IMS Crunch Time

The IP Multimedia Subsystem is at a critical turning point. Can folks deliver?

After a dizzying ascent from minor-league 3G standards initiative to major-league NGN architecture, IMS is clearly ready for prime time. But what is it, exactly, that it’s called upon to deliver? To answer that question, we need to remind ourselves what the standards-setters set out to achieve.

IMS is a complex specification, but its fundamental objective is to create a more flexible environment for the development and deployment of revenue-generating services. In particular, it creates standardized open interfaces between control and session layer functions on the one hand and applications or service layer functions on the other.

In principle, this means that service providers are no longer dependent on a small cabal of highly skilled (and expensive) software engineers, or on the companies they work for – the major telecom equipment vendors. By creating a so-called abstraction layer between applications and networks, IMS allows service providers to use any commercial software firm that can write to mainstream Java-based languages.

What are the consequences? Most importantly, IMS should enable worldwide telcos to widen service portfolios in such a way that they begin to reverse the decline and stagnation in both applications development and – by extension – service revenues. Equally important, an IMS environment looks a lot more like the Internet, but with the important differences that it builds in mechanisms for QOS, billing, and subscriber control that allow service providers to earn more. That’s the reason more and more RFPs call for compliance to IMS or one of its derivatives, such as TISPAN. And it’s the reason more and more vendors are scrambling to build IMS into their propositions. The report I just authored for Heavy Reading, "IMS and the Future of Network Convergence," names nearly 70 vendors with IMS-compliant gear.

But will it happen in practice? At this stage, IMS is, as the Texans say, all hat and no cattle. The industry is awash with presentations, white papers, and fancy architectural diagrams, but precious little actual deployment. In the next 12 to 18 months, the ultimate significance of IMS should get a lot clearer.

Among the key pointers that should tell us whether IMS is really delivering:

  • Who is supplying the applications? The big-iron vendors – companies like Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERICY), Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU), and Siemens AG (NYSE: SI; Frankfurt: SIE) – are opening up interfaces, but at the same time they intend to continue to dominate the supply of all the big mass-market applications themselves, leaving other vendors with niche pickings. Will service providers really force things open by moving major service development initiatives to commercial software houses and applications specialists?

  • Is the pace of applications deployment speeding up? The biggest problem facing service providers is that that it takes too long to bring new services to market, and costs too much money. Will IMS really resolve this issue?

  • Are minor best-of-breed vendors picking up speed? Service providers like the new IMS architecture because it enables them to specify best-of-breed companies to deliver particular IMS functions. Instead of taking everything from one vendor, they can ask, say, Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) to deliver the HSS, Leapstone Systems Inc. to supply the S-CSCF, Convedia Corp. to deliver the MRFP, Tekelec Inc. (Nasdaq: TKLC) for signaling, and Ubiquity Software Corp. for the SIP AS. They can even force the major vendors themselves to partner. But again, no major equipment vendor really favors such a decomposition. Will major service providers force their hand?

  • Who is putting it all together? If the new NGN built by IMS really does lead to complex supplier ecosystems, someone needs to act as a systems integrator. Again, major vendors like Ericsson and Lucent are pitching hard to play that role, but there are plenty of other potential candidates that have greater experience in the world outside telecom. Will service providers begin to turn to those companies for professional help?
Like many previous initiatives, IMS will only deliver a radical new applications environment if it really changes the way service providers choose suppliers. It’s not yet clear that the telcos are ready to make that leap, but by this time next year, we should have a better idea of just how far they are prepared to go to save their skins.

— Graham Finnie, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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