OSS feature parity. A functionality arms race

OSS Vendor 1. “I have 1 million features.” (Dr Evil puts finger in mouth)
OSS Vendor 2. “Yeah, well I have 1,000,001 features in my OSS.”

This is the arms-race that we see in OSS, just like almost any other tech product. I imagine that vendors get into this arms-race because they wish to differentiate. Better to differentiate on functionality than price. If there’s a feature parity, then the only differentiator is price. We all know that doesn’t end well!

But I often ask myself a few related questions:

  • Of those million features, how many are actually used regularly
  • As a vendor do you have logging that actually allows you to know what features are being used
  • Taking the Whale Curve perspective, even if being used, how many of those features are actually contributing to the objectives of the vendor
    • Do they clearly contribute towards making sales
    • Do customers delight in using them
    • Would customers be irate if you removed them
    • etc

Earlier this week, I spoke about a friend who created an alarm management tool by himself over a weekend. It didn’t have a million features, but it did have all of what I’d consider to be the most important ones. It did look like a lot of other alarm managers that are now on the market. The GUI based on alarm lists still pervades.

If they all look alike, and all have feature parity, how do you differentiate? If you try to add more features, is it safe to assume that those features will deliver diminishing returns?

But is an alarm list and the flicking of tickets the best way to manage network health?

What if, instead of seeking incremental improvement, someone went back to the most important requirements and considered whether the current approach is meeting those customer needs? I have a strong suspicion that customer feedback will indicate that there are definitely flaws to overcome, especially on high event volume networks.

Clever use of large data volumes provides a level of pre-cognition and automation that wasn’t available when simple alarm lists were first invented. This in turn potentially changes the way that operators can engage with network monitoring and management.

What if someone could identify a whole new user interface / approach that overcame the current flaws and exceeded the key requirements? Would that be more of a differentiator than adding a 1,000,002nd feature?

If you’re looking for a comparison, there were plenty of MP3 players on the market with a heap of features, many more than the iPod. We all know how that one played out!

Pitching an OSS? Don’t call it OSS.

If you asked me how to sell cybersecurity, I wouldn’t call it cybersecurity.” The raw truth of the statement hit me like a lightning bolt between the eyes. Cybersecurity might loosely describe what we do, and we tell people it’s what we’re selling, but it’s not what people buy.
Safety. Assurance. Peace of mind. Confidence. These are the kinds of things that people buy, concepts which ordinary people can understand and relate to because they are feelings which they have experienced themselves. Cybersecurity is not a next gen firewall, or multi-layered endpoint protection with machine learning and threat sandbox technology. Cybersecurity is not risk management or ISO27001 policies. Cybersecurity is being able to use the Internet in any way I can imagine without having to worry I might lose my family photos, get robbed, or get in trouble with my boss. If you could (honestly) sell me “worry free Internet”, I’d buy it in a heartbeat, and so would everyone you know
.”
Corch X
, here.

Sound familiar?
If you asked me how to sell OSS, I wouldn’t call it OSS. Doh! Now you enlighten me… after I’ve already chosen the domain name, PassionateAboutOSS.com. After I’ve already written over 2,000 posts on topics like orchestration, microservices, cloud-native, DevOps, and every other technical buzzword. Time to start again from scratch.

One thing in my favour is that you, the audience I’m interacting with, also speaks in the same jargon. These are the terms we use to communicate with each other. To get things started. To get things done. To get things delivered.

That’s all fine if we’re only interacting with like-minded OSS experts. However, of the thousands of people who interact with our OSS / BSS, only a small percentage are OSS experts. A majority of people use the tools rather than designing, building or commissioning them.

The people who use the tools have a huge range of job roles and reasons for needing to use our OSS / BSS. Just like with cybersecurity, the core reasons could be Safety. Assurance. Peace of mind. Confidence. But they might also include Speed. Efficiency. Reliability. Repeatability. Simplicity. Monetisation. Insightful. And more.

The challenge we have is that so much of the benefit that our OSS and BSS deliver is intangible. We might talk about orchestration delivering speed, simplicity, reliability, etc. But how do we establish a more tangible link?

How do we achieve the equivalent of what the “Intel Inside” marketing ploy delivered, which made people associate an otherwise obscure integrated circuit with a premium feature to consider when they bought their next computing device. How do we ensure that people know that our OSS / BSS is the master of puppets that make our networks dance? It’s our OSS / BSS that are pulling all the strings of operationalisation, connecting customers with networks.

What if the OSS solution lies in its connections?

Imagine for a moment that you’re sitting in front of a pristine chess board, awaiting the opportunity to make your first move. All of the pieces have been exquisitely carved from stone, polished to a sheen. The rules of the game have been established for centuries, so you know exactly which piece is able to move in which sequences. Time to make the opening move.

You’ve studied the games of the masters who have preceded you and have planned your opening gambit, the procession of moves that will hopefully take you into a match-winning position. Due to your skills with modern automations, you’ve connected some of the chess pieces with delicate strings to implement your opening gambit with precision.

Unfortunately, after the first few moves, your strings are starting to pull the pieces out of position. Your opponent has countered well and you’re having to modify your initial plans. You introduce some additional pulleys and springs to help retain the rightful position of your pieces on the board and cope with unexpected changes in strategy. The automations are becoming ever more complex, taking more time to plan and implement than the actual next move.

The board is starting to devolve into unmanageable chaos.

Does this sound like the analogy of a modern OSS? It’s what I refer to as the chessboard analogy.

We’ve been at this OSS game for long enough to already have an understanding of all of the main pieces. TM Forum’s TAM provides this definition as a useful guide. The pieces are modular, elegant and quite well understood by its many players. The rules of the game haven’t really changed much. The main use cases of an OSS from decades ago (ie assure, fulfil, plan, build, etc) probably don’t differ significantly from those of today. This
“should” set the foundations for interchangeability of applications.

We see programs of work like ONAP, where millions of lines of code are being developed to re-write the rules of the game. I’m a big advocate of many of the principles of ONAP, but I’m still not sure that such a massive re-write is what’s needed.

It’s not so much in the components of our OSS as in the connections between them where things tend to go awry.

The foundation of all brilliance is seeing connections when no one else does.”
Richard Parkinson
.

This article distills ONAP from its answers back to the core questions. What if instead of seeking an entirely-new architectural stack, we focused on solving the core questions and the chessboard problem – the problem of connections?

Perhaps the answer to the connection problem lies in the interchangeable small grid OSS model discussed in yesterday’s article on planned OSS obsolescence.
But it probably also incorporates what ONAP calls, “real-time, policy-driven orchestration and automation,” to replace pre-defined processes. I wonder instead whether state-based transitions, being guided by intent/policy rules and feedback loops (ie learning systems) might hold the key. An evolving and learning solution that shares similarities with the electrical pathways in our brain, which strengthen the more they’re used and diminish if no longer used.

Would an EoL be beneficial for OSS?

In the world of networking, it’s common for devices to go EOL (end-of-life). Capital spend and depreciation models are based around refresh cycles of around 5-7 years. Vendors reinforce this refresh cycle by designing obsolescence into maintenance, support and part supplies. Customers tend to simply submit to the risk of having no vendor support by buying the next generation replacements.

But how often do you hear of an OSS going EOL? Not often right? They tend to get written off only when the cost of upkeep outweighs new revenues.

I know, I can hear you saying that software is different from hardware and of course I agree with you. I’d partially counter by claiming that software architectures and development platforms also have a discernibly useful life just like physical network devices. If you doubt that, I’m sure you’ve seen OSS tools with origins in the 1990s that are still being developed upon. I tend to believe that product usefulness becomes asymptotic for its vendors. With the speed of change and proliferation of new platforms, useful lives are getting ever-shorter.

Would a pre-ordained product replacement life-cycle be beneficial for the OSS industry? It has some merits.

For a start, planned obsolescence enforces designs with interchangeability, in line with the small-grid OSS described yesterday. It promotes short-term enhancements to long-term visions. It becomes easier for customers to write off their investment and inject new capital into the vendor market. It penalises the amount of Frankenstein integrations that tend to become increasingly burdensome (to vendor and customer) into the future. It enforces those mythical beasts of telco software – subtraction projects. It promotes innovation to avoid the asymptotic benefit deterioration curve shown below:
Asymptotic OSS feature development

As the asymptote is being reached, a new jumping-off point commences with the new product.

But it’s a difficult status-quo to break. Vendors have invested millions of developer hours into their products. Taking a product EoL is effectively throwing that invested effort away. For carriers, it means the risk and cost of breaking integrations / processes and replacing them with new ones.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether an EOL model might be relevant / useful for your OSS.

The future of work and its impact on OSS

Many years ago, I worked on a seriously big OSS transformation for one of the region’s biggest telcos. Everything was big on the project, the investment, the resources, the documentation. Everything except the outcomes. There was so much inefficiency that I often spoke about making one day of progress for every ten on site. Meetings, bureaucracy, impossible approval cycles, customer re-organisations, over-analysis, etc all added up to stagnation.

This contrasted so much with some of the amazing small teams I’ve worked alongside. Teams that worked cohesively, cleverly and just got stuff done with almost no resources. It’s one of the reasons I feel that the future of work, even for the very large organisations, will be via small teams. Outsourced to small, efficient teams / organisations. The gig economy, and the proliferation of tools that support it, make it an obvious approach to take, especially for very large organisations to leverage. Proof of work technologies, such as those building upon the discovery of blockchain, will provide further impetus to use smaller teams of experts.

Experts like a friend and colleague of mine who once built an alarm management tool in a weekend, by himself. It also happened to be more sophisticated than his employer’s existing tool that had taken years of combined developer effort by a larger team.

Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I see the transition to this model of work as being inevitable. The question I have is how to make our OSS more accommodating of this work model. Behemoth OSS stacks won’t. Highly modular OSS made up of many smaller components probably will, as long as they don’t succumb to the OSS chessboard analogy. The pulleys and strings will make it impossible for small, interchangable teams to decipher and manage.

A small-grid OSS model is the one I’d be backing in.

OSS – like a duck on a pond

Let’s start with a basic question. “What does an OSS need to do?”

The basic answer is, “make operations easier.”

The real answer(s) is so much more nuanced than that of course. The term easier can also encapsulate other words such as faster, more accurate, more repeatable, cheaper, etc.

Designing, building, operating and maintaining a sizable network is extremely challenging, despite network operators around the world, and the vendors that supply to them, employing some of the best and brightest. So we design OSS and related tools / processes to make operations easier.

Yet I sometimes wonder whether we achieve that aim – to make operations easier. Seems to me that we tend to focus more on just replicating functions at a higher layer in the management stack. That is, moving the function to the OSS rather than EMS/NMS, without really making it much easier operationally.

Let’s start at the user interface (UI). How often are they intuitive enough for an experienced network operator to start doing tasks with negligible OSS expert guidance?
Let’s look at deployments. How often are the projects low on effort, risk, cost and complexity?
Let’s look at flexibility (ie in-flight modifications or transformations). How often do we actually deliver flexibility to our customers through our OSS. To ask the same as above, how often are our changes low on effort, risk, cost and complexity?

As a small step towards providing an answer, I wonder whether it’s a case of making the hard things look easy and the easy things look hard.

We want to make the really hard operational things much easier to do within an OSS because that’s the primary purpose of an OSS. That’s the example of a duck on a pond. The OSS is gliding along effortlessly across the top of the water, but under the water it is paddling furiously.

Conversely, we want to make the really easy* operational things look hard to do within an OSS so that we’re not constantly being asked to build functionality / complexity into our OSS that doesn’t warrant being there. It diffuses the intent of the OSS. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

OSS that are profitable, difficult, or important?

Apple became the first company to be worth a trillion dollars. They did that by spending five years single-mindedly focusing on doing profitable work. They’ve consistently pushed themselves toward high margin luxury goods and avoided just about everything else. Belying their first two decades, when they focused on breakthrough work that was difficult and perhaps important, nothing they’ve done recently has been either…
Profitable, difficult, or important — each is an option. A choice we get to make every day. ‘None of the above’ is also available, but I’m confident we can seek to do better than that
. ”
Seth Godin
in this post.

I encourage you to view the entire post at the link above. It gives definitions (and examples) of organisations that focus on profitable, difficult or important activities.

In OSS, the organisations that focus on the profitable are the ones investing heavily on glossy sales / marketing and only making incremental improvements to products that have been around for years.

Then there are others that are doing the difficult and innovative and complex work (ie the sexy work for all of us tech-heads). This recent article about ONAP talks about the fantastic tech-driven ambitions of that program, but then distills it down to the business objectives.

That leaves us with the important – the business needs / objectives – and this is where the customers come in. Speak with any OSS customer (or customer’s customer for that matter) and you’ll tend to find frustrations with their OSS. Frustration with complexity, time to deliver / modify, cost to deliver / modify, risks, functionality constraints, etc.

This is a simplification of course, but do you notice that as an industry, our keen focus on the profitable and difficult might just be holding us back from doing the important?

OSS holds the key to network slicing

Network slicing opens new business opportunities for operators by enabling them to provide specialized services that deliver specific performance parameters. Guaranteeing stringent KPIs enables operators to charge premium rates to customers that value such performance. The flip side is that such agreements will inevitably come with tough contractual obligations and penalties when the agreed KPIs are not met…even high numbers of slices could be managed without needing to increase the number of operational staff. The more automation applied, the lower the operating costs. At 100 percent automation, there is virtually no cost increase with the number of slices. Granted this is a long-term goal and impractical in the short to medium term, yet even 50 percent automation will bring very significant benefits.”
From a paper by Nokia – “Unleashing the economic potential of network slicing.”

With typical communications services tending towards commoditisation, operators will naturally seek out premium customers. Customers with premium requirements such as latency, throughput, reliability, mobility, geography, security, analytics, etc.

These custom requirements often come with unique network configuration requirements. This is why network slicing has become an attractive proposition. The white paper quoted above makes an attempt at estimating profitability of network slicing including some sensitivity analyses. It makes for an interesting read.

The diagram below is one of many contained in the White Paper:
Nokia Network Slicing

It indicates that a significant level of automation is going to be required to achieve an equivalent level of operational cost to a single network. To re-state the quote, “The more automation applied, the lower the operating costs. At 100 percent automation, there is virtually no cost increase with the number of slices. Granted this is a long-term goal and impractical in the short to medium term, yet even 50 percent automation will bring very significant benefits.”

Even 50% operational automation is a significant ambition. OSS hold the key to delivering on this ambition. Such ambitious automation goals means we have to look at massive simplification of operational variant trees. Simplifications that include, but go far beyond OSS, BSS and networks. This implies whole-stack simplification.

OSS designed as a bundle, or bundled after?

Over the years I’m sure you’ve seen many different OSS demonstrations. You’ve probably also seen presentations by vendors / integrators that have shown multiple different products from their suite.

How integrated have they appeared to you?

  1. Have they seemed tightly integrated, as if carved from a single piece of stone?
  2. Or have they seemed loosely integrated, a series of obviously different stones joined together with some mortar?
  3. Or perhaps even barely associated, a series of completely different objects (possibly through product acquisition) branded under a common marketing name?

There are different pros and cons with each approach. Tight integration possibly suits a greenfields OSS. Looser integration perhaps better suits carve-off for best-of-breed customer architecture models.

I don’t know about you, but I always prefer to be given the impression that an attempt has been made to ensure consistency in the bundling. Consistency of user-interface, workflow, data modelling/presentation, reports, etc. With modern presentation layers, database technologies and the availability of UX / CX expertise, this should be less of a hurdle than it has been in the past.

If ONAP is the answer, what are the questions?

ONAP provides a comprehensive platform for real-time, policy-driven orchestration and automation of physical and virtual network functions that will enable software, network, IT and cloud providers and developers to rapidly automate new services and support complete lifecycle management.
By unifying member resources, ONAP is accelerating the development of a vibrant ecosystem around a globally shared architecture and implementation for network automation–with an open standards focus–faster than any one product could on its own
.”
Part of the ONAP charter from onap.org.

The ONAP project is gaining attention in service provider circles. The Steering Committee of the ONAP project hints at the types of organisations investing in the project. The statement above summarises the mission of this important project. You can bet that the mission has been carefully crafted. As such, one can assume that it represents what these important stakeholders jointly agree to be the future needs of their OSS.

I find it interesting that there are quite a few technical terms (eg policy-driven orchestration) in the mission statement, terms that tend to pre-empt the solution. However, I don’t feel that pre-emptive technical solutions are the real mission, so I’m going to try to reverse-engineer the statement into business needs. Hopefully the business needs (the “why? why? why?” column below) articulates a set of questions / needs that all OSS can work to, as opposed to replicating the technical approach that underpins ONAP.

Phrase Interpretation Why? Why? Why?
real-time The ability to make instantaneous decisions Why1: To adapt to changing conditions
Why2: To take advantage of fleeting opportunities or resolve threats
Why 3: To optimise key business metrics such as financials
Why 4: As CSPs are under increasing pressure from shareholders to deliver on key metrics
policy-driven orchestration To use policies to increase the repeatability of key operational processes Why 1: Repeatability provides the opportunity to improve efficiency, quality and performance
Why 2: Allows an operator to service more customers at less expense
Why 3: Improves corporate profitability and customer perceptions
Why 4: As CSPs are under increasing pressure from shareholders to deliver on key metrics
policy-driven automation To use policies to increase the amount of automation that can be applied to key operational processes Why 1: Automated processes provide the opportunity to improve efficiency, quality and performance
Why 2: Allows an operator to service more customers at less expense
Why 3: Improves corporate profitability and customer perceptions
physical and virtual network functions Our networks will continue to consist of physical devices, but we will increasingly introduce virtualised functionality Why 1: Physical devices will continue to exist into the foreseeable future but virtualisation represents an exciting approach into the future
Why 2: Virtual entities are easier to activate and manage (assuming sufficient capacity exists)
Why 3: Physical equipment supply, build, deploy and test cycles are much longer and labour intensive
Why 4: Virtual assets are more flexible, faster and cheaper to commission
Why 5: Customer services can be turned up faster and cheaper
software, network, IT and cloud providers and developers With this increase in virtualisation, we find an increasingly large and diverse array of suppliers contributing to our value-chain. These suppliers contribute via software, network equipment, IT functions and cloud resources Why 1: CSPs can access innovation and efficiency occurring outside their own organisation
Why 2: CSPs can leverage the opportunities those innovations provide
Why 3: CSPs can deliver more attractive offers to customers
Why 4: Key metrics such as profitability and customer satisfaction are enhanced
rapidly automate new services We want the flexibility to introduce new products and services far faster than we do today Why 1: CSPs can deliver more attractive offers to customers faster than competitors
Why 2: Key metrics such as market share, profitability and customer satisfaction are enhanced as well as improved cashflow
support complete lifecycle management The components that make up our value-chain are changing and evolving so quickly that we need to cope with these changes without impacting customers across any of their interactions with their service Why 1: Customer satisfaction is a key metric and a customer’s experience spans the entire lifecyle of their service.
Why 2: CSPs don’t want customers to churn to competitors
Why 3: Key metrics such as market share, profitability and customer satisfaction are enhanced
unifying member resources To reduce the amount of duplicated and under-synchronised development currently being done by the member bodies of ONAP Why 1: Collaboration and sharing reduces the effort each member body must dedicate to their OSS
Why 2: A reduced resource pool is required
Why 3: Costs can be reduced whilst still achieving a required level of outcome from OSS
vibrant ecosystem To increase the level of supplier interchangability Why 1: To reduce dependence on any supplier/s
Why 2: To improve competition between suppliers
Why 3: Lower prices, greater choice and greater innovation tend to flourish in competitive environments
Why 4: CSPs, as customers of the suppliers, benefit
globally shared architecture To make networks, services and support systems easier to interconnect across the global communications network Why 1: Collaboration on common standards reduces the integration effort between each member at points of interconnect
Why 2: A reduced resource pool is required
Why 3: Costs can be reduced whilst still achieving interconnection benefits

As indicated in earlier posts, ONAP is an exciting initiative for the CSP industry for a number of reasons. My fear for ONAP is that it becomes such a behemoth of technical complexity that it becomes too unwieldy for use by any of the member bodies. I use the analogy of ATM versus Ethernet here, where ONAP is equivalent to ATM in power and complexity. The question is whether there’s an Ethernet answer to the whys that ONAP is trying to solve.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(BTW. I’m not saying that the technologies the ONAP team is investigating are the wrong ones. Far from it. I just find it interesting that the mission is starting with a technical direction in mind. I see parallels with the OSS radar analogy.)

Where are the reliability hotspots in your OSS?

As you already know, there are two categories of downtime – unplanned (eg failures) and planned (eg upgrades / maintenance).

Planned downtime sounds a lot nicer (for operators) but the reality is that you could call both types “incidents” – they both impact (or potentially impact) the customer. We sometimes underestimate that fact.

Today’s question is whether you’re able to identify where the hotspots are in your OSS suite when you combine both types of downtime. Can you tell which outages are service-impacting?

In a round-about way, I’m asking whether you already have a dashboard that monitors uptime of all the components (eg applications, probes, middleware, infra, etc) that make up your complete OSS / BSS estate? If you do, does it tell you what you anecdotally know already, or are there sometimes surprises?

Does the data give you the evidence you need to negotiate with the implementers of problematic components (eg patch cadence, the need for reliability fixes, streamlining the patch process, reduction in customisations, etc)? Does it give you reason to make architectural changes (eg webscaling)?

Stop looking for exciting new features for your OSS

The iPhone disrupted the handset business, but has not disrupted the cellular network operators at all, though many people were convinced that it would. For all that’s changed, the same companies still have the same business model and the same customers that they did in 2006. Online flight booking doesn’t disrupt airlines much, but it was hugely disruptive to travel agents. Online booking (for the sake of argument) was sustaining innovation for airlines and disruptive innovation for travel agents.
Meanwhile, the people who are first to bring the disruption to market may not be the people who end up benefiting from it, and indeed the people who win from the disruption may actually be doing something different – they may be in a different part of the value chain. Apple pioneered PCs but lost the PC market, and the big winners were not even other PC companies. Rather, most of the profits went to Microsoft and Intel, which both operated at different layers of the stack. PCs themselves became a low-margin commodity with fierce competition, but PC CPUs and operating systems (and productivity software) turned out to have very strong winner-takes-all effects
.”
Ben Evans
on his blog about Tesla.

As usual, Ben makes some thought-provoking points. The ones above have coaxed me into thinking about OSS from a slightly perspective.

I’d tended to look at OSS as a product to be consumed by network operators (and further downstream by the customers of those network operators). I figured that if our OSS delivered benefit to the downstream customers, the network operators would thrive and would therefore be prepared to invest more into OSS projects. In a way, it’s a bit like a sell-through model.

But the ideas above give some alternatives for OSS providers to reduce dependence on network operator budgets.

Traditional OSS fit within a value-chain that’s driven by customers that wish to communicate. In the past, the telephone network was perceived as the most valuable part of that value-chain. These days, digitisation and competition has meant that the perceived value of the network has dropped to being a low-margin commodity in most cases. We’re generally not prepared to pay a premium for a network service. The Microsofts and Intels of the communications value-chain is far more diverse. It’s the Googles, Facebooks, Instagrams, YouTubes, etc that are perceived to deliver most value to end customers today.

If I were looking for a disruptive OSS business model, I wouldn’t be looking to add exciting new features within the existing OSS model. In fact, I’d be looking to avoid our current revenue dependence on network operators (ie the commoditising aspects of the communications value-chain). Instead I’d be looking for ways to contribute to the most valuable aspects of the chain (eg apps, content, etc). Or even better, to engineer a more exceptional comms value-chain than we enjoy today, with an entirely new type of OSS.

OSS operationalisation at scale

We had a highly flexible network design team at a previous company. Not because we wanted to necessarily, but because we were forced to by the client’s allocation of work.

Our team was largely based on casual workers because there was little to predict whether we needed 2 designers or 50 in any given week. The workload being assigned by the client was incredibly lumpy.

But we were lucky. We only had design work. The lumpiness in design effort flowed down through the work stack into construction, test and deployment teams. The constructors had millions of dollars of equipment that they needed to mobilise and demobilise as the work ebbed and flowed. Unfortunately for the constructors, they’d prepared their rate cards on the assumption of a fairly consistent level of work coming through (it was a very big project).

This lumpiness didn’t work out for anyone in the delivery pipeline, the client included. It was actually quite instrumental in a few of the constructors going into liquidation. The client struggled to meet roll-out targets.

The allocation of work was being made via the client’s B/OSS stack. The B/OSS teams were blissfully unaware of the downstream impact of their sporadic allocation of designs. Towards the end of the project, they were starting to get more consistent and delivery teams started to get into more of a rhythm… just as the network was coming to the end of build.

As OSS builders, we sometimes get so wrapped up in delivering functionality that we can forget that one of the key requirements of an OSS is to operationalise at scale. In addition to UI / CX design, this might be something as simple as smoothing the effort allocation for work under our OSS‘s management.

If your partners don’t have to talk to you then you win

If your partners don’t have to talk to you then you win.”
Guy Lupo
.

Put another way, the best form of customer service is no customer service (ie your customers and/or partners are so delighted with your automated offerings that they have no reason to contact you). They don’t want to contact you anyway (generally speaking). They just want to consume a perfectly functional and reliable solution.

In the deep, distant past, our comms networks required operators. But then we developed automated dialling / switching. In theory, the network looked after itself and people made billions of calls per year unassisted.

Something happened in the meantime though. Telco operators the world over started receiving lots of calls about their platform and products. You could say that they’re unwanted calls. The telcos even have an acronym called CVR – Call Volume Reduction – that describes their ambitions to reduce the number of customer calls that reach contact centre agents. Tools such as chatbots and IVR have sprung up to reduce the number of calls that an operator fields.

Network as a Service (NaaS), the context within Guy’s comment above, represents the next new tool that will aim to drive CVR (amongst a raft of other benefits). NaaS theoretically allows customers to interact with network operators via impersonal contracts (in the form of APIs). The challenge will be in the reliability – ensuring that nothing falls between the cracks in any of the layers / platforms that combine to form the NaaS.

In the world of NaaS creation, Guy is exactly right – “If your partners [and customers] don’t have to talk to you then you win.” As always, it’s complexity that leads to gaps. The more complex the NaaS stack, the less likely you are to achieve CVR.

The OSS self-driving vehicle

I was lucky enough to get some time of a friend recently, a friend who’s running a machine-learning network assurance proof-of-concept (PoC).

He’s been really impressed with the results coming out of the PoC. However, one of the really interesting factors he’s been finding is how frequently BAU (business as usual) changes in the OSS data (eg changes in naming conventions, topologies, etc) would impact results. Little changes made by upstream systems effectively invalidated baselines identified by the machine-learning engines to key in on. Those little changes meant the engine had to re-baseline / re-learn to build back up to previous insight levels. Or to avoid invalidating the baseline, it would require re-normalising all of data prior to the identification of BAU changes.

That got me wondering whether DevOps (or any other high-change environment) might actually hinder our attempts to get machine-led assurance optimisation. But more to the point, does constant change (at all levels of a telco business) hold us back from reaching our aim of closed-loop / zero-touch assurance?

Just like the proverbial self-driving car, will we always need someone at the wheel of our OSS just in case a situation arises that the machines hasn’t seen before and/or can’t handle? How far into the future will it be before we have enough trust to take our hands off the OSS wheel and let the machines drive closed-loop processes without observation by us?

Designing an Operational Domain Manager (ODM)

A couple of weeks ago, Telstra and the TM Forum held an event in Melbourne on OSS for next gen architectures.

The diagram below comes from a presentation by Corey Clinger. It describes Telstra’s Operational Domain Manager (ODM) model that is a key component of their Network as a Service (NaaS) framework. Notice the API stubs across the top of the ODM? Corey went on to describe the TM Forum Open API model that Telstra is building upon.
Operational Domain Manager (ODM)

In a following session, Raman Balla indicated an perspective that differs from many existing OSS. The service owner (and service consumer) must know all aspects of a given service (including all dimensions, lifecycle, etc) in a common repository / catalog and it needs to be attribute-based. Raman also indicated that the aim he has for architecting NaaS is to not only standardise the service, but the entire experience around the service.

In the world of NaaS, operators can no longer just focus separately on assurance or fulfillment or inventory / capacity, etc. As per DevOps, operators are accountable for everything.

Expanding your bag of OSS tricks

Let me ask you a question – when you’ve expanded your bag of tricks that help you to manage your OSS, where have they typically originated?

By reading? By doing? By asking? Through mentoring? Via training courses?
Relating to technical? People? Process? Product?
Operations? Network? Hardware? Software?
Design? Procure? Implement / delivery? Test? Deploy?
By retrospective thinking? Creative thinking? Refinement thinking?
Other?

If you were to highlight the questions above that are most relevant to the development of your bag of tricks, how much coverage does your pattern show?

There are so many facets to our OSS (ie. tentacles on the OctopOSS) aren’t there? We have to have a large bag of tricks. Not only that, we need to be constantly adding new tricks too right?

I tend to find that our typical approaches to OSS knowledge transfer cover only a small subset (think about discussion topics at OSS conferences that tend to just focus on the technical / architectural)… yet don’t align with how we (or maybe just I) have developed capabilities in the past.

The question then becomes, how do we facilitate the broader learnings required to make our OSS great? To introduce learning opportunities for ourselves and our teams across vaguely related fields such as project management, change management, user interface design, process / workflows, creative thinking, etc, etc.

Zero touch network & Service Management (ZSM)

Zero touch network & Service Management (ZSM) is a next-gen network management approach using closed-loop principles hosted by ETSI. An ETSI blog has just demonstrated the first ZSM Proof of Concept (PoC). The slide deck describing the PoC, supplied by EnterpriseWeb, can be found here.

The diagram below shows a conceptual closed-loop assurance architecture used within the PoC
ETSI ZSM PoC.

It contains some similar concepts to a closed-loop traffic engineering project designed by PAOSS back in 2007, but with one big difference. That 2007 project was based on a single-vendor solution, as opposed to the open, multi-vendor PoC demonstrated here. Both were based on the principle of using assurance monitors to trigger fulfillment responses. For example, ours used SLA threshold breaches on voice switches to trigger automated remedial response through the OSS‘s provisioning engine.

For this newer example, ETSI’s blog details, “The PoC story relates to a congestion event caused by a DDoS (Denial of Service) attack that results in a decrease in the voice quality of a network service. The fault is detected by service monitoring within one or more domains and is shared with the end-to-end service orchestrator which correlates the alarms to interpret the events, based on metadata and metrics, and classifies the SLA violations. The end-to-end service orchestrator makes policy-based decisions which trigger commands back to the domain(s) for remediation.”

You’ll notice one of the key call-outs in the diagram above is real-time inventory. That was much harder for us to achieve back in 2007 than it is now with virtualised network and compute layers providing real-time telemetry. We used inventory that was only auto-discovered once daily and had to build in error handling, whilst relying on over-provisioned physical infrastructure.

It’s exciting to see these types of projects being taken forward by ETSI, EnterpriseWeb, et al.

Network slicing, another OSS activity

One business customer, for example, may require ultra-reliable services, whereas other business customers may need ultra-high-bandwidth communication or extremely low latency. The 5G network needs to be designed to be able to offer a different mix of capabilities to meet all these diverse requirements at the same time.
From a functional point of view, the most logical approach is to build a set of dedicated networks each adapted to serve one type of business customer. These dedicated networks would permit the implementation of tailor-made functionality and network operation specific to the needs of each business customer, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach as witnessed in the current and previous mobile generations which would not be economically viable.
A much more efficient approach is to operate multiple dedicated networks on a common platform: this is effectively what “network slicing” allows. Network slicing is the embodiment of the concept of running multiple logical networks as virtually independent business operations on a common physical infrastructure in an efficient and economical way.
.”
GSMA’s Introduction to Network Slicing.

Engineering a network is one of compromises. There are many different optimisation levers to pull to engineer a set of network characteristics. In the traditional network, it was a case of pulling all the levers to find a middle-ground set of characteristics that supported all their service offerings.

QoS striping of traffic allowed for a level of differentiation of traffic handling, but the underlying network was still a balancing act of settings. Network virtualisation offers new opportunities. It allows unique segmentation via virtual networks, where each can be optimised for the specific use-cases of that network slice.

For years, I’ve been posing the concept of telco offerings being like electricity networks – that we don’t need so many service variants. I should note that this analogy is not quite right. We do have a few different types of “electricity” such as highly available (health monitoring), high-bandwidth (content streaming), extremely low latency (rapid reaction scenarios such as real-time sensor networks), etc.

Now what do we need to implement and manage all these network slices?? Oh that’s right, OSS! It’s our OSS that will help to efficiently coordinate all the slicing and dicing that’s coming our way… to optimise all the levers across all the different network slices!

The OSS co-op business model

A co-operative is a member-owned business structure with at least five members, all of whom have equal voting rights regardless of their level of involvement or investment. All members are expected to help run the cooperative.”
Small Business WA.

The co-op business model has fascinated me since doing some tech projects in the dairy industry in the deep distant past. The dairy co-ops empower collaboration of dairy farmers where the might of the collective outweighs that of each individually. As the collective, they’ve been able to establish massive processing plants, distribution lines, bargaining power, etc. The dairy co-ops are a sell-side collaboration.

By contrast open source projects like ONAP represent an interesting hybrid – part buy-side collaboration (ie the service providers acquiring software to run their organisations) and part sell-side (ie the vendors contributing code to the project alongside the service providers).

I’ve long been intrigued by the potential for a pure sell-side co-operative in OSS.

As we all know, the OSS market is highly fragmented (just look the number of vendors / products on this page), which means inefficiency because of the duplicated effort across vendors. A level of market efficiency comes from mergers and acquisitions. In addition, some comes from vendors forming partnerships to offer more complete solutions to a given customer requirement list.

But the key to a true sell-side OSS co-operative would be in the definition above – “at least five members.” Perhaps it’s an open-source project that brings them together. Perhaps it’s an extended partnership.

As Tom Nolle stated in an article that prompted the writing of today’s post, “On the vendor side, commoditization tends to force consolidation. A vendor who doesn’t have a nice market share has little to hope for but slow decline. A couple such vendors (like Infinera and Coriant, recently) can combine with the hope that the combination will be more survivable than the individual companies were likely to be. Consolidation weeds out industry inefficiencies like parallel costly operations structures, and so makes the remaining players stronger.

Imagine for a moment if instead of having developers spread across 100 alarm management tools, that same developer pool can take a consolidated 5 alarm management products forward? Do you think we’d get better, more innovative, more complete products faster?

Having said that, co-ops have their weaknesses too.

What do you think? Could such a model work? Would it be a disaster?