There is a massive transition underway in the world of telecommunications. The business world is becoming more consumerized, with mass-market pricing expectations, instantaneous purchase gratification, and usage-based billing, all via a smartphone app.
Yet, all of the above must continue to provide the rock-solid performance and security guarantees that, arguably, define business services. How does a communications service provider (CSP) come to terms with this new reality? Not only that – how do they do this when they are already so heavily invested in equipment, software, and operational processes, in such a capital-intensive industry? Finally, how do they address these requirements, not only within their own footprint for on-net customers, but across multiple operators, to provide the ubiquitous global service that businesses expect?
Three leading CSPs are coming together at next month’s TM Forum Live! in Nice, France, to answer many of these questions as part of the Zero Touch Network as a Service Catalyst, a proof-of-concept initiative showcased at the annual TM Forum event. Axtel, Spectrum Business (a division of Charter Communications), and PCCW Global are champions of this Catalyst, along with industry standards body MEF, and provide a number of insights on this massive transition.
The Impact of Dynamic, Network-as-a-Service-Based Delivery
The landscape of business service delivery is changing. Enterprise IT needs to rapidly react to the needs of their organizations, which ultimately impacts revenue. Benjamin Marti, VP, program management and billing, Spectrum Business, points out, “The customer behavior is influenced by services like Amazon’s Web Services, where I can build a website within hours and react to changing needs in real time. This type of service is generating expectations for the same real-time service agility from network service providers.”
Existing systems require a lot of manual integration, but tomorrow, they need to be tightly coupled to facilitate these new expectations, requiring a combination of investments and best practice implementations.
In describing the environment that CSPs are facing today, Shahar Steiff, AVP new technologies, PCCW Global, suggests that “telcos turn into intermediate players between mobile operators on one side, and end users and cloud providers on the other side.”
This suggests that the industry is moving toward a cloud-based environment where the access to the end user is no longer fixed.
“Access will become wireless, mobile, and people will not be physically connected because the customer moves,” continues Steiff.
This trend suggests that telecommunications providers will become a low-margin transit provider. However, the difference is that the end user, at least in a business context, requires security and performance guarantees, and these guarantees must transcend individual operators’ domains. That is, the end-to-end service will cross multiple operators, yet the service expectation for performance and resiliency must remain intact. Thus, the differentiating factor between what the public Internet offers and what the private network offers aligns with MEF’s Third Network vision of ubiquity and assurance.
Attendees to the Catalyst championed by Axtel, Spectrum Business, PCCW Global, and MEF can expect to see automated service delivery and assurance of an end-to-end service crossing multiple operators.
“It gives the end customer the ability to request services on demand, on their own, through a Web-based portal,” says Gustavo Garcia, network operations director, Axtel.
Added Gunnar Peters, emerging network products director, Spectrum Business: “Our proof of concept will demonstrate how CSPs can apply SDN and NFV to network services. Simultaneously, it will illustrate to the enterprise market how they can expect to consume services in the future.”
Shortening order-to-cash and making the operations more efficient are key goals of the Catalyst, with the added benefits of potential cost savings and new revenue-generating service opportunities. Many providers can already offer on-demand services today, but generally only for on-net customers. The real challenge is to extend that service delivery into another operator’s network. This Catalyst promises to demonstrate just that, allowing CSPs to extend beyond a single-operator network.
Steps to Achieve Network-as-a-Service Nirvana
Steiff draws a parallel between today’s network challenges and what was happening some 50 years ago with voice switching. To move from a manual switching process to an automated system where a telephone in one part of the world can make another telephone somewhere else in the world ring, required a common language; at the time, that was SS7. To deliver the network-as-a-service vision, a new common language is required. This is where the lifecycle service orchestration (LSO) work of the MEF, which draws from the TM Forum’s eTOM and SID models, comes into play, by defining that common language.
The common language for network-as-a-service must start with the information model that describes the service end-to-end, and then incorporate the operational model that describes how to deliver the service. Finally, it must address the resource interfaces and APIs required to deliver network-as-a-service so that systems can exchange information and instantiate, update, and decommission services, automatically. “The key is to have a set of standards that are agnostic to the underlying technology and the operator,” says Garcia.
Peters argues that the key element for network-as-a-service success is industry-accepted standards that enable interoperability between systems as well as providers. Such standards, along with the promise of virtualization, provide the flexibility to adopt new functionality without having to replace existing equipment and systems.
“TM Forum and MEF bring a lot of credibility to the table with respect to this Catalyst,” said Peters. “That means CSPs can be more comfortable that when they implement, and work with other partners and providers, they do so by leveraging industry standards.”
“The network-as-a-service vision requires a consistent approach,” says Marti. “That is why the collaboration between standards groups is so important.” He goes on to describe why the evolution of the existing network and the necessary integration of the legacy architecture into this new environment are such significant challenges, but that working with other partners and providers helps to determine how this can be done. “This Catalyst is going to make it real and tangible.”
Similar thoughts are echoed by Axtel’s Garcia: “There must be a widespread adoption of standards by operators as well as by suppliers. In essence, the adoption must be cross-industry.”
PCCW Global’s Steiff speaks of the difference between the “know-all” orchestrator and the “know-partial” orchestrator. The know-all orchestrator is simply too difficult to scale, such as a full Internet routing table with no aggregation. The practical step is for partial knowledge so that there is a common language used, on demand, at each connection point, to query capabilities and request services across the network when setting up end-to-end service. But, he cautions, this nirvana requires agreement on the approach, and reduced complexity. Otherwise it might be too long an endeavor and become irrelevant. Lastly, the economic drivers must be there, or we will be left with the best-effort Internet. “As an industry, we need to agree on the goal and join forces to tackle the challenges of getting there.”
It appears to be a bet that CSPs are willing to make, as evidenced by the work service providers are putting into various forums like MEF and TM Forum, including Catalyst projects such as this one.
Check out Part I of this series and look for Part III on TNN, in which software & hardware solution providers (InfoVista, Juniper and Oracle) provide their views on the practical elements of making network-as-a-service work.