Re-imagining your OSS? Remarkable approaches changing the world of telco

An updated call for innovation in the OSS industry

We are currently living through a revolution for the OSS/BSS industry and the customers that we serve.

It’s not a question of if we need to innovate, but by how much and in what ways.

Change is surrounding us and impacting us in profound ways, triggered by new technologies, business models, design & delivery techniques, customer expectations and so much more.

Our why, the fundamental reasons for OSS and BSS to exist, is relatively unchanged in decades. We’ve advanced so far, yet we are a long way from perfecting the tools and techniques required to operationalise service provider networks.

Imagine a future OSS where:

  1. Buying a new / transformed OSS is a relatively simple experience
  2. Customers find the implementation / integration experience quite fast and easy
  3. Implementers are able to implement and integrate simply, seamlessly and repeatably
  4. The user experience for customers and OSS operators is intuitive, insightful and efficient
  5. It’s not exactly the “zero-touch” that has been discussed, but only requires human interaction / intervention for the rarest of situations

This call for innovation, whilst having no reward like the XPRIZE (yet), seeks out the best that we have to offer and the indicators for what OSS can be into the future. It provides existing indicators to the future but seeks your input on what else is possible.

Innovation is not just a better product or technology. It’s a complex mix of necessity, evangelism, timing, distribution, exploration, marketing and much more. It’s not just about thinking big. In many cases, it’s about thinking small – taking one small obstacle and re-framing, tackling the problem differently than anyone else has previously.

We issue this Call for Innovation as a means of seeking out and amplifying the technologies, people, companies and processes that will transform, disrupt and, more importantly, improve the parallel worlds of OSS and BSS. Innovation represents the path to greater enthusiasm and greater investment in our OSS/BSS projects.

In this article we’ll look at:

  • Part 1 – Current State
  • Part 2 – Change Drivers
  • Part 3 – What might an OSS Future Look Like (including “a day in the life” examples)

Part 1 – Current State of OSS

1.1 An introduction to the current state of OSS

At the highest level, the use cases for OSS and BSS have barely changed since the earliest tools were developed.

We still want to:

  • Monitor and improve network / service health
  • Bring appealing new products to an eager market quickly
  • Accurately and efficiently bill customers for the services customers use
  • Ensure optimal coordination, allocation and utilisation of available resources
  • Discover operational insights that can be actioned to quickly and enduringly improve the current situation
  • Ensure all stakeholders can securely interact with our tools and services via efficient / elegant interfaces and processes
  • Use technology to streamline and automate, allowing human resources to focus only on the most meaningful activities that they’re best-suited to

The problem statements we face still relate to doing all these use-cases, only cheaper, faster, better and more precisely.

Let’s take those use-cases to an even higher level and pose the question about customer interactions with our OSS:

  1. For how many customers (eg telcos) is the OSS buying experience an enjoyable one?
  2. For how many customers is the implementation / integration experience an enjoyable one?
  3. For how many implementers is the implementation / integration experience a simple, seamless, repeatable one?
  4. For how many customers is the user experience (ie of OSS operators) an enjoyable one?

Actual customer experiences in relation to the questions above today might be 1) Confusing, 2) Arduous, 3) Uniquely challenging and 4) Unintuitive.
The challenge is to break these down and reconstruct them so that they’re 1) Easy to follow, 2) Simple, 3) Less bespoke and 4) Navigable by novices.

Despite the best efforts of so many brilliant specialists, a subtle sense of disillusionment exists when some people discuss OSS/BSS solutions, to the point that some consider the name OSS, the brand of OSS, to be tarnished. Whilst there are many reasons for this pervasive disappointment, the real root-causes are arguably the big (big projects, budgets, teams, complexity and expectations) and the small (ambition, improvement / thinking, experimentation and tolerance of failure).

We have contributed to our own complexity and had complexity thrust upon us from external sources. The layers of complexity entangle us. This entanglement forces us into ongoing cycles of incremental change. Unfortunately, incremental change is impeding us from reaching for a vastly better future.

2.2 The 80/20 rule of OSS in a fragmented market

The diagram below shows Pareto’s 80/20 rule in the form of a telco functionality long-tail diagram:

  • The x-axis shows a list of OSS functionalities (within a hypothetical OSS product)
  • The y-axis shows the relative value or volume of transactions for each functionality (for the same hypothetical product)

True to Pareto’s Principle, this chart indicates that 80% of value is delivered by 20% of functionality (red-shaded rectangle). Meanwhile 20% of value is delivered by the remaining 80% of functionality (blue arrow).

If we take one sector of the OSS market – network inventory – there are well over 50 products / vendors servicing this market.

The functionalities in the red shading are the non-negotiables because they’re the most important. All 50+ products will have these functionalities and have had them since their Minimum Viable Product first came onto the market. It also means 50+ sets of effort have been duplicated and 50+ competitors fighting for the same pool of customers. It also means there are 50+ vendors for a buyer to consider when choosing their next product (often leading to analysis paralysis).

But rather than innovating, trying to improve the functionality that “moves the needle” for buyers (ie the red shading), instead most vendors attempt to innovate in the long tail (ie the blue arrow).

Of course innovation is needed in the blue arrow, but innovation and consolidation is more desperately needed in the red shaded-box (see this article for more detail).

Part 2 – Change Drivers for OSS

2.1 Exponential opportunities

Exponential technologies are landing all around us from adjacent industries. With them, it becomes a question about how to remove the constraints of current OSS and unleash them.

We’ve all heard of Moore’s Law, which predicts the semiconductor industry’s ability to exponentially increase transistor density in an integrated circuit. “Moore’s prediction proved accurate for several decades, and has been used in the semiconductor industry to guide long-term planning and to set targets for research and development. Advancements in digital electronics are strongly linked to Moore’s law: quality-adjusted microprocessor prices, memory capacity, sensors and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras… Moore’s law describes a driving force of technological and social change, productivity, and economic growth.”

Moore’s Law is starting to break down, but it’s exponentiality has also proven to be helpful for long-term planning in many industries that rely on electronics / computing. That includes the communications industry. By nature, we tend to think in linear terms. Exponentiality is harder for us to comprehend (as shown with the old anecdote about the number of grains of wheat on a chessboard).

The problem, as described in a great article on SingularityHub, is that the exponentiality of technological progress tends to surprise us as change initially creeps up on us quietly, then overwhelms us in situations like this:

(source: Singularity Hub)

Hardware is scaling exponentially, yet our software is lagging and wetware (ie our thinking) could be said to be trailing even further behind. The level of complexity that has hit OSS in the last decade has been profound and has largely overwhelmed the linear thinking models we’ve applied to OSS. The continued growth from technologies such as network virtualisation, Internet of Things, etc is going to lead to a touchpoint explosion that will make the next few years even more difficult for our current OSS models (especially for the many tools that exist today that have evolved from decade-old frameworks).

Countering exponential growth requires exponential thinking, as described in this article on WIRED. We know we’re going to deal with vastly greater touch-points and vastly greater variants and vastly greater complexity (see more in the triple-constraint of OSS). Too many OSS projects are already buckling under the weight of this complexity.

So where to start?

2.2 Re-framing the Challenge of OSS Innovation

A journey of enlightenment is required. Arguably this type of transformation is required before an digital transformation can proceed. This starts by asking questions that challenge our beliefs about OSS and the customers + markets they serve. This link poses 22 re-framing questions that might help you on a journey to test your own beliefs, but don’t stop at those seed questions.

2.3 Driving Forces Impacting the Telco / OSS Industries

The following forces are driving future changes, both positive and negative, for the OSS industry and the customers it serves:

  1. OSS buyers (eg telcos) face diminished profitability due to competition in traditional services such as network access / carriage
  2. Telcos face a challenge in their ability to innovate (access to skills, capital, efficient coordination, constrained partner ecosystem, etc)
  3. Access to capital (incl. inflation, depreciation and interest rates following massive technology investments)
  4. The centre of gravity of innovation is rapidly shifting from West to East, as is access to skills (migration of jobs, skills and learning to India and China). Far more Engineers are minted in China and India and many OSS tasks are done in these regions, especially hands-on “creation” tasks. This means the vital hands-on “OSS apprenticeships” are largely only done at scale in these regions. As a result, of this shift and outsourcing / offshoring of core tech skills, many telcos in the West have lost the capability to influence the innovation / evolution of the technologies upon which they depend
  5. Access to energy and energy efficiency are coming under increased scrutiny due to climate change and emissions obligations
  6. Networks, data and digital experiences are increasingly software-centric, yet telcos don’t have “software-first” DNA
  7. Digitalisation and the desire for more immersive digital experiences is increasing, within B2B (eg gaming, entertainment) and B2C (eg digital twins and so much more)
  8. Web3 / metaverse use-cases will intensify this trend
  9. Telcos have traditionally sold (and profited from) the onramp to the digital world (ie mobile phones), but will they continue to for web3-enabled devices like headsets?
  10. Regulatory interventions have always been significant for telco, but as we increasingly rely on digital experience, regulatory oversight is now increasing for entities that rely on communications networks (eg user data privacy regulations like GDPR)
  11. Trust, privacy, but also proof-of-identity are all becoming more important as protection mechanisms as digital experiences increase in the face of increased cyber threats
  12. Cyber threats have the potential to be too advanced for many enterprises’ security budgets
  13. Increased proliferation of technology arriving from adjacent industries introduces challenges for standardisation and ability to collaborate 
  14. The proliferation of disruptive technologies also makes it more difficult to choose the “right” solution / architecture for today and into a predictable future
  15. Society changes and consumer desires in relation to digital experiences are changing rapidly, and changing in different ways in different regions
  16. The telecom market is largely saturated in many countries, nearing “full” penetration 
  17. Many telcos, especially tier-ones, are large, bureaucratic organisations. The inefficiency of these operations models can be justified at large scale of build, but less so when margins are shrinking along with new users (per earlier full-penetration point)
  18. Shorter attention spans and emphasis on short-term returns is limiting the ability to perform primary research or enduring problem solving. The appetite for tech literacy especially for hard challenges (ie ones not already available as a YouTube videos), is diminishing
  19. Geopolitical risk is on the rise
  20. Telco technology solutions are increasingly moving to public / private cloud models, which is beyond the experiences of many telco veterans
  21. There is an increase in proliferation of devices / appliances (by volume, type and behaviour) on enterprise and telco networks, so understanding and/or visibility of nefarious behaviour is harder to identify, leading to greater cyber risks
  22. Miniaturization of electronics frees up space in exchanges, leading to available rackspace, connectivity and power at these valuable “edge” locations. This opens up not just opportunities within the telco, but via partnership / investment / leasing-models as a real-estate opportunity 
  23. Telcos aren’t software-first, nor have developer-centred management skills in executive positions. Successful software development requires single-minded solutions, whereas software is one of many conflicting objectives for telcos (refer to this failure to prioritise article). Innovation is being seen from software-first business models (refer to this article about Rakuten), where the business is lead by IT-centric management / teams rather than telco veterans
  24. Other opportunities like private networks and digital twins for industry seem like opportunities that are more aligned with current telco capabilities

3.4 Future OSS Scenario Planning

Before considering what the future might look like, we must acknowledge that nobody can predict the future. There are simply too many variables at play. The best we can do is propose possible future scenarios such as:

  1. Blue-sky (fundamental change for the better)
  2. Doomsday (fundamental change that disrupts)
  3. Depression (more of the same, but with decay / deterioration)
  4. Growth (more of the same, but with improvement)

From these scenarios, we can make decisions on how to best steer OSS innovation. <WIP link>

Part 3 – What the Future of OSS Might Look Like

3.1 The Pieces of the Future OSS Puzzle

The topics related to this Call for Innovation can be wide and varied (the big), yet sharp in focus (the small). They can relate directly to OSS technologies or innovative methods brought to OSS from adjacent fields but ultimately they’ll improve our lot. Not just change for the sake of the next cool tech, but change for the sake of improving the experience of anyone interacting with an OSS.

The following is just a small list of starting points where exponential improvements await:

  • OSS are designed for machine-to-machine (M2M) interactions as the primary interface. User interfaces are only designed for the rarest cases of interaction / intervention
  • Automations of various sorts handle the high volume, difficult and/or mundane activities, freeing humans up to focus on higher-value decision making
  • These rare interactions will not be via today’s User Interfaces (UIs) consisting of alarm lists, work orders, device configs, design packs, etc. OSS interactions will be via augmented reality, three-dimensional models and digital twins / triplets where data of many forms can be easily overlaid and turned into decisions. Smart phones have revolutionised the way workers interact with operational systems. Imminent releases in smart glass will further change ways of working, delivering greater situational awareness and remote collaboration
  • Decision support will guide the workforce in performing many of their daily actions, especially using augmented reality devices
  • OSS won’t just coordinate the repair of faults after they occur in systems and networks. They will increasingly predict faults before they occur, but more importantly will be used to increase network and service resiliency to cope with failures / degradations as they inevitably arise. This allows focus to shift from networks, nodes and infrastructure to customers and services
  • Will make increasingly sophisticated and granular decisions on how to leverage capital based on the balance of cost vs benefit. For example, taking inputs such as capacity planning, assurance events, customer sentiment, service levels and fieldwork scheduling to decide whether to fix a particular failure (eg cable water ingress) or to modernise the infrastructure and customer service capabilities
  • Use every field worker touch-point as an opportunity to reconcile physical infrastructure data to help overcome the challenge of data quality. This can be achieved via image processing to identify QR / barcode / RFID tags or similar whilst conducting day-to-day activities on-site. Image processing is backed up by sophisticated asset life-cycle mapping
  • Greater consolidation of product functionality, especially of the core features (as shown in the red-shaded box within the 80/20 diagram above)
  • Common, vendor-neutral network configuration data models to ensure new network makes, models and topologies are designed once (by the vendor) and easily represented consistently across all OSS globally (eg OpenConfig project)
  • True streaming data collection and management (eg telemetry, traffic management, billing, quality of service, security, etc) will be commonplace, as opposed to near-real-time (eg 15 min batch processing). Decisions at the speed of streaming, not 30+ minutes after the event like many networks today. [At the time of writing, one solution stands ahead of all others in this space]
  • A composable and/or natural language user interface, like a Google search, with the smarts to interrogate data and return insights. Alarm lists, trouble tickets, inventory lists, performance graphs and other traditional  approaches are waiting to be usurped by more intuitive user interfaces (UIs)
  • Data-driven search-based interactions rather than integration, configuration or programming languages wherever possible, to cut down on integration times and costs
  • Service / application layer abstraction provides the potential for platform sharing between network and OSS and dove-tailed integration
  • New styles of service and event modelling for the adaptive packet-based, virtual/physical hybrid networks of the future
  • A single omni-channel thread that traces every customer omni-channel interaction flow through OSS, BSS, web/digital, contact centres, retail, live chat, etc, leading to less fall-outs and responsibility “flicking” between domains in a service provider
  • Repeatable, rather than customised, integration. Catalogs (eg service catalogs, product catalogs, virtual network device catalogs) are the closest we have so far. Intent abstraction and policy models follow this theme too, as does platform-thinking / APIs.
  • Unstructured, flexible data sets rather than structured data models. OSS has a place for graph, time-series and relational data models. Speaking of data, we need a new data platforms that easily support the cross-linking of time-series, graph and relational data sets (the holy trinity)
  • Highly de-centralised and/or distributed processing using small footprint, commoditised hardware at the provider and/or customer edge rather than the centralised (plus aggregators) model of today. This model reduces latency and management traffic carried over the network as only meta-data and/or consolidated data sets are shipped to centralised locations
  • The wow factor / usability is in the graphics and user-interface, the value (business case) is in the graph (the data)
  • A standardised, simplified integration mechanism between network and management on common virtualised platforms rather than proprietary interfaces connecting between different platforms
  • An open source core that allows anyone to develop plug-ins for, leading to long-tail innovation, whilst focusing the massive brainpower currently allocated to duplicated efforts (due to vendor fragmentation)
  • Cheaper, faster, simpler installations (at all levels, including contracts between suppliers and customers)
  • Transparency of documentation to make it easier for integrators
  • Ubiquitous training / learning programs – like what Cisco has achieved with it’s CCIE (and similar) certifications (not to mention the unlikely competitive advantage it has delivered)
  • Capable of handling a touchpoint explosion as network virtualisation and Internet of Things (IoT) will introduce vast numbers of devices to manage
  • Ruthless simplification of inputs leading into the OSS/BSS “black-box” (eg drastic reduction in the number of product offerings or SKUs and product variants) and inside the black box of OSS/BSS (eg process complexity, configuration variants, etc)
  • Machine learning and predictive analytics to help operators cope with the abovementioned touchpoint explosion
  • Increasing the perception of value provided by OSS, reversing the pervasive sentiment that OSS can only ever be a cost centre. OSS are too important to just be cost centres but they need better messaging of value to come from us

3.2 Increasing Trust to Support Web3

The digital experiences we rely on today are evolving.  The third generation of the Internet (Web 3.0) is on the horizon, with many of its necessary elements already taking shape (eg blockchain / crypto-currencies, digital proof-of-ownership, virtual worlds, etc). It will essentially be a more immersive, secure, private, user-friendly and de-centralised version of the Internet we know today.

Trust will be a fundamental element of society’s up-take of web3 technologies. Access to these experiences will occur via the on-ramp of communications networks. Being regulated in their local jurisdictions, telcos have an opportunity to act in the role of privacy, security and consumer protection stewards for everyone entering the world of Web3. Leveraging the long-held position of trust that telcos have with their business and residential customers, OSS/BSS have the opportunity to deliver trust mechanisms for Web3.

Whether, and how, we tap into this opportunity remains to be seen.

3.3. A Day in the Life of Future OSS Users

Many people talk about the possibility of a zero-touch future OSS. I don’t foresee that, but do see a future of lower-touch, smarter-touch, different touch. The entire way we will interact with our OSS will change fundamentally – from dealing with our two-dimensional device screens (eg PCs, phones and tablets) to future devices that allow us to have enriched experiences in three dimensions – in reality and with augmented realities.

Capacity Planner – The CAD designs of the past were necessary because field workers needed printed design packs that showed network changes. Field workers needed to translate these drawings and designs into the 3 dimensional worlds they experienced. Since capacity planners perform designs remotely, they make design decisions with incomplete awareness of site (eg site furniture, etc). In the future (and today), designers will have 3D photogrammetric models of site and can perform adds/moves/changes directly onto the model. Most of these designs will be generated automatically based on cost-benefit analysis. However, a human may be required to perform a quality audit of the design or generate any bespoke designs that aren’t catered for by the auto-designer. For example, certain infrastructure changes may be required before being able to drag a new device type (make and model) onto the 3D model and include other relevant annotations. 

Field Worker – Field workers are already using mobility devices to aid the efficiency of work on site. This will change further when field workers use augmented reality headsets to see network change designs as overlays whilst they’re working. They will see the new device location marked on the tower (as described above) and know exactly which piece of equipment needs to be installed where. Connection details will also be shown and image processing on the head-set will identified whether connectors have been wrongly connected. Even installation guides will appear via the heads-up display of AR to aid techs will the build.
Similarly, a fibre splice technician will be guided which strand / tube fibre to splice to which other strand / tube as image processing will identify cables and colours and match them up with designs. Where there are any discrepancies between field records and inventory records, these will be reconciled immediately without the need for returning red-line markup as-built drawings to be transcribed into the OSS.
Perhaps most important is the automation that keeps passive infrastructure reconciled whilst field techs perform their daily activities. We all know that data quality deteriorates as it ages. Since passive infrastructure (racks, cables, patch panels, splice boxes, etc) is unable to send digital notifications, their data tends to be updated only through design drawings, which are rarely touched. However, field workers “see” this infrastructure whilst they’re on site. As field workers will now upload imagery of the site they’re working on (as photos or AR streams), image processing will automatically identify QR / barcode / RFID tags to identify where assets are in space and time, thus providing a “ping” on the data to refresh it and reconcile its data accuracy. Entire asset life-cycles are better tracked and correlated with who was on site when life-cycle statuses changed (eg adds / moves / changes in location or configuration).

Data Centre Repair Technician – Since most infrastructure in a data centre will be standardised, commoditised and virtualised, the primary tasks will be replacing failed hardware and performing patching. DC Techs will do a daily fix-run where their augmented reality devices will show which rack and shelf contain faulty equipment that needs to be replaced. Image processing will even identify whether the correct device or card is being installed in place of the failed unit.  AR headsets will also guide DC techs on patching / re-patching, ensuring the correct connectivity is enabled.

NOC (and/or WOC and SOC) operator – As with today, a NOC operator will monitor, diagnose and coordinate a fix. However, with AIOps tools automatically identifying and responding to all previously identified network health patterns, the NOC operator will only handle the rare event patterns that haven’t been previously codified. For these rare cases, the NOC operator will have an advanced diagnosis solution and user interface, where all network domain data and available data streams (events, telemetry, logs, changes, etc) can be visualised on a single palette. These temporal/spatial data streams can be dragged onto the UI to aid with diagnosis, although the AIOps will initially present the data streams on the palette that contain likely anomalies (rather than the hundreds of unassociated metric graphs that will be available from the network). The UI to support the rare cases will look fundamentally different to the UI that supports bulk processing today (eg alarm lists and tickets).

Command and control (C&C) – Since the AIOps and SON handles most situations automatically (eg auto-fix, self-optimise, auto-ticket), only rare situations require command and control mechanisms by the NOC team. However, these C&C situations are likely to be invoked during crisis, high severity and/or complex resolution scenarios. Rather than handling these scenarios by tick(et) and flick, the C&C tool will provide collaborative control of resources (people and technology) using sophisticated decision support. The C&C solution will be tightly coupled with business continuity plans (BCP) to drive pre-planned, coordinated responses. They will be designed to ensure BCPs are regularly tested and refined.

System Administrators – These teams will arguably become the most important people for which OSS user interfaces (UIs) will be designed. These users will design, train, maintain and monitor the automations of future OSS. They will be responsible for keeping systems running, setting up product catalogs, designing workflows such as orchestration plans, identifying AIOps event patterns and response workflows, etc. They will be responsible for system configurations and data migrations to ensure the workflows for all other personas are seamless, immersive and intuitive. Whereas other persona UIs will be highly visual in nature, the dedicated UIs of system administrators are likely to look like the OSS UIs that we’re familiar with today (eg lists / logs, BPMN workflows, configs, technical attributes, network connectivity / topology maps, etc)

Product Designers – The product team will be provided with a visual product builder solution, where they can easily compose new offerings, contracts, options/variants, APIs, etc from atomic objects already available to them in the product catalog. Product Designers become the Lego builders of telco, limited only by their imaginations.

Marketing – The marketing team will be provided with sophisticated analytics that leverages OSS/BSS data to automatically identify campaign opportunities (eg subscribers that are churn risks, subscribers that are up-sell targets, prospects that aren’t subscribers but are within a designated coverage area such as within 100m of a passing cable, etc)

Sales Teams – Most sales will occur via seamless self-service mechanisms (eg portals, apps, etc). Some may even occur via bundled applications (where third-parties have utilised a carrier’s Network as a Service APIs to autogenerate telco services to be bundled with their own service offerings). Salespeople will only work with customers for rarer cases, but will use a visual quote and service design builder to collaborate with customers. Sales teams will even be able to walk clients through reality twins of service designs, such as showing where their infrastructure will reside in racks (in a DC) on towers, etc.

4. What do you think the future of OSS will look like?

We don’t claim to be able to predict the future. Many of the examples described above are already available in their nascent forms or provide a line-of-sight to these future scenarios. It’s quite likely that we’ve overlooked key initiatives, technologies and/or innovations. We’d love to hear your thoughts. What have we missed or misrepresented? Are you working on any innovations or products that you’d love to tell the world all about? Leave us a comment in the comment box below to share your predictions.

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