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AlcaLu Shows Off Its Apps Abs

Ray Le Maistre

The race to be the most important and trusted vendor partner to the world's major communications service providers is well and truly on, with Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) edging out in front of its main rivals today with the unveiling of its applications development solutions and services. (See AlcaLu Announces App Suite.)

In the past, vendors were competing with each other to have the fastest, biggest (in capacity terms), and most efficient hardware on the block. While hardware capabilities are still very important, the leading systems suppliers now need to show some brains as well as brawn, especially when it comes to developing software-based systems that can help operators develop new business opportunities that enable them to compete with the likes of Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), Facebook , and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), as well as their traditional rivals -- while becoming more flexible, nimble, and efficient in the bargain. (See Amazon's Lessons for Telcos.)

And service providers are looking for the software smarts that will help them work closely with the apps development community. Or, put another way, to help tham adopt some Web services capabilities and develop a Telco 2.0 strategy. (See TDC Commits to Telco 2.0 Strategy, BT Hires Telco 2.0 Expert, and Telcos Waffle on Web 2.0.)

At the recent OSS 2.0 event in London, Heavy Reading analyst Caroline Chappell stated that "exploiting third-party services is the key to future telcos' success, and the telcos know this."

She cited the results of a recent survey conducted with 138 network operators showing that "better partnering and collaboration with third-party service providers" is regarded as the most important factor (from a selection of 10) to the "future success of today's mainstream telcos." (The runner-up: rapid transition to all-IP, next-generation networks.)

Alcatel-Lucent figured out the importance of this carrier need some time ago and announced its intention to be a more applications-centric company in late 2008 when then-new CEO Ben Verwaayen unveiled his strategy for the vendor. (See AlcaLu's New Vision: More Convergence.)

Now the fruits of that labor have been revealed with the unveiling of the company's Application Exposure Suite and its Open API Service, the hosted cloud service that Light Reading exclusively revealed last week. AlcaLu is also offering key professional services that aim to help service providers identify the opportunities and "navigate their way through this... They don't have deep skills in this area," states the vendor's president of solutions and marketing, Kenny Frank. (See AlcaLu Turns Apps Broker.)

In other words, Alcatel-Lucent has pulled together from its own developments (plus from some unannounced partners) a software platform that sits between a service provider's assets (the network, subscriber information, billing system, and so on) and applications partners, whether they be independent developers or content owners. This exposes carrier assets and enables third-party applications development with all the requisite bells and whistles -- such as testing capabilities, payment settlements, and application programming interface (API) code.

The idea isn't new: A number of carriers have been working with service delivery platform (SDP) specialist Aepona Ltd. , for example, to build that sort of platform; and the GSM Association (GSMA) (with Aepona's help) has been working on its OneAPI initiative to facilitate the same carrier/developer collaboration. (See Aepona Acquisition Adds Telco 2.0 $marts .)

But AlcaLu has gone a step further, putting its developments into action with Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S). It's that real-world experience, and reference account, that puts it out in front of its rivals -- for now, at least.

Decent exposure
At the heart of Alcatel-Lucent's efforts is the Application Exposure Suite (AES), which lets service providers support the software developers.

"Currently, there's no rich interface between the carriers and the apps developers, many of whom view the carriers as little more than dumb pipes. That situation is choking innovation," Frank says, before noting that the "handset world is a bit richer."

The AES, or Exposure Framework, provides a set of building blocks -- APIs, customization capabilities, provisioning and apps monitoring capabilities, and more -- to the developers, and exposes a set of service provider "application enablers" (subscriber data, comms services, content distribution capabilities, billing and rating settings, quality-of-service control capabilities, and so on) from multivendor network environments. The developers, or external service/content owners, can then build relevant and appropriate services that can be marketed to the carrier's customers.

This can be used by the carrier to build its own external services platform, probably with help from AlcaLu's services team, or it can be accessed by multiple operators through AlcaLu's Open API hosted service, which is up and running in the U.S. market.

Frank says Alcatel-Lucent has been working with a Tier 1 carrier on the deployment of the AES platform, and that it has learned a lot from that engagement, which, in turn, has shaped the development of the platform.

"We are way beyond where we were a year ago," Frank asserts, stressing that the vendor's early engagements and its experience working in a multivendor environment at AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) around the development of the U-verse IPTV services has "galvanized us... It's been a big challenge internally."

Good idea, tough sell
So is AlcaLu on to a winner here? Maybe, says Heavy Reading's Chappell.

She says the "overall premise is good," but that there will be big question marks around security and policy control, determining what the third-party developers will be able to access and manipulate to build new apps. "Developers will continue to not care about the impact [that their development and applications] will have on carrier networks," she believes.

She also has concerns that there are too many companies and organizations developing so-called open APIs independently of each other, which could ultimately lead to the kind of interoperability issues that open APIs are supposed to solve. She believes, though, that of the major telecom vendors, Alcatel-Lucent has "probably the most extensive set of capabilities for controlling the various [carrier] network elements."

And, as ever, carriers will be ultra cautious. "Yes, the carriers need to open up to developers, but this will need to be done with very strict controls. The big question is still around how much control carriers will be prepared to give to external developers. I think we'll see carriers being very cautious about this," adds Chappell, who believes AlcaLu's big revenues opportunity will come around the professional services capabilities it will offer to help the operators build the tight security and control mechanisms they'll want to implement.

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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