OSSs Need Convergence, Too

The issue of network management is going to loom large as carriers start rolling out next-generation services, because even though the industry knows what the new management system should look like, it's got some tough problems to face along the way.

Take, for instance, the issue of demarcation. When voice-over-IP (VOIP) enters the picture and starts snaking its way through multiple networks, it gets harder to isolate any problems that might crop up. "In traditional TDM operations, you own the loop, and you could test that loop," says John Squizzato, senior marketing manager for Nortel Networks Ltd.'s (NYSE/Toronto: NT) carrier VOIP efforts.

The topic was the subject of a session at the Light Reading conference, "Next-Generation Services 2004," held in New York and California earlier this week (see VOIP: King of New Services).

The problem is that management systems tend to be an afterthought. MCI Inc. (Nasdaq: MCIP), during its acquisition binge, amassed so many disparate networks that it wound up with 2,000 operations support systems (OSS) under its belt (see MCI in OSS Chaos). Those kinds of situations arose because of the "stovepipe" mentality: Carriers built a separate network for each service, because it was the cheapest and fastest way to go.

Technology has advanced to the point where those networks can be combined. Carriers are looking to create converged networks, where Frame Relay, Ethernet, and other services run across a single IP/MPLS backbone (see Incumbents Converge on Convergence).

The consolidation of networks should lead to a consolidation of management, too. "The transformation in the telecom networks will be underpinned by an equally radical transformation of systems," said Peter Heywood, a Light Reading founding editor and the moderator of the session.

In fact, this has to happen, because with the current spaghetti splatter of OSSs, it's going to be too difficult to create the services to compete with aggressive competition from the likes of cable. "Carriers have to really focus on services," Squizzato insisted, "and they realize they can't take years to roll out new services."

Vendors and carriers seem to know what the new OSS should look like. It ought to make the carrier's networks look like a single entity, even if a service traverses multiple networks to get to the user. "It's no longer viable in the long term to manage these networks separately," noted Michael Mansour, director of service provider marketing for business-software vendor System Management Arts Inc. (Smarts).

This converged management system should have a user interface allowing customers to see if the network is living up to their service-level agreements (SLAs), or to see if their bandwidth usage is about to exceed the SLA, panelists said. Ideally, users would even get to alter SLAs on the fly.

Getting all that to happen won't be easy. The new OSS has to be modular, allowing chunks of code to be added or removed without having to reload the whole system. Squizzato described how BT Group plc (NYSE: BTY; London: BTA), in its 21C project to build a converged IP/MPLS network, envisions a networkwide "intelligence layer" that would fit the bill.

Some of the OSS chunks could even be furnished by third parties. Squizzato noted that Nortel and others are working on creating open application programming interfaces (APIs), which would allow third-party software vendors to port code into the converged OSS. This would make life easier for carriers and would also help different vendors' OSSs and element management systems (EMS) interoperate. "That's going to be important as we move to multivendor environments," Squizzato said.

To get all this to happen, the industry has to settle a few issues. One is discovery, the process by which network elements such as routers find each other on the network. Successful OSS management relies on having this process automated and working, Mansour said. There's also the question of whether management signaling should reside in-band -- riding with the data -- or out-of-band.

And there's a bit of philosophy that's still not resolved: Where should the intelligence of the network reside? Assuming multivendor networks come to fruition, some think the intelligence should lie in a central place. "We really believe that intelligence needs to appear in that OSS layer," said Mansour.

Squizzato takes a different view, saying it's the edge that will be getting smarter: "Network elements and element managers are going to become more intelligent." But this leads to Mansour's scenario becoming partially true, because the OSS has to let operators manage the information coming from smart devices on multiple networks. "You'll see some sifting in that OSS layer to tell you what's going on," said Squizzato.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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