Digital transformation gets talked about a great deal within the telecoms sector, but at what stage are the major telcos in their metamorphosis and how does that shift manifest itself?
Representatives from a number of major network operators gathered in Lisbon last week at the latest TM Forum Action Week gathering to discuss such matters.
These events, held twice each year, are not as prominent as the industry body's long-running conference held in Nice, France, each May. But as one service provider attendee observed, "Nice is where the egos go to talk... Action Week is where I come to learn from fellow engineers."
Action Week is not a conference, but a week-long "collaborative gathering of digital transformers," according to the organizer. Among other things, these events are where service providers and vendors come together to collaborate on proof-of-concept projects -- dubbed "catalyst showcases" -- to create solutions to industry challenges using TM Forum best practices and standards.
Those challenges (at least for the individuals in Lisbon), revolve around the evolution of operations and IT as service providers figure out their 5G and IoT plans. To enable that evolution, the TM Forum proposes its Open Digital Framework, which comprises four pillars: IT & Network Transformation, Insights & Intelligence, Digital Ecosystems and Digital Maturity.
The IT & Network Transformation pillar is composed of several elements. The first includes the Forum's traditional tools such as the Shared Information and Data (SID) model, Telecom Application Map (TAM) and the Enhanced Telecom Operations Map (eTOM), which collectively are referred to as the Frameworx project.
The second is the Open Digital Architecture, which merges OSS and BSS into one uber support system comprising five functional blocks: party management, core commerce management, production, engagement management and intelligence management.
The third is Open APIs, a suite of 50-plus REST-based internal and external APIs for service provider IT. Adherence with these APIs is now mandated in Orange's IT Requests for Proposal (RFPs).
Orange was one of the major operators well represented at the Lisbon gathering, alongside BT, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone. Arguably the most convincing endorsement of the Forum's approach to transformation came from Campbell McClean, chief architect of IT at Deutsche Telekom.
According to McClean, IT transformation at the giant German operator will be underpinned by four elements: cultural change, agile development, cloud native and the Forum's Open Digital Framework.
McClean observed that a major difference between the Internet giants, such as Amazon and Google, and telecom operators is that the former are primarily application developers, while the latter are mainly application purchasers. Looking back over his career, McClean noted that telcos used to develop their own software but then, as the industry became awash with money -- remember those days? -- they morphed into software purchasing organizations.
McClean described his experience at Indian operator Airtel, where he worked from 2014 to 2017. "When I arrived, everything was outsourced to a single vendor. When we changed that, the vendor got much more productive. We also insourced our thinking, using TM Forum Frameworx as the context for everything we did. Everything was shared around SID; we mapped functional points to eTOM, and all of these tools became critical in what we did. In three years, we built 500 applications and we started building microservices. Our time to market went from 13 months to three weeks, all of it underpinned by SID and eTOM."
The DT executive finished with a message for the vendors: "You could see threat in this -- please don't. This is not about us doing it all ourselves -- we still need partners. But would you not rather be building a new capability for us, integrating us into finance, insurance and medical customer journeys, than rebuilding the same point-to-point integrations of previous years? Wouldn't you rather be our partner driving customer value instead of driving legacy IT cost?"
McClean sent a clear message that vendors not supporting the Open Digital Framework will struggle to play a part in DT's IT transformation. He finished by saying: "That's the invitation -- come onboard and help us build new stuff instead of the same old stuff. That way we can compete with the hyperscalers and everybody else who wants to eat our lunch."
— James Crawshaw, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading