Major vendors including Amdocs, Netcracker, Nokia and Oracle have been unveiled as members of the TM Forum's Open Digital Architecture (ODA) initiative in what sounds like an important boost for industry efforts to develop more interoperable and less clunky IT systems.
Announced a couple of years ago, ODA unites various activities by the TM Forum (TMF) to rid the telco back office of cumbersome and outdated technologies and kickstart innovation.
While it already had commitments from some of the world's biggest service providers, there was an obvious gap where the large IT vendors should be. Without their participation, ODA risked becoming another talking shop run by an industry association.
The danger of that may recede with today's announcement, which should persuade other IT firms to sign up.
"It should help lift ODA above the status of concept and into reality for more players and be self-catalyzing," said Thierry Souche, the group CIO of Orange and the senior vice president of its Orange Lab Services research division.
There is certainly cause for optimism. All four of the vendors that feature in today's announcement were among the six largest vendors of telecom software products in 2018, according to market-research firm Analysys Mason. Their membership will be hard for others to ignore.
Former wariness was not surprising. Service providers in the ODA, which now include BT, Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica, Telenor and numerous other giants, want their IT suppliers to adopt open APIs (application programming interfaces) that would make switching from one vendor to another much easier.
Combine that with the breakdown of software into smaller, reusable components, and those strenuous swap-outs of giant IT systems might no longer be a problem.
To use a toy analogy, the new approach would be like building a Lego castle instead of unboxing a one-piece fortress. If the fortress gets damaged or needs changing, the only option is to invest in a replacement. With Lego, a few new bricks would usually do the trick.
"It will improve product lines and make solutions more and more interoperable," Souche told Light Reading. "In the end, it should look like Lego, which is far from the case right now."
Indeed, Souche says he is currently managing two multi-million-dollar IT projects in Africa that will take years because of the "monolithic" systems he is forced to use.
In its release about today's new members, the TMF says operators spend about $90 billion annually on IT, plus another $1 billion just to select vendors and procure software. Its broad angle is that much of this spending is wasteful and could be used more productively on IT innovation.
That's an important message for suppliers worried the relentless focus on back-office costs will translate into lower sales for them. The idea, says George Glass, the TMF's chief technology officer, is to make sure Orange and other service providers are "not spending lots of money just to pull software together."
How would it all work from practical perspective? Souche gives the example of one Orange operation that currently faces "obsolescence" in its business support systems (BSS) as it prepares to offer energy, banking and a range of other services. A traditional IT overhaul would take about two-and-a-half years and cost between $7 million and $12 million, he reckons.
Using ODA-compliant tech, he could identify candidates for the job and have an IT stack in place in around a year. With the same budget, he would probably be left with between $3 million and $7 million for developing his business. "I would probably use the same guys to do more things, but not just the plain stupid BSS things," he said. "I would ask for analytics and value creation and look at exploring more service stacks."
If such feedback has helped to reassure parts of the vendor community about the future opportunity, fear of missing out may also explain some of the recent interest. Souche notes the aggressive march of the Internet giants into the telco market this year, highlighting Microsoft's acquisition of Metaswitch and Affirmed Networks, two smaller companies developing software for core networks.
"How long before they deliver a whole suite?" he says. "If the classical players do not move, they will get bypassed by SaaS [software-as-a-service] offerings."
Welcome as today's news may be, the industry desperately needs to see ODA become more than just a research project discussed within TMF circles. With commitments from Amdocs, Netcracker, Nokia and Oracle, Souche thinks the first tangible results could be evident within just a year.
"Before we had the big rally of vendors, I would have bet it would take two years to have something original on the field," he said.
"At least for some workloads and uses, we could have that much earlier because we can just take elements coming from those guys, put them on the interoperability bench and validate them much faster."
In the meantime, the industry will be watching to see if ODA's latest members are as much of a catalyst for development as Souche hopes.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading