NaaS is to networks what Agile is to software

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

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

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

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

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

Networks become Agile with NaaS (the TMN model)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Networks become Agile with NaaS (the virtualisation model)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Networks become Agile with NaaS (the NaaS model)

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

The NaaS layer comprises:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agree or disagree? Leave me a comment below.

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

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

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

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

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

Inverting the pyramid of OSS and network innovation

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

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

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

“How?” you may ask.

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

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

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

Packaging Open APIs for NaaS

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

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

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

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

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

Could you believe it? An OSS with less features that helps more?

All OSS products are excellent these days. And all OSS vendors know what the most important functionality is. They already have those features built into their products. That is, they’ve already added the all-important features at the left side of the graph.
Long-tail features

But it also means product teams are tending to only add the relatively unimportant new features to the right edge of the graph (ie inside the red box). Relatively unimportant and therefore delivering minimal differential advantage.

The challenge for users is that there is a huge amount of relatively worthless functionality that they have to navigate around. This tends to make the user interfaces non-intuitive.

In a previous post, we mentioned that it’s the services wrapper where OSS suppliers have the potential to differentiate.

But another approach, a product-led differentiator, dawned on me when discussing the many sources of OSS friction in yesterday’s post. What if we asked our product teams to take a focus on designing solutions that remove friction instead of the typical approach of adding features (and complexity)?

Almost every OSS I’m aware of has many areas of friction. It’s what gives the OSS industry a bad name. But what if one vendor reduced friction to levels far less than any other competitor? Would it be a differentiator? I’m quite certain customers would be lining up to buy a frictionless OSS even if it didn’t have every perceivable feature.

But can it work? What do you think?

Would you hire a furniture maker as an OSS CEO?

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

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

Oh wait. That did happen.

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

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

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

Changing gears

Indicating

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

Self-driving

Connected car (car as an “experience platform”)

User Experience??

Zero-touch assurance?

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

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

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

Item 3 – operating on auto-pilot

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

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

Item 4 – error detection and monitoring

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

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

Transitioning from current to future-state differentiators

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

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

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

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

What are OSS “platform wrapper” roadblocks?

OSS can be cumbersome at times. Making change can be difficult. We tend to build layers of protections around them and the networks we manage. I get that. Change can be risky (although the protections are often implemented because the OSS and/or network platforms might not be as robust as they could be).

Contrast this with the OSS we want to create. We want to create a platform for rapid innovation, the platform that helps us and our clients generate opportunities and advantages.

For us to build a platform that allows our customers (and their customers) to revolutionise their markets, we might have to consider whether the protective layers around our OSS that are stymying change. Things like firewall burns, change review boards, documentation, approvals, politics, individuals with a reticence to change, etc.

For example, Netflix takes a contrarian, whitelist approach to access by its engineers rather than a blacklist. It assumes that its engineers are professional enough to only use the tools that they need to get their tasks done. They enable their engineers to use commonly off-limits functionality such as adding their own DNS records (ie to support the stand-up of new infrastructure). But they also take a use-it-or-lose-it approach, monitoring the tools that the engineer uses and rescinding access to tools they haven’t used within 90 days. But if they do need access again, it’s as simple as a message on Slack to reinstate it.

This is just one small example of streamlining the platform wrapper. There are probably a million others.

When working on OSS projects as the integrator / installer, I’ve seen many of these “platform wrapper” roadblocks. I’m sure you have too. If you see them as the installer, chances are the ops team you hand over to will also experience these roadblocks.

Question though. Do you flag these platform wrapper roadblocks for improvement, or do you treat them as non-platform and therefore just live with them?

I sent you an OSS helicopter

There’s a fable of a man stuck in a flood. Convinced that God is going to save him, he says no to a passing canoe, boat, and helicopter that offer to help. He dies, and in heaven asks God why He didn’t save him. God says, “I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter!”
We all have vivid imaginations. We get a goal in our mind and picture the path so clearly. Then it’s hard to stop focusing on that vivid image, to see what else could work.
New technologies make old things easier, and new things possible. That’s why you need to re-evaluate your old dreams to see if new means have come along
.”
Derek Sivers
, here.

In the past, we could make OSS platform decisions with reasonable confidence that our choices would remain viable for many years. For example, in the 1990s if we decided to build our OSS around a particular brand of relational database then it probably remained a valid choice until after 2010.

But today, there are so many more platforms to choose from, not to mention the technologies that underpin them. And it’s not just the choices currently available but the speed with which new technologies are disrupting the existing tech. In the 1990s, it was a safe bet to use AutoCAD for outside plant visualisation without the risk of heavy re-tooling within a short timeframe.

If making the same decision today, the choices are far less clear-cut. And the risk that your choice will be obsolete within a year or two has skyrocketed.

With the proliferation of open-source projects, the decision has become harder again. That means the skill-base required to service each project has also spread thinner. In turn, decisions for big investments like OSS projects are based more on the critical mass of developers than the functionality available today. If many organisations and individuals have bought into a particular project, you’re more likely to get your new features developed than from a better open-source project that has less community buy-in.

We end up with two ends of a continuum to choose between. We can either chase every new bright shiny object and re-factor for each, or we can plan a course of action and stick to it even if it becomes increasingly obsoleted over time. The reality is that we probably fit somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum.

To be brutally honest I don’t have a solution to this conundrum. The closest technique I can suggest is to design your solution with modularity in mind, as opposed to the monolithic OSS of the past. That’s the small-grid OSS architecture model. It’s easier to replace one building than an entire city.

Life-cycles of key platforms are likely to now be a few years at best (rather than decades if starting in the 1990s). Hence, we need to limit complexity (as per the triple-constraint of OSS) and functionality to support the most high-value objectives.

I’m sure you face the same conundrums on a regular basis. Please leave a comment below to tell us how you overcome them.

Can OSS/BSS assist CX? We’re barely touching the surface

Have you ever experienced an epic customer experience (CX) fail when dealing a network service operator, like the one I described yesterday?

In that example, the OSS/BSS, and possibly the associated people / process, had a direct impact on poor customer experience. Admittedly, that 7 truck-roll experience was a number of years ago now.

We have fewer excuses these days. Smart phones and network connected devices allow us to get OSS/BSS data into the field in ways we previously couldn’t. There’s no need for printed job lists, design packs and the like. Our OSS/BSS can leverage these connected devices to give far better decision intelligence in real time.

If we look to the logistics industry, we can see how parcel tracking technologies help to automatically provide status / progress to parcel recipients. We can see how recipients can also modify their availability, which automatically adjusts logistics delivery sequencing / scheduling.

This has multiple benefits for the logistics company:

  • It increases first time delivery rates
  • Improves the ability to automatically notify customers (eg email, SMS, chatbots)
  • Decreases customer enquiries / complaints
  • Decreases the amount of time the truck drivers need to spend communicating back to base and with clients
  • But most importantly, it improves the customer experience

Logistics is an interesting challenge for our OSS/BSS due to the sheer volume of customer interaction events handled each day.

But it’s another area that excites me even more, where CX is improved through improved data quality:

  • It’s the ability for field workers to interact with OSS/BSS data in real-time
  • To see the design packs
  • To compare with field situations
  • To update the data where there is inconsistency.

Even more excitingly, to introduce augmented reality to assist with decision intelligence for field work crews:

  • To provide an overlay of what fibres need to be spliced together
  • To show exactly which port a patch-lead needs to connect to
  • To show where an underground cable route goes
  • To show where a cable runs through trayway in a data centre
  • etc, etc

We’re barely touching the surface of how our OSS/BSS can assist with CX.

The Rolls Royce vision of OSS

Yesterday’s post mentioned the importance of setting a future vision as part of your MVP delivery strategy.

As Steve Blank said here, Founders act like the “minimum” part is the goal. Or worse, that every potential customer should want it. In the real world not every customer is going to get overly excited about your minimum feature set…You’re selling the vision and delivering the minimum feature set to visionaries not everyone.”

Yesterday’s post promised to give you an example of an exciting vision. Not just any vision, the Rolls-Royce version of a vision.

We’ve all seen examples of customers wanting a Rolls-Royce OSS solution. Here’s a video that’s as close as possible to Rolls-Royce’s own vision of an OSS solution.

Zero Touch Assurance – ZTA (part 2)

Yesterday we described the three steps on the path to Zero Touch Assurance:

  1. Monitoring – Monitoring the events that happen in the network and responding manually
  2. Post-cognition – Monitoring events / trends that happen in the network, comparing them to past situations (using analytics to identify repeating patterns), using the past to recommend (or automate) a response
  3. Pre-cognition – Identification of events / trends that have never happened in the network before, yet still being able to provide a recommended / automated response

At face-value, it seems that we need pre-cognition to be able to achieve ZTA, but we also seem to be some distance away from achieving step 3 technologically (please correct me if I’m wrong here!). But today we pose a possible alternate way, using only the more achievable step 2 technology.

The weakness of Post-cognition is that it’s only as useful as the history of past events that it can call upon. But rather than waiting for events to naturally occur, perhaps we could constantly trigger simulated events and reactions to seed the historical database with a far greater set of data to call upon. In other words, pull all the levers to ensure that there is no event that has never happened before. The problem with this brute-force approach is that the constant tinkering could trigger a catastrophic network failure. We want to build up a library of all possible situations, but without putting live customer services at risk.

So we could run many of the more risky, cascading or long-run variants on what other industries might call a “digital twin” of the network instead. By their nature of storing all the current operating data about a given network, an OSS could already be considered to be a digital twin. We’d just need to build the sophisticated, predictive simulations to run on the twin.

More to come tomorrow when we discuss how data collection impacts our ability to achieve ZTA.

Becoming the Microsoft of the OSS industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could ONAP become the platform / OS?

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

Think for a moment…

Many of the most important new companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Snapchat, Uber, Airbnb and more are winning not by giving good-enough solutions…, but rather by delivering a superior experience….”
Ben Thompson
, stratechery.com

Think for a moment about the millions of developer hours that have gone into creating today’s OSS tools. Think also for a moment about how many of those tools are really clunky to use, install, configure, administer. How many OSS tools have truck-loads of functionality baked in that is just distracting, features that you’re never going to need or use? Conversely, how many are intuitive enough for a high-school student, let’s say, to use for the first time and become effective within a day of self-driven learning?

Let’s say an OSS came along that had all of the most important features (the ones customers really pay for, not the flashy, nice-to-have features) and offered a vastly superior user experience and user interface. Let’s say it took the market by storm.

With software and cloud delivery, it becomes harder to sustain differentiation. Innovative features and services are readily copied. But have a think about how hard it would be for the incumbent OSS to pick apart the complexity of their code, developed across those millions of developer hours, and throw swathes of it away – overhauling in an attempt to match a truly superior OSS experience.

Can you see why I’m bemused that we’re not replacing developers with more UX experts? We can surely create more differentiation through vastly improved experience than we can in creating new functionality (almost all of the most important functionality has already been developed and we’re now investing developer time on the periphery).

Am I being an OSShole?

“Am I being an asshole?” In other words, am I pointing out problems or am I finding solutions?
Ramit Sethi.

One of the things I’ve noticed working on large and small OSS teams is that people who excel at finding solutions thrive in both. The ones who thrive on only identifying problems seemingly only function in large organisations.

In a small team, everyone needs to contribute to the many solutions that need resolving. There’s a clear line of sight to what’s being delivered. I’ve tended to find that the pure problem-finders feel uncomfortable to be the only ones not clearly delivering.

But there’s absolutely a role for identifying problems or for asking the question that completely re-frames the problem. One of the best I’ve seen is a CEO of a publicly listed company. He had virtually no knowledge of OSS, but could listen to half an hour of technical, round-in-circles discussions, then interject with a summary or question that re-framed and simplified the solution. The team then had a clear direction to implement. The CEO didn’t find the solution directly, but he was an instrumental component in the team reaching a solution.

The question to pose though is whether the question asker is being an OSShole or an agent provocateur*.

* BTW, I use this term within the context of being a change agent, someone who contributes to finding a solution, as opposed to the literal sense, which is to incite others into performing illegal acts.

GE undergoes another re-structure. Does it unlock a competitive advantage?

GE has just announced plans to establish a new, independent company focused on building a comprehensive Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) software portfolio.

The spun out company will “start with $1.2 billion in annual software revenue and an existing global industrial customer base. The company is intended to be a GE wholly-owned, independently run business with a new brand and identity, its own equity structure, and its own Board of Directors. The proposed new organization aims to bring together GE Digital’s industry-leading IIoT solutions including the Predix platform, Asset Performance Management, Historian, Automation (HMI/SCADA), Manufacturing Execution Systems, Operations Performance Management, and the GE Power Digital and Grid Software Solutions businesses.”

A couple of months ago, we posed the question about cross-over use-cases / functionality / products / data / process between IoT platforms and OSS.

Sure, there are fundamental differences between what a sensor network management platform (ooops, should I call that SNMP? That won’t cause any confusion will it??) and what an OSS does. However, there seems to be enough commonality and potential for shared insight to collude.

As far as I’ve ascertained (happy to be told otherwise), GE is the only organisation that has significant offerings in both spaces – Predix in sensor network management and a multitude of OSS / asset tools including Smallworld. Up until now, I understand that Predix and OSS have been kept in separate siloes by GE. Placing the two sets of assets together in the new, as yet unnamed, digital business increases the likelihood of collaboration surely.

If GE really is the only organisation at the Venn-Diagram convergence of IOT and OSS platforms, then it holds a competitive advantage in that niche. The only question that remains is to identify the use-cases and customers that the niche (and its functionality) is relevant to, if any.

PS. Just as an aside, the restructure also includes the announcement that GE is divesting a majority stake in ServiceMax, a product that is often bundled with its OSS offers, which it bought for $916M back in 2016. Silver Lake, a private equity firm will take over that stake in early 2019.

How to kill the OSS RFP (part 4)

This is the fourth, and final part (I think) in the series on killing the OSS RFI/RFP process, a process that suppliers and customers alike find to be inefficient. The concept is based on an initiative currently being investigated by TM Forum.

The previous three posts focused on the importance of trusted partnerships and the methods to develop them via OSS procurement events.

Today’s post takes a slightly different tack. It proposes a structural obsolescence that may lead to the death of the RFP. We might not have to kill it. It might die a natural death.

Actually, let me take that back. I’m sure RFPs won’t die out completely as a procurement technique. But I can see a time when RFPs are far less common and significantly different in nature to today’s procurement events.

How??
Technology!
That’s the answer all technologists cite to any form of problem of course. But there’s a growing trend that provides a portent to the future here.

It comes via the XaaS (As a Service) model of software delivery. We’re increasingly building and consuming cloud-native services. OSS of the future, the small-grid model, are likely to consume software as services from multiple suppliers.

And rather than having to go through a procurement event like an RFP to form each supplier contract, the small grid model will simply be a case of consuming one/many services via API contracts. The API contract (eg OpenAPI specification / swagger) will be available for the world to see. You either consume it or you don’t. No lengthy contract negotiation phase to be had.

Now as mentioned above, the RFP won’t die, but evolve. We’ll probably see more RFPs formed between customers and the services companies that will create customised OSS solutions (utilising one/many OSS supplier services). And these RFPs may not be with the massive multinational services companies of today, but increasingly through smaller niche service companies. These micro-RFPs represent the future of OSS work, the gig economy, and will surely be facilitated by smart-RFP / smart-contract models (like the OSS Justice League model).

How to kill the OSS RFP (part 3)

As the title suggests, this is the third in a series of articles spawned by TM Forum’s initiative to investigate better procurement practices than using RFI / RFP processes.

There’s no doubt the RFI / RFP / contract model can be costly and time-consuming. To be honest, I feel the RFI / RFP process can be a reasonably good way of evaluating and identifying a new supplier / partner. I say “can be” because I’ve seen some really inefficient ones too. I’ve definitely refined and improved my vendor procurement methodology significantly over the years.

I feel it’s not so much the RFI / RFP that needs killing (significant disruption maybe), but its natural extension, the contract development and closure phase that can be significantly improved.

As mentioned in the previous two parts of this series (part 1 and part 2), the main stumbling block is human nature, specifically trust.

Have you ever been involved in the contract phase of a large OSS procurement event? How many pages did the contract end up being? Well over a hundred? How long did it take to reach agreement on all the requirements and clauses in that document?

I’d like to introduce the concept of a Minimum Viable Contract (MVC) here. An MVC doesn’t need most of the content that appears in a typical contract. It doesn’t attempt to predict every possible eventuality during the many years the OSS will survive for. Instead it focuses on intent and the formation of a trusting partnership.

I once led a large, multi-organisation bid response. Our response had dozens of contributors, many person-months of effort expended, included hundreds of pages of methodology and other content. It conformed with the RFP conditions. It seemed justified on a bid that exceeded $250M. We came second on that bid.

The winning bidder responded with a single page that included intent and fixed price amount. Their bid didn’t conform to RFP requests. Whereas we’d sought to engender trust through content, they’d engendered trust through relationships (in a part of the world where we couldn’t match the winning bidder’s relationships). The winning bidder’s response was far easier for the customer to evaluate than ours. Undoubtedly their MVC was easier and faster to gain agreement on.

An MVC is definitely a more risky approach for a customer to initiate when entering into a strategically significant partnership. But just like the sports-star transfer comparison in part 2, it starts from a position of trust and seeks to build a trusted partnership in return.

This is a highly contrarian view. What are your thoughts? Would you ever consider entering into an MVC on a big OSS procurement event?

That’s not where to disrupt your OSS

The diagram below comes from an actual client’s functionality usage profile.
Long tail of OSS

The x-axis shows the functionality / use-cases. The y-axis shows the number of uses (it could equally represent usefulness or value).

Each big-impact demand (ie individual bars on the left-side of the graph) warrants separate investigation. The bars on the right side (ie the long tail in the red box) don’t. They might be worth investigating if we could treat some/all as a cohort though.

The left side of the graph represent the functionality / use-cases that have been around for decades. Every OSS has them. They’re so common and non-differentiated that they’re not remotely sexy. Customers / stakeholders aren’t going to be wowed by them. They’re just going to expect them. Our product developers have already delivered that functionality, have moved on and are now looking for new things to work on.

And where does the new stuff reside? Generally as new bars on the right side of the graph. That’s the law of diminishing returns territory right there! You’re unlikely to move the needle from out there.

Does this graph convince you to send your most skilled craftsmen back to do more tinkering / disrupting at the left side of the graph… as opposed to adding new features at the right side? Does it inspire you to dream up exciting cohort management techniques for the red box? Perhaps it even persuades you to cull some of the long-tail features that are chewing up lifecycle effort (eg code management, regression testing, complexity tax)?

If it does convince you, don’t forget to think about how you’re going to market it. How are you going to make the left side sexy / differentiated again? Are you going to have to prove just how much easier, cheaper, faster, more efficient, more profitable, etc it is? That brings us back to the OSS proof-of-worth discussion we had yesterday. It also brings us back to Sutton’s Law – go to where the money is.

Cannibalisation intrigues me

We’ve all heard the Kodak story. They invented digital cameras but stuck them in a drawer because it was going to cannibalise their dominant position in the photographic film revenue stream… eventually leading to bankruptcy.

Swisscom invented an equivalent of WhatsApp years before WhatsApp came onto the market. It allowed users (only Swisscom users, not external / global customers BTW) to communicate via a single app – calls, chat, pictures, videos, etc. Swisscom parked it because it was going to cannibalise their voice and SMS revenue streams. That product, iO, is now discontinued. Meanwhile, WhatsApp achieved an exit of nearly $22B by selling to Facebook.

Some network operators are baulking at offering SD-WAN as it may cannibalise their MPLS service offerings. It will be interesting to see how this story plays out.

What also intrigues me is where cannibalisation is going to come for the OSS industry. What is the format of network operationalisation that’s simpler, more desirable to customers, probably cheaper, but completely destroys current revenue models? Do any of the vendors already have such capability but have parked it in a drawer because of revenue destruction?

History seems to have proven that it’s better to cannibalise your own revenues than allow your competitors to do so.

How OSS/BSS facilitated Telkomsel’s structural revenue changes

The following two slides were presented by Monty Hong of Indonesia’s Telkomsel at Digital Transformation Asia 2018 last week. They provide a fascinating insight into the changing landscape of comms revenues that providers are grappling with globally and the associated systems decisions that Telkomsel has made.

The first shows the drastic declines in revenues from Telkomsel’s traditional telco products (orange line), contrasted with the rapid rise in revenues from content such as video and gaming.
Telkomsel Revenue Curve

The second shows where Telkomsel is repositioning itself into additional segments of the content value-chain (red chevrons at top of page show where Telkomsel is playing).
Telkomsel gaming ecosystem

Telkomsel has chosen to transform its digital core to specifically cater for this new revenue model with one API ecosystem. One of the focuses of this transformation is to support a multi-speed architectural model. Traditional back-end systems (eg OSS/BSS and system of records) are expected to rarely change, whilst customer-facing systems are expected to be highly agile to cater to changing customer needs.

More about the culture of this change tomorrow.

DTA is all wrapped up for another year

We’ve just finished the third and final day at TM Forum’s Digital Transformation Asia (https://dta.tmforum.org and #tmfdigitalasia ). Wow, talk about a lot happening!!

After spending the previous two days focusing on the lecture series, it would’ve been remiss of me to not catch up with the vendors and Catalyst presentations that had been on display for all three days. So that was my main focus for day 3. Unfortunately, I probably missed seeing some really interesting presentations, although I did catch the tail-end of the panel discussion, “Zero-touch – Identifying the First Steps Toward Fully Automated NFV/SDN,” which was ably hosted by George Glass (along with NFV/SDN experts Tomohiro Otani and Ir. Rizaludin Kaspin ). From the small amount I did see, it left me wishing that I could’ve experienced the entire discussion.

But on with the Catalysts, which are one of the most exciting assets in TM Forum’s arsenal IMHO. They connect carriers (as project champions) with implementers to deliver rapid prototypes on some of the carriers’ most pressing needs. They deliver some seriously impressive results in a short time, often with implementers only being able to devote part of their working hours (or after-hours) to the Catalyst.

As reported here, the winning Catalysts are:

1. Outstanding Catalyst for Business Impact
Telco Cloud Orchestration Plus, Using Open APIs on IoT
Champion: China Mobile
Participants: BOCO Inter-Telecom, Huawei, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Nokia

2. Outstanding Catalyst for Innovation
5G Pâtisserie
Champions: Globe Telecom, KDDI Research, Singtel
Patricipants: Neural Technologies, Infosys, Ericsson

3. Outstanding New Catalyst
Artificial Intelligence for IT Operations (AIOps)
Champions: China Telecom, China Unicom, China Mobile
Participants: BOCO Inter-Telecom, Huawei, Si-Tech

These were all undoubtedly worthy winners, reward for the significant effort that has already gone into them. Three other Catalysts that I particularly liked are:

  • Transcend Boundaries – which demonstrates the use of Augmented Reality for the field workforce in particular, as championed by Globe. Collectively we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible in this space, so it was exciting to see the concept presented by this Catalyst
  • NaaS in Action – which is building upon Telstra’s exciting Network as a Service (NaaS) initiative; and
  • Telco Big Data Security and Privacy Management Framework – the China Mobile led Catalyst that is impressive for the number of customers that are already signed up and generating revenues for CT.

BTW. The full list of live Catalysts can be found here.

For those who missed this year’s event, I can only suggest that you mark it in your diaries for next year. The TM Forum team is already starting to plan out next year’s event, one that will surely be even bigger and better than the one I’ve been privileged to have attended this week.

OSS that capture value, not just create it

I’ve just had a really interesting first day at TM Forum’s Digital Transformation Asia (https://dta.tmforum.org and #tmfdigitalasia ). The quality of presentations was quite high. Some great thought-provoking ideas!!

Nik Willetts kicked off his keynote with the following quote, which I’m paraphrasing, “Telcos need to start capturing value, not just creating it as they have for the last decade.”

For me, this is THE key takeaway for this event, above any of the other interesting technical discussions from day 1 (and undoubtedly on the agenda for the next 2 days too).

The telecommunications industry has made a massive contribution to the digital lifestyle that we now enjoy. It has been instrumental in adding enormous value to our lives and our economy. But all the while, telecommunications providers globally have been experiencing diminishing profitability and share-of-wallet (as described in this earlier post). Clearly the industry has created enormous value, but hasn’t captured as much as it would’ve liked.

The question to ask is how will our thinking and our OSS/BSS stacks help to contribute to capturing more value for our customers. As described in the share of wallet post above, the premium end of the value chain has always been in the content (think in terms of phone conversations in days gone by, or the myriad of comms techniques today such as email, live chat, blogs, etc, etc). That’s what the customer pays for – the experience – not the networks or systems that facilitate it.

Nik’s comments made me think of Andrew Carnegie. Monopolies such as the telecommunications organisations of the past and Andrew Carnegie’s steel business owned vast swathes of the value chain (Carnegie Steel Company owned the mines which extracted the raw materials needed to make steel, controlled the transportation used to deliver the materials and the product, and ran the mills used for steel production). Buyers didn’t care for the mines or mills or transportation. Customers were paying for the end product as it is what helped them achieve their goals, whether that was the railway tracks needed by the railroads or the beams needed by construction companies.

The Internet has allowed enormous proliferation of the premium-end of the telecommunications value chain. It’s too late to stuff that genie back into the bottle. But to Nik’s further comment, we can help customers achieve their goals by becoming their “do-it-yourself” digital partners.

Our customers now look to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Google, WordPress, Amazon, etc to build their marketing, order capture, product / content delivery, commercial transactions, etc. I really enjoyed Monty Hong‘s presentation that showed how Telkomsel’s OSS/BSS is helping to embed Telkomsel into customers’ digital lifestyles / value-chains. It’s a perfect example of the biggest OSS loser proof discussed in yesterday’s post.