrastructure and last week revealed details of an in-development “Google Assistant for Networking” tool, designed to further minimize human intervention in network processes.
That tool would feature various data models to handle tasks related to network topology, configuration, telemetry and policy.
.”
Iain Morris
here on Light Reading.

This is an interesting, but predictable, turn of events isn’t it? If (when?) automated network operations as a service (ANOaaS) is perfected, it has the ability to significantly change the OSS space doesn’t it?

Let’s have a look at this from a few scenarios (and I’m considering ANOaaS from the perspective of any of the massive cloud providers who are also already developing significant AI/ML resource pools, not just Google).

Large Enterprise, Utilities, etc with small networks (by comparison to telco networks), where the network and network operations are simply a cost of doing business rather than core business. Virtual networks and ANOaaS seem like an attractive model for these types of customer (ignoring data sovereignty concerns and the myriad other local contexts for now). Outsourcing this responsibility significantly reduces CAPEX and head-count to run what’s effectively non-core business. This appears to represent a big disruptive risk for the many OSS vendors who service the Enterprise / Utilities market (eg Solarwinds, CA, etc, etc).

T2/3 Telcos with relatively small networks that tend to run lean operations. In this scenario, the network is core business but having a team of ML/AI expects is hard to justify. Automations are much easier to build for homogeneous (consistent) infrastructure platforms (like those of the cloud providers) than for those carrying different technologies (like T2/T3 telcos perhaps?). Combine complexity, lack of scale and lack of large ML/AI resource pools and it becomes hard for T2/T3 telcos to deliver cost-effective ANOaaS either internally or externally to their customer base. Perhaps outsourcing the network (ie VNO) and ANOaaS allows these operators to focus more on sales?

T1 Telcos have large networks, heterogenous platforms and large workforces where the network is core business. The question becomes whether they can build network cloud at the scale and price-point of Amazon, Microsoft, Google, etc. This is partly dependent upon internal processes, but also on what vendors like Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia can deliver, as quoted as a risk above.

As you probably noticed, I just made up ANOaaS. Does a term already exist for this? How do you think it’s going to change the OSS and telco markets?

Is service personalisation the answer?

The actions taken by the telecom industry have mostly been around cost cutting, both in terms of opex and capex, and that has not resulted in breaking the curve. Too few activities has been centered around revenue growth, such as focused activities in personalization, customer experience, segmentation, targeted offerings that become part of or drive ecosystems. These activities are essential if you want to break the curve; thus, it is time to gear up for growth… I am very surprised that very few, if any, service providers today collect and analyze data, create dynamic targeted offerings based on real-time insights, and do that per segment or individual.”
Lars Sandstrom
, here.

I have two completely opposite and conflicting perspectives on the pervading wisdom of personalised services (including segmentation of one and targeted offerings) in the telecoms industry.

Telcos tend to be large organisations. If I invest in a large organisation it’s because the business model is simple, repeatable and has a moat (as Warren Buffett likes to say). Personalisation is contra to two of those three mantras – personalisation makes our OSS/BSS far more complicated and hence less repeatable (unless we build in lots of automations, which BTW, are inherently more complex).

I’m more interested in reliable and enduring profitability than just revenue growth (not that I’m discounting the search for revenue growth of course). The complexity of personalisation leads to significant increases in systems costs. As such, you’d want to be really sure that personalisation is going to give an even larger up-tick in revenues (ie ROI). Seems like a big gamble to me.

For my traditional telco services, I don’t want personalised, dynamic offers that I have to evaluate and make decisions on regularly. I want set and forget (mostly). It’s a bit like my electricity – I don’t want to constantly choose between green electricity, blue electricity, red electricity – I just want my appliances to work when I turn on the switch and not have bill shock at the end of the month / quarter. In telco, it’s not just green / blue / red. We seem to want to create the millions of shades of the rainbow, which is a nightmare for OSS/BSS implementers.

I can see the argument however for personalisation in what I’ll call the over-the-top services (let’s include content and apps as well). Telcos tend to be much better suited to building the platforms that support the whole long tail than selecting individual winners (except perhaps supply of popular content like sport broadcasts, etc).

So, if I’m looking for a cool, challenging project or to sell some products or services (you’ll notice that the quote above is on a supplier’s blog BTW), then I’ll definitely recommend personalisation. But if I want my telco customers to be reliably profitable…

Am I taking a short-term view on this? Is personalisation going to be expected by all end-users in future, leaving providers with no choice but to go down this path??

A purple cow in our OSS paddock

A few years ago, I read a book that had a big impact on the way I thought about OSS and OSS product development. Funnily enough, the book had nothing to do with OSS or product development. It was a book about marketing – a subject that I wasn’t very familiar with at the time, but am now fascinated with.

And the book? Purple Cow by Seth Godin.
Purple Cow

The premise behind the book is that when we go on a trip into the countryside, we notice the first brown or black cows, but after a while we don’t pay attention to them anymore. The novelty has worn off and we filter them out. But if there was a purple cow, that would be remarkable. It would definitely stand out from all the other cows and be talked about. Seth promoted the concept of building something into your products that make them remarkable, worth talking about.

I recently heard an interview with Seth. Despite the book being launched in 2003, apparently he’s still asked on a regular basis whether idea X is a purple cow. His answer is always the same – “I don’t decide whether your idea is a purple cow. The market does.”

That one comment brought a whole new perspective to me. As hard as we might try to build something into our OSS products that create a word-of-mouth buzz, ultimately we don’t decide if it’s a purple cow concept. The market does.

So let me ask you a question. You’ve probably seen plenty of different OSS products over the years (I know I have). How many of them are so remarkable that you want to talk about them with your OSS colleagues, or even have a single feature that’s remarkable enough to discuss?

There are a lot of quite brilliant OSS products out there, but I would still classify almost all of them as brown cows. Brilliant in their own right, but unremarkable for their relative sameness to lots of others.

The two stand-out purple cows for me in recent times have been CROSS’ built-in data quality ranking and Moogsoft’s Incident Room model. But it’s not for me to decide. The market will ultimately decide whether these features are actual purple cows.

I’d love to hear about your most memorable OSS purple cows.

You may also be wondering how to go about developing your own purple OSS cow. Well I start by asking, “What are people complaining about?” or “What are our biggest issues?” That’s where the opportunities lie. Once discovering those issues, the challenge is solving the problem/s in an entirely different, but better, way. I figure that if people care enough to complain about those issues, then they’re sure to talk about any product that solves the problem for them.

Re-writing the Sales vs Networks cultural divide

Brand, marketing, pricing and sales were seen as sexy. Networks and IT were the geeks no one seemed to speak to or care about. … This isolation and excommunication of our technical team had created an environment of disillusion. If you wanted something done the answer was mostly ‘No – we have no budget and no time for that’. Our marketing team knew more about loyalty points … than about our own key product, the telecommunications network.”
Olaf Swantee
, from his book, “4G Mobile Revolution”

Great note here (picked up by James Crawshaw at Heavy Reading). It talks about the great divide that always seems to exist between Sales / Marketing and Network / Ops business units.

I’m really excited about the potential for next generation OSS / orchestration / NaaS (Network as a Service) architectures to narrow this divide though.

In this case:

  1. The Network is offered as a microservice (let’s abstractly call them Resource Facing Services [RFS]);
  2. Sales / Marketing construct customer offerings (let’s call them Customer Facing Services [CFS]) from those RFS; and
  3. There’s a catalog / orchestration layer that marries the CFS with the cohesive set of RFS

The third layer becomes a meet-in-the-middle solution where Sales / Marketing comes together with Network / Ops – and where they can discuss what customers want and what the network can provide.

The RFS are suitably abstracted that Sales / Marketing doesn’t need to understand the network and complexity that sits behind the veil. Perhaps it’s time for Networks / Ops to shine, where the RFS can be almost as sexy as CFS (am I falling too far into the networks / geeky side of the divide?  🙂  )

The CFS are infinitely composable from RFS (within the constraints of the RFS that are available), allowing Sales / Marketing teams to build whatever they want and the Network / Ops teams don’t have to be constantly reacting to new customer offerings.

I wonder if this revolution will give Olaf cause to re-write this section of his book in a few years, or whether we’ll still have the same cultural divide despite the exciting new tools.

Is your data AI-ready (part 2)

Further to yesterday’s post that posed the question about whether your data was AI ready for virtualised network assurance use cases, I thought I’d raise a few more notes.

The two reasons posed were:

  1. Our data sets haven’t had time to collect much elastic / dynamic network data yet
  2. Our data is riddled with human-generated data that is error-prone

On the latter case in particular, I sense that we’re going to have to completely re-architect the way we collect and store assurance data. We’re almost definitely going to have to think in terms of automated assurance actions and related logging to avoid the errors of human data creation / logging. The question becomes whether it’s worthwhile trying to wrangle all of our old data into formats that the AI engines can cope with or do we just start afresh with new models? (This brings to mind the recent “perfect data” discussion).

It will be one thing to identify patterns, but another thing entirely to identify optimum response activities and to automate those.

If we get these steps right, does it become logical that the NOC (network) and SOC (security operations centre) become conjoined… at least much more so than they tend to be today? In other words, does incident management merge network incidents and security incidents onto common analysis and response platforms? If so, does that imply another complete re-architecture? It certainly changes the operations model.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and predictions.

One sentence to make most OSS experts cringe

Let me warn you. The following sentence is going to make many OSS experts cringe, maybe even feel slightly disgusted, but take the time to read the remainder of the post and ponder how it fits within your specific OSS context/s.

“Our OSS need to help people spend money!”

Notice the word is “help” and not “coerce?” This is not a post about turning our OSS into sales tools, well, not directly anyway.

May I ask you a question – Do you ever spend time thinking about how your OSS is helping your customer’s customer (which I’ll refer to as the end-customer) to spend their money? And I mean making it easier for them to buy the stuff they want to buy in return for some form of value / utility, not trick or coerce them into buying stuff they don’t want.

Let me step you through the layers of thinking here.

The first layer for most OSS experts is their direct customer, which is usually the service provider or enterprise that buys and operates the OSS. We might think they are buying an OSS, but we’re wrong. An organisation buys an OSS, not because it wants an Operational Support System, but because it wants Operational Support.

The second layer is a distinct mindset change for most OSS experts. Following on from the first layer, OSS has the potential to be far more than just operational support. Operational support conjures up the image of being a cost-centre, or something that is a necessary evil of doing business (ie in support of other revenue-raising activities). To remain relevant and justify OSS project budgets, we have to flip the cost-centre mentality and demonstrate a clear connection with revenue chains. The more obvious the connection, the better. Are you wondering how?

That’s where the third layer comes in. We have to think hard about the end-customer and empathise with their experiences. These experiences might be a consumer to a service provider’s (your direct customer) product offerings. It might even be a buying cycle that the service provider’s products facilitate. Either way, we need to simplify their ability to buy.

So let’s work back up through those layers again:
Layer 3 – If end-customers find it easier to buy stuff, then your customer wins more revenue (and brand value)
Layer 2 – If your customer sees that its OSS / BSS has unquestionably influenced revenue increase, then more is invested on OSS projects
Layer 1 – If your customer recognises that your OSS / BSS has undeniably influenced the increased OSS project budget, you too get entrusted with a greater budget to attempt to repeat the increased end-customer buy cycle… but only if you continue to come up with ideas that make it easier for people (end-customers) to spend their money.

At what layer does your thinking stop?

How smart contracts might reduce risk and enhance trust on OSS projects

Last Friday, we spoke about all wanting to develop trusted OSS supplier / customer relationships but rarely finding them and a contrarian factor for why trust is so hard to achieve in OSS – complexity.

Trust is the glue that allows OSS projects to happen. Not only that, it becomes a catch-22 with complexity. If OSS partners don’t trust each other, requirements, contracts, etc get more complex as a self-protection barrier. But with every increase in complexity, there becomes an increasing challenge to deliver and hence, risk of further reduction in trust.

On a smaller scale, you’ve seen it on all projects – if the project starts to falter, increased monitoring attention is placed on the project, which puts increased administrative load on the project team and reduces the time they have to deliver the intended outcomes. Sometimes the increased admin / report gains the attention of sponsors and access to additional resources, but usually it just detracts from the available delivery capability.

Vish Nandlall also associates trust and complexity in organisational models in his LinkedIn post below:

This is one of the reasons I’m excited about what smart contracts can do for the organisations and OSS projects of the future. Just as “Likes” and “Supplier Rankings” have facilitated online trust models, smart contracts success rankings have the ability to do the same for OSS suppliers, large and small. For example, rather than needing to engage “Big Vendor A” to build your entire, monolithic OSS stack, if an operator develops simpler, more modular work breakdowns (eg microservices), then they can engage “Freelancer B” and “Small Vendor C” to make valuable contributions on smaller risk increments. Being lower in complexity and risk means B and C have a greater chance of engendering trust, but their historical contract success ranking forces them to develop trust as a key metric.

An OSS niche market opportunity?

The survey found that 82 percent of service providers conduct less than half of customer transactions digitally, despite the fact that nearly 80 percent of respondents said they are moving forward with business-wide digital transformation programs of varying size and scale. This underscores a large perception gap in understanding, completing and benefiting from digitalization programs.

The study revealed that more than one-third of service providers have completed some aspect of digital transformation, but challenges persist; nearly three-quarters of service providers identify legacy systems and processes, challenges relating to staff and skillsets and business risk as the greatest obstacles to transforming digital services delivery.

Driving a successful digital transformation requires companies to transform myriad business and operational domains, including customer journeys, digital product catalogs, partner management platforms and networks via software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV).
Survey from Netcracker and ICT Intuition.

Interesting study from Netcracker and ICT Intuition. To re-iterate with some key numbers and take-aways:

  1. 82% of responding service providers can increase digital transactions by at least 50% (in theory).  Digital transactions tend to be significantly cheaper for service providers than manual transactions. However, some customers will work the omni-channel experience to find the channel that they’re most comfortable dealing with. In many cases, this means attempting to avoid digital experiences. As a side note, any attempts to become 100% digital are likely to require social / behavioural engineering of customers and/or an associated churn rate
  2. Nearly 75% of responding service providers identify legacy systems / processes, skillsets and business risk as biggest challenges. This reads as putting a digital interface onto back-end systems like BSS / OSS tools. This is less of a challenge for newer operators that have been designed with digitalised customer interactions in mind. The other challenge for operators is that the digital front-ends are rarely designed to bolt onto the operators’ existing legacy back-end systems and need significant integration
  3. If an operator want to build a digital transaction regime, they should expect an OSS / BSS transformation too.

To overcome these challenges, I’ve noticed that some operators have been building up separate (often low-cost) brands with digital-native front ends, back ends, processes and skills bases. These brands tend to target the ever-expanding digitally native generations and be seen as the stepping stone to obsoleting legacy solutions (and perhaps even legacy business models?).

I wonder whether this is a market niche for smaller OSS players to target and grow into whilst the big OSS brands chase the bigger-brother operator brands?

This one OSS factor can give a sustainable advantage

The business case justifications of OSS tend to fall into four categories:

  • Revenue increase – the operationalisation and monetisation of an operator’s assets
  • Cost reduction – improving the operational efficiency of the operator
  • Insight generation – by leveraging the valuable data that an OSS collects
  • Brand value – this is a catch-all for many different ways an OSS can contribute to (or detract from) an operator’s brand

On the last point, we can break this down into defence (eg reducing outages that may damage the operator’s brand) or on offence (eg faster time to market or activations that give the operator a competitive advantage).

But there’s one other special category that bears consideration – threat minimisation – which probably has elements of each of the four points above. If we take a really macro-view of this, two of the biggest threats facing operators today are disruptive new business models and disruptive new products. Or, you could take the complete opposite perspective on this and see it as opportunity maximisation (if you’re the one to capitalise on the disruptive opportunity first).

An operator’s OSS can have a massive influence on this category. If an operator takes months to force urgent changes through its OSS, then it can’t respond well to a disruptive threat. Similarly, opportunities / arbitrages only have a short window before the market responds, so a lack of OSS flexibility impacts an operator’s ability to maximise opportunity.

Having an OSS with greater agility than competitors can be a more significant, sustainable market advantage than most people in telecommunications realise.

Check out our OSS business case builder for a more detailed breakdown of factors that can help to build a persuasive OSS business case. Or just contact us and we’d be happy to help.

How the investment strategy of a $106 billion VC fund changed my OSS thinking

What is a service provider’s greatest asset?

Now I’m biased when considering the title question, but I believe OSS are the puppet-master of every modern service provider. They’re the systems that pull all of the strings of the organisation. They generate the revenue by operationalising and assuring the networks as well as the services they carry. They coordinate the workforce. They form the real-time sensor networks that collect and provide data, but more importantly, insights to all parts of the business. That, and so much more.

But we’re pitching our OSS all wrong. Let’s consider first how we raise revenue from OSS, be that either internal (via internal sponsors) or external (vendor/integrator selling to customers)? Most revenue is either generated from products (fixed, leased, consumption revenue models) or services (human effort).

This article from just last month ruminated, “An organisation buys an OSS, not because it wants an Operational Support System, but because it wants Operational Support,” but I now believe I was wrong – charting the wrong course in relation to the most valuable element of our OSS.

After researching Masayoshi Son’s Vision Fund, I’m certain we’re selling a fundamentally short-term vision. Yes, OSS are valuable for the operational support they provide, but their greatest value is as vast data collection and processing engines.

“Those who rule data will rule the entire world. That’s what people of the future will say.”
Masayoshi Son.

For those unfamiliar with Masayoshi Son, he’s Japan’s richest man, CEO of SoftBank, in charge of a monster (US$106 billion) venture capital fund called Vision Fund and is seen as one of the world’s greatest technology visionaries.

As this article on Fortune explains Vision Fund’s foundational strategy, “…there’s a slide that outlines the market cap of companies during the Industrial Revolution, including the Pennsylvania Railroad, U.S. Steel, and Standard Oil. The next frontier, he [Son] believes, is the data revolution. As people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were able to drastically accelerate innovation by having a very large ownership over the inputs of the Industrial Revolution, it looks like Son is trying to do something similar. The difference being he’s betting on the notion that data is one of the most valuable digital resources of modern day.”

Matt Barnard is CEO of Plenty, one of the companies that Vision Fund has invested in. He had this to say about the pattern of investments by Vision Fund, “I’d say the thing we have in common with his other investments is that they are all part of some of the largest systems on the planet: energy, transportation, the internet and food.”

Telecommunications falls into that category too. SoftBank already owns significant stakes in telecommunications and broadband network providers.

But based on the other investments made by Vision Fund so far, there appears to be less focus on operational data and more focus on customer activity and decision-making data. In particular, unravelling the complexity of customer data in motion.

OSS “own” service provider data, but I wonder whether we’re spending too much time thinking about operational data (and how to feed it into AI engines to get operational insights) and not enough on stitching customer-related insight sets together. That’s where the big value is, but we’re rarely thinking about it or pitching it that way… even though it is perhaps the most valuable asset a service provider has.