At the recent Light Reading Big Telecom Event in Chicago there was a big emphasis on SDN and NFV. As I reviewed the exhibitors’ messaging I had a flash of déjà vu. Flashback to the early 2000’s at the Next Generation Networks Conference. Whether it was a panel on DWDM, IP service switches, next generation optical access et al one thing that stood out was that all the presentations were identical. Different colors and different fonts sure; yet the messages were the same. It seemed that they all got the images and network diagrams from the same sources too. I felt bad, sort of, for the 3rd or 4th presenter on each panel who had to basically give the same presentation as their predecessors.
Why? They were all talking to the same industry “pundits,” who at the time demanded 1-5% of the A-round stock. If you look back, many of these “competitors” were actually funded by the same venture firms. Sell one to Cisco and one to Lucent or Nortel was the exit strategy. It worked well for a time. When the bubble burst there were sink holes of hundreds of millions of dollars off each exit on Route 495 in Massachusetts.
Another “learn from history” lesson was they all were targeting the same customers. VCs were reluctant to fund a company that was depended on selling to the ILECs/RBOCs: too few customers and too long sale cycles. So they found the ideal customer base: competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs). CLECs were not a typical VC investment since they required Hundreds of millions of capital to build out their network to “capture customers.” Hundreds of companies with new piles of money that needed to build networks fast to capture those customers. What a great idea, what a great target customer base.
The problem was the CLEC business model was flawed. At the time I read at least a dozen CLEC S1 SEC documents. Akin to the same slides at NGN, these S1’s were identical as well. The common business model was; target second and third tier cities that are underserved, target medium size business and compete on customer care. Stop laughing it was true.
SDN and NFV Today?
How does this apply to the SDN and NFV world today? First, there are too many companies targeting the same known problem network operators have. Their slides and messaging are identical since they have nearly identical products, they all use the same ETSI diagrams, have overlapping implementations or are solving different problems under the same umbrella. This just confuses the network operators and slows down deployment.
Second, companies whose success depends on the deployment of SDN must have tons of cash and patient investors. If the CTO of a major SP said that SDN is the greatest thing in the world and deploys it as fast as possible it would still take 4-6 years to impact the entire operation. This isn’t a negative comment about slow moving SPs at all. It’s based on the reality of operating a network with tens of millions of fixed end points and hundreds of millions of wireless end points. Add five 9s, the FCC breathing down your neck, shareholders looking for quarterly results that cannot deploy a radical new technology as rapidly as the startups and VCs want them too.
What Should SDN and NFV Vendors Do?
Vendors in the SDN and NFV market need to follow some simple rules to increase their chances of being successful. They must sharpen their messaging, acknowledge and embrace the installed base, know exactly where their solutions fit in the end-to-end architecture and know exactly who you are competing with.
To separate yourself from the competition your messaging must be impactful, meaningful and terse. To accomplish this you need to create your own “billboard” that clearly differentiates you from your competitors and clearly articulates your value proposition. A good billboard gets your message across in less than a second, generates emotional and intellectual responses and makes the viewer want to learn more. Once accomplished you can now consistently expand your messaging throughout your marketing mix.
Vendors must be cognizant and respectful of the installed base. Installed BSS and OSS are comprised of fairly monolithic complex systems. A “rip & replace” strategy is just not an option. These systems are fully embedded into the SPs culture, organization and network. It doesn’t matter that today’s solutions are more flexible, more open, easier to use and just better. It is not equivalent to switching out a router or adding an appliance in the next rack.
A case in point is the billing mediation system. At the time, the installed base of billing systems were written in software that hadn’t been taught in colleges for years. Yet, they rendered billions of call detail records (CDRs) and generated (e.g., printed) tens of millions of bills every month. Thus, no one was going to recommend they be replaced. Yet, they were difficult to change and adapt to evolving requirements. The solution was to create the billing mediation system. A new “modern” software solution that on one side was a hand crafted interface to the legacy billing system and on the other side was a more open, more flexible system that could handle the new requirements. There’s a lesson here!
The lesson here is to acknowledge the installed base and acknowledge that people within the SP have been working with them for years. Telling someone at a large service provider who has spent 10 years of their career implementing IMS that IMS sucks is not a good sales strategy. Therefore, do not ignore and disparage the installed base. It’s there so you need to embrace it and enhance it without disturbing it.
The move toward SDN and/or NFV is transforming networks into more of an IT domain. Instead of the relatively simple 7-layer OSI model vendors are faced with multiple n-dimensional software stacks with a slew of APIs and “middlewares.” It’s challenging to create a two dimensional representation that everyone can agree upon. Hence the widespread use of the ETSI diagrams. If you’re improving part of an existing process or BSS/OSS solution, such as an FCAPs or eTOM, clearly define what you’re focused on and clearly understand the interfaces to the adjacent processes. Solve your “block(s)” 100% and “cross all T’s and dot all I’s.” Do not solve your area 95% and try to solve adjacencies 50%. Meaning, just because it may logically make sense to combine functions, don’t.
A corollary to this is not to try to solve too much too soon. The more you attempt to solve the more jobs you’ll impact which will lengthen the sales cycle. It will also be harder to test, trial and implement your offering. Don’t fall in to the trap of offering a “single pane of glass” solution. You are not offering a total solution and there is zero chance that a tier one network operator is going to build their network operations center (NOC) around your point solution. So if everyone is selling a “single pane of glass” the SP will end up with multiple “single panes of glass” which is where they are now and where they don’t want to be. The lesson here is to integrate with installed “panes of glass.”
Given the complexity of the total solution to deploy and operate a carrier scale, network vendors will approach these well known problems differently. As seen with similar messaging it would look like companies are offering the exact same solution to the exact same problem. Upon closer look you’ll find that they are not direct competitors. Vendors need to clearly understand who among the array of startups are actually solving the same problem. Upon taking a closer look you may find that your perceived competitors are not competitors at all or are only addressing part of your solution (their adjacency).
SDN and NFV are both exciting new technologies that are certainly selling conference attendance and market research reports. They do solve real SP problems and in the long run will enhance their business operations. However, given the hype, noise and confusion around both SDN and NFV, vendors must sharpen their messaging to elevate them from the herd. Let’s learn from history so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.