NICE, France -- Management World 2013 -- Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), Big Data analytics and customer experience management (CEM) are preoccupying communications service providers (CSPs), but they have a long way to go before figuring out how best to utilize them.
That's my main conclusion following this year's Management World show in (mostly sunny) Nice, where CSPs from across the globe spent four days figuring how to master this list of hot topics. (See MW13 Slide Show: Nice is Nice!)
Here are five of my key takeaways from the Service Provider Information Technology (SPIT)-fest.
SDN is making Big Data bigger: The move to SDN is going to make Big Data bigger, according to Andy Huckridge, director of service provider solutions and SME at traffic management vendor Gigamon Systems LLC. Google, for example, implemented its own SDN to deal with the issue of bottlenecks as it moves its data from one side of the world to another. It was taking too long and too much bandwidth. Centralizing the routing decisions with an SDN controller streamlined the network, making it more efficient, Huckridge explained. It also greatly increased the volume of data it could collect. (See Google: SDN Works for Us and That Big Data Sinking Feeling.)
"SDN enables the growth of big data because it takes out the inefficiency with data routing," said Huckridge. "It doesn't matter what we do with Big Data or how we analyze it, our business models can't keep up. We have to start looking for ways to make the data more efficient or carry it more efficiently."
Partnerships are a must: In this new world of "digital stormin'," the key to success is through partners. Dr. Richard Benjamins, director of business intelligence at Telefónica Digital, was the only telco executive in Nice brave enough to say that innovation cannot come from within a telco, but the consensus amongst the operator community is that partnerships, at the very least, are essential to any innovation process.
Marilyn Arndt, head of M2M at France Télécom – Orange, said she's actively pursuing partnerships as Orange looks to transition from a network provider to an integrated service provider and ultimately just a services provider. Orange's biggest partners right now are the utilities for smart metering and smart grid applications.
"There's a significant need to partner more to deliver digital services," added Alan Beaumont, head of enterprise architecture at BT Group plc. "We can't reach verticals like pharmaceutical or automotive on our own if we're trying to do end-to-end services."
NFV is coming and can't be ignored: Keith Willetts, chairman and CEO at Management World organizer TM Forum, admitted the organization had "underplayed its hand" in addressing SDN and NFV during this week's show. He said it would have been worthy of half a day of conference material this week (instead of one or two sessions), but it will be the primary focus of the Forum's Americas fall show in October instead.
That didn't stop NFV and SDN being major topics of debate and discussion outside of the conference tracks. (See MW13: NFV Picks Up Steam.)
Willetts's take on NFV is that it has quite a way to go before it becomes a viable form of computing. He said that trying to get "five-nines" network integrity with NFV will be incredibly challenging. As a trade organization that develops specifications and standards, the TM Forum's other concern with NFV is finding the right balance between operators that want to standardize the process versus the equipment vendors that don't want standardization so they can differentiate on features. As of yet, there hasn't been a winner.
"People that own the technology are designing these things but are not operating them," Willetts said. "The early stages of the rollout of the technology will be fraught with problems."
Social media is more than just a diversion: Say what you will about Twitter and Facebook, but social media is having a positive, measurable impact on many operators' businesses. This was a theme of the CEM track in which both Telenor Serbia and Telefónica shared their success with social media.
Telefónica Europe has attracted 1.8 million fans across 22 official social media channels, said Paul Fabretti, the operator's digital and social media lead executive. The carrier receives around 20,000 brand mentions per week, and it has used social channels to turn followers into new customers.
Likewise, Telenor Serbia has put CEM at the top of its strategic priorities, according to Chief Customer Officer Maja Neable. That includes focus groups, customer-first days, maintaining a social media presence and engaging in social media monitoring. As a result, Neable said the carrier believes its social media engagement strategy has helped it to grow its revenues to almost €500 million (US$643.5 million), despite the fact that SIM saturation is already greater than 100 percent in Serbia. Telenor Serbia's net promoter score (the percentage of social media mentions that are positive) is also the highest amongst the three main operators in the East European country.
Freebies work (but bring out the worst in people): Concerns about data privacy are real and threaten to compromise the potential to collect and analyze Big Data. However, customer incentives can be deployed to help gain approved access to information.
Telefonica Digital's Benjamins suggested that operators work like a bank, where customers deposit their money and give the bank permission to use it in exchange for a return (interest). The same can be done with data if operators are the trusted keepers of personal information. "There's always a return," Benjamins noted.
Cable operator giant Liberty Global uses data collected from set-top boxes to understand customer viewing habits, improve services and deliver targeted adverts. Chief Architect Favcal Amrani noted that one way to gain permission to do this is to offer customers something in return for gaining access to their data collection, i.e. a freebie.
We witnessed the power of the freebie this week at Management World with the Microsoft Surface tablet giveaway. But, might we add, freebies don't always bring out the best in people. There were several reports of unnamed attendees trying to secure a second tablet, with some attendees pretending their initial boxes were empty and asking for another one. Free works, but if you give someone an inch... (See MW13: QUICK – FREE STUFF!! and MW13: Microsoft's Fab Freebie.)
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading