The Service Broker Shows Great Potential

It is possible to deliver services that are highly relevant to the profile and context of individual subscribers, but it requires lots of moving parts in the network to work together. In a next-generation network, this means getting applications, charging, policy servers, session control and subscriber data management systems -- among other elements -- to talk to one another in a timely way.

Next-gen applications may be made up of discrete, reusable, in-network, Web and even cloud-based components that interact with one another while appearing to the subscriber as a single service. That is a lot of inter-element communication that operators must support: horizontally in the service layer, between application components; north-south between applications and the network; and horizontally again in the control layer, between the different functions there.

Interactions between these moving parts, both at an application and a control plane level, can be hard-coded to create an end-to-end service. But such a siloed, inflexible solution is just what operators have been trying to move away from with next-gen service delivery models. Hard-coded integration is a short-term fix that makes it difficult to add new components to modify or extend a service. As a way of dealing with all the protocol interoperability necessary to support multiple layers of interaction, hard-coded integration leaves a lot to be desired.

A centralized means of orchestrating interactions between all these different components into loosely coupled, flexible services is needed. The new Heavy Reading Service Provider IT Insider, "What's Next for the Service Broker?," argues that the service broker is the right technology, at the right time, in the right place within the network to fulfill this function. Unlike parallel orchestration technologies in the service-oriented architecture (SOA) world, the service broker can handle interoperability between network protocols and their state machines. In other words, it can orchestrate complex interactions between elements speaking different protocols in real time.

The service broker is a carrier-grade element, so it provides the high-availability features, such as congestion control, node failover and load balancing, missing from IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) protocol specifications. The service broker can mediate between IMS protocol variants that exist at this stage of the market, as vendors of different IMS elements interpret the 45 interfaces within the Diameter stack in slightly different ways. The service broker also talks SS7 protocols, which is critical for a market in transition from legacy to next-gen services.

The report points out that leading-edge operators, including BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), Telecom Italia (TIM) and Colt Technology Services Group Ltd , are beginning to articulate a requirement for the programmable orchestration of interactions between applications and multiple control plane elements. Some telcos are already out shopping. But the market is currently responding in a highly fragmented way: Vendors of Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and Diameter routing products, application delivery controllers (ADCs), active mediation systems and policy servers are all positioning themselves as contenders for the job.

Although service broker vendors have a battle with such competitors on their hands, they stand a good chance of winning. Most of the small independents responsible for putting the service broker on the map have been acquired by larger companies that are already working on advanced use cases for the service broker, as the report shows.

Since network equipment vendors have tried to limit the scope of the service broker for competitive reasons, they are not yet in a strong position to challenge Amdocs Ltd. (NYSE: DOX), Metaswitch Networks , Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL), Tekelec et al. as the latter start to give their service broker products a starring orchestration role. Meanwhile, charging or policy server point solution vendors lack the credentials to deal with the breadth of horizontal and north-south interactions needed for personalized next-gen service delivery, while active mediation and ADC products are narrowly associated with charging and load balancing, respectively.

It is still early days for the service broker, and market awareness of the technology's potential is low. But the role a service broker can play as a Service Capability Interaction Manager (SCIM) orchestrating the next-gen network (and, at the same time, routing and load balancing its key protocols) is becoming clearer. It would be helpful for operators and vendors alike if this role were now more fully defined in the 3GPP standards.

— Caroline Chappell, Analyst, Heavy Reading Service Provider IT Insider

What's Next for the Service Broker?, a 27-page report in PDF format, is available as part of an annual subscription (6 bimonthly issues) to Heavy Reading Service Provider IT Insider, priced at $1,595. Individual reports are available for $900.

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