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November 1, 2013
SAN JOSE -- Digital Disruption 2013 -- In the US market for telco back-office systems, Ericsson occupies a unique position. Having absorbed Telcordia, the company once owned by the Bell companies and responsible for their operations and support systems, the Swedish-based telecom giant has strong ties to the legacy systems often derided today, as well as a strong vision of the future.
That was never more obvious than at a Wednesday morning presentation, jointly delivered by Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC)'s Robert Emery, VP-customer solutions & product management and CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL)'s James Feger, VP-network strategy and development. They were discussing how to move to a next-generation OSS (NGOSS) that is catalog-driven and enables service providers to deliver services more quickly and efficiently using a layer of middleware to abstract the older systems. Companies such as CenturyLink are looking at ways to eliminate their dependence on the myriad inventory systems, maintenance systems, and billing systems that have built up over the years of mergers and acquisitions, and are currently impeding their ability to launch new services, deliver better quality, and respond to customer needs.
Even in the process of praising the catalog-driven NGOSS, Feger admitted he hopes to one day be free of the morass of legacy systems he is forced today to administer and maintain -- at which point he wants to sink the old systems in the ocean as the beginnings of a new reef.
The response prompted sympathetic laughter and a quick apology from Feger to his co-presenter, but the sentiment is far from his alone, a reality that Ericsson's Grant Lenahan, executive director-innovation, is quick to acknowledge. Today's legacy OSSs do their jobs well, he says, but are unable to adapt to change.
"There is a purpose to keeping many of today's legacy OSSs," Lenahan says. "They do what they do well and reliably. But they are inflexible -- rearranging things is difficult."
The approach Ericsson is proposing uses the legacy systems as components that contribute specific functions that can become building blocks in a catalog-driven approach to creating new services that it says can speed service activation, reduce complexity, and eliminate touchpoints. Lenahan used TIRKS -- the well-known legacy trunk inventory record-keeping system -- as an example. It is possible to take the function of TIRKS that identifies available fiber routes between two points of the network and make that a building block in a catalog, to be used to create virtual private network services, for example.
CenturyLink is making its decision on whether to retire or build on its inventory management systems on a case-by-case basis, Feger says. When CenturyTel bought Embarq (which ultimately created CenturyLink), for example, it decided to go through the extensive and difficult process of merging the two inventory systems into one. But when it bought Qwest, a much larger company that included local exchanges in 14 states and a national CLEC, CenturyLink decided against merging systems.
Instead the company is studying Ericsson's recommended approach, which creates an abstraction layer that sits between the old inventory systems and the new one it is creating. New services such as IPTV go on the new platform, while the old systems continue to support TDM services.
Maintaining the interface to the legacy systems "implies inherited capability constraints, time-to-market issues, and operational costs," Feger admits. But the cost and complexity of massive integration projects lead to trade-offs. "If we keep it, maybe we don't get to a two-month development cycle, and maybe instead of a five-minute activation process, it's 10 minutes -- as long as you know what you are trading off, you can make those decisions," he says. "I have a lot of TDM left, and there are fewer options for fresh out-of-the-box TDM systems. So our approach is not to carry forward TDM into the new systems."
Massive transformation projects were all the rage about 10 years ago, but most failed to accomplish their goals of wholesale replacement of legacy systems and wound up being expensive boondoggles. That experience is leading telecom network operators today to try to find ways for old and new to more peacefully co-exist, Lenahan says.
On the score, Ericsson may have an advantage with its in-depth knowledge and experience with Telcordia systems coupled with its next-generation efforts. While catalog-driven systems are widely used today, Ericsson hopes its system does a more thorough job of "componentizing" the capabilities of legacy systems do they can be a catalog option and become part of automated service deployments that deliver consistent experience as quickly and with as few touchpoints as possible.
But Feger cautioned the Digital Disruption crowd to remember there are still many personnel-related and process-related issues to solve if telcos are to become as agile in their IT efforts as they would like. That includes finding new skill sets and working out how to shed old processes that may be familiar but don't fit the company's needs going forward.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading
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