For carriers, OSS can become a competitive advantage, not a cost center

Operations Support Systems excel in managing traditional networks, but they can be more, so much more, as we look forward to smarter networks that are more responsive to enterprise customer needs.

network operations center
Credit: Mike Reyher, via Wikimedia Commons

OSS. When you see that three-letter acronym, do you think it stands for "Old, Slow, and Stupid"? Operations Support Systems are the exact opposite of what we need to manage networks in today's fast-moving world. Carriers struggle to make their OSS platforms responsive to customer demands for rapid provisioning of services.

Indeed, many carriers, particularly those bolted together from lots of mergers, can barely make their various OSS platforms talk to each other, which makes provisioning intracarrier services nearly as challenging as instantiating intercarrier links. I was recently talking to Jeff Brown, director of marketing at Windstream Communications of Little Rock, Arkansas, who told me that his company made 19 acquisitions over the past few years, and therefore, "We acquired different OSS platforms that aren't network-compatible and not based on open standards. We have a huge task integrating those various OSS platforms. It continues to be a major challenge for us." Ugh!

Make no mistake, OSS isn't broken. Well, most OSS platforms aren't broken. They still do network inventory, service provisioning, configuration and fault management, and we couldn't operate our networks without them. Unfortunately, too many OSS platforms are designed as closed systems designed to be operated with a dedicated GUI. They rarely understand that other networks exist, even when they are connected to them. The OSS are not extensible, and lack the APIs and security features to let enterprise customers – or even partners – access reports, receive fault notifications, and see the network configuration. The OSS certainly don't let customers or partners request new services directly, and don't tie into the carriers' Business Support Systems (BSS) in any sort of flexible, agile way.

Pardon me, but when I envision a carrier's cutting-edge BSS system, I still think of 80-column punched cards. Well, maybe not punched cards, but many are green-screen batch processing systems with rigid coding and inflexible reports.

That's not going to fly, not in the 21st century. Customers don't care that a carrier's network is cobbled together from lots of different smaller networks. They have no patience for putting in a service request and waiting days – or weeks – to get a quote and delivery estimate that might be another month in the future. And they want their status reports right now, preferably on their mobile phone.

Why not update the OSS right away? Everyone wants to, but it's hard. Very hard. And costly, which is a real challenge when carriers are often being hammered by customers to cut prices. Because OSS is traditionally seen as an expense center, not as a competitive differentiator, carrier management is going to put its capital investment elsewhere.

It's time to change that way of thinking. Upgrading or replacing the OSS to modern standards will not only save the carriers money in the long run, but it will create new business opportunities in the near term.

The place to start is by looking at new standards, like Software Defined Networking (SDN), Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) and Lifecycle Service Orchestration (LSO). SDN will make it possible to reconfigure networks in seconds, instead of weeks, without truck rolls. NFV will let carriers implement and upgrade network functions anywhere across the network without adding new hardware. LSO will enable end-to-end provisioning at the click of a button, collapsing the dozens (hundreds?) of steps required to implement services into a single operation.

"LSO makes it easier for the OSS to create services that are on-demand, dynamic, and highly flexible," Abel Tong, Director of Solutions Marketing at Cyan in Petaluma, California, told me. "For the enterprise customer, LSO will make it easier for the OSS to be integrated, and by doing that the enterprise can gain more control over their services."

There's no doubt that OSS modernization is going to be expensive, not only in software, but also in changing how carriers work. Sam Koetter, Senior Product Manager at XO Communications in Herndon, Virginia, told me, "We have one group that's responsible for OSS and another group that's responsible for networking engineering and network architecture. We've learned that we must educate that OSS team about how all this new technology is going to work. What are SDN, NFV and LSO, they ask? What do they mean for the OSS exactly? We must bring other people into this fold so they can understand the new world. It's a people problem."

Standards are another challenge, argued Ken Countway, Vice President of Network Architecture for Comcast. "LSO is making the industry stop a little bit and think about a more standardized approach to OSS. Everybody is going off in their own directions at this point. Everybody is trying to get there fast in their own way. And LSO is going to just slow people down enough that we all align on some common standards in APIs."

Are we ready for this transformation? The standards are evolving, but carriers are on board. I expect it will be about five years before SDN, NFV, and LSO are baked into intracarrier OSS implementations, and maybe another five beyond that before intercarrier OSS systems are smart enough to enable end-to-end customer-driven, on-demand provisioning.

I heard from Nan Chen, president of the MEF — the organization behind the LSO standards, which recently changed its name from the Metro Ethernet Forum — that "We're going to have the first standards for the LSO reference architecture coming out in the Atlanta MEF quarterly meeting in October [2015]."

In the "Old, Slow, and Stupid" world of traditional OSS standards, that's a lightning pace. The faster carriers can modernize with new standards, the faster they can reinvent OSS as an agile competitive advantage, not a back-office cost center, the better for enterprise customers – and the industry.

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