TMF rethinks B/OSS with ODA, but will industry care?

The standards body has come up with a new architectural framework for a more digital and real-time back office.

Iain Morris, International Editor

February 6, 2018

7 Min Read
TMF rethinks B/OSS with ODA, but will industry care?

Back offices are often cluttered and chaotic places, where old ledgers gather dust and the slightest fumble can send them sprawling. The back-office IT systems that support today's telecom networks are little different. Commonly referred to as business and operational support systems (BSS and OSS, or just B/OSS), these jumbles of ageing but hard-to-eradicate technologies have become a kind of digital no-go zone for the telcos that have built them up.

Service providers have long dreamt about sweeping away the B/OSS clutter and replacing it with sleeker, more fit-for-purpose technology. But the lack of a standardized approach has bedeviled this "digital transformation." A new initiative unveiled today by the TM Forum (TMF), a well-known industry association and standards group, is intended to help.

Bearing the high-sounding name of Open Digital Architecture (ODA), that initiative is being grandly touted by the TMF as a "blueprint for an IT architecture fit for a digital world." Its overriding goal, says the group, is to give the industry a common set of principles for the rollout of new IT systems that operators can use alongside other whizzy technologies, including virtualization, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing and microservices.

Figure 1: Thinking Outside the Box? The blockhead sculpture by French artist Sacha Sosno is located right next to Nice's Palais des Congres Acropolis, where the TM Forum holds its annual conference. The blockhead sculpture by French artist Sacha Sosno is located right next to Nice's Palais des Congrès Acropolis, where the TM Forum holds its annual conference.

"The first problem this will solve is regarding the procurement process, which is tortuous today for buying any OSS or BSS and getting worse," says Andy Tiller, the TMF's executive vice president for collaboration and innovation. "Anything that standardizes that can take a massive amount of time and cost out of deploying new IT components."

This is, essentially, the problem the TMF was set up to address back in the late 1980s. If every service provider develops its own blueprint, vendors have to spend longer customizing their technologies, driving up cost and effort. Standardization has been a mitigating force.

It has also grown in importance as interoperability has risen up the telco agenda. Operators have recently made a big deal of their desire to mix and match technologies from different suppliers, including the open source community. They also want to open their networks and IT assets to third-party developers of potentially lucrative applications.

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As a framework for replacing older back-office systems, the ODA blueprint also aims to make operators more digitally capable. If a future "Internet of Things" really does comprise billions of device connections, operators will have to be able to make and process a huge volume of network decisions without delay. A feature of ODA, says Tiller, is a common data plane that can share usage data across systems in real time. That should allow operators to speed up activities, such as reconfiguring a network in response to customer demands.

In the future, these processes will be increasingly automated as operators use AI to make decisions. "The data plane has the benefit of making the system AI-ready," says Tiller. "AI will connect directly into this data plane and have all the data it needs to figure out decisions."

This appears to be a step up from the automation happening today and heavily reliant on predictability. "If you know something will happen every day, like the city getting quieter at five o'clock, then you can implement a business rule and automate it," says Tiller. "AI comes in when you don't know the rule. It means you don't need to figure out the business rule and then a process to automate it. That just happens."

Next page: Revolution or rebranding?

Revolution or rebranding?
Yet there is bound to be a degree of skepticism about the TMF's latest move. For a start, it is one of several transformation initiatives vying for industry attention. The Linux Foundation's ONAP project, which has garnered support from several of the world's largest operators, already covers some of the same ground. James Crawshaw, a senior analyst with the Heavy Reading market-research company, says ODA is essentially a rebranding of an older initiative called ODES (for Open Digital Enablement System). Downplaying its significance, he says he doubts "it will revolutionize the telecom sector." (See ONAP Adds Verizon, Claims De Facto Title.)

A TMF representative confirms that ODA is indeed the successor to ODES, which was publicized last year as a "new architectural vision for OSS/BSS." But the rebranding comes as the TMF steps up its efforts, and it points to growing industry support for that vision. Service providers previously involved with ODES, including BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), Telefónica and Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), have endorsed ODA in the TMF's latest statement. A fresh commitment from Australia's Telstra Corp. Ltd. (ASX: TLS; NZK: TLS) is a further "positive," says Crawshaw. And while their names cannot be revealed at this stage, a few of the world's biggest vendors are on board too, says Tiller.

He is also sanguine about any overlap with ONAP, which he even regards as a "large component" within the ODA blueprint. "ODA doesn't extend down to the network itself but it does extend to the management of network resources, and so we want to make sure it has standardized interfaces that are compatible with ONAP," he says. "We are contributing open APIs [application programming interfaces] to ONAP for incorporation into the next release, for example."

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But is there not a risk that yet another initiative sows confusion and leads to fragmentation, rather than standardization? "There are probably more benefits," says Tiller. "We need to make it as generic as possible. ODA might be one way to do your virtualized network management but there will be other ways. And where another organization is creating a standard for a component or an interface, that is less work for us."

The TMF is clearly trumpeting ODA as one of its most important moves in years, and an initiative that will absorb several other existing projects. Those include the open APIs scheme, first unveiled in May 2016, and the ZOOM (for Zero-touch, Orchestration, Operations and Management) project that kicked off in February 2014. "Open APIs has been successful in isolation but in the context of ODA is more powerful," says Tiller. "ZOOM is valuable for the management of hybrid networks and platforms and with ODA also becomes part of the bigger picture." (See 9 Global Telcos Back Open APIs Scheme.)

That picture still needs fleshing out. While the TMF says there is now "broad industry agreement" on the architecture, it is just starting work on the production of a "definitive blueprint" as part of its R&D program. "A level down from the big picture architecture will come around the time of the Nice conference in May," says Tiller. By that stage, the wider industry's response to ODA should also be more apparent.

— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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