End-to-end transaction data is increasingly being recognised as the not-so-secret sauce required for full-flavoured telco transformation. If so, it should be treated with the reverence it deserves, Thomas Sutter, CEO of data collection and correlation specialist, Nexus Telecom tells Ian Scales
Nexus Telecom is a performance and service assurance specialist in the telecom OSS field. It is privately held, based in Switzerland and was founded in 1994. With 120 employees and about US$30 million turnover, Nexus Telecom can fairly be described as a 'niche' player within a niche telecom market. However, heavyweights amongst its 200 plus customers include Vodafone, T-Mobile and Deutsche Telekom.
It does most of its business in Europe and has found its greatest success in the mobile market. The core of its offer to telcos involves a range of network monitoring probes and service and revenue assurance applications, which telcos can use to plan network capacity, identify performance trends and problems and to verify service levels. Essentially, says CEO, Thomas Sutter, Nexus Telecom gathers event data from the network - from low-level network stats, right up to layer 7 applications transactions - verifies, correlates and aggregates it and generally makes it digestible for both its own applications and those delivered by other vendors. What's changing, though, is the importance of such end-to-end transaction data.
Nexus Telecom is proud of its 'open source approach' to the data it extracts from its customers' networks and feels strongly that telcos must demand similar openness from all their suppliers if the OSS/BSS field is to develop properly. Instead of allowing proprietary approaches to data collection and use at network, service and business levels respectively, Sutter says the industry must support an architecture with a central transaction record repository capable of being easily interrogated by the growing number of business and technical applications that demand access. It's an idea whose time may have come. According to Sutter, telcos are increasingly grasping the idea that data collection, correlation and aggregation is not just an activity that will help you tweak the network, it's about using data to control the business. The term 'transformation' is being increasingly used in telecom.
As currently understood it usually means applying new thinking and new technology in equal measure: not just to do what you already do slightly better or cheaper, but to completely rethink the corporate approach and direction, and maybe even the business model itself.
There is a growing conviction that telco transformation through the use of detailed end-to-end transaction data to understand and interact with specific customers has moved from interesting concept to urgent requirement as new competitors, such as Google and eBay, enter the telecom market, as it were, pre-transformed. Born and bred on the Internet, their sophisticated use of network and applications data to inform and drive customer interaction is not some new technique, cleverly adopted and incorporated, but is completely integral to the way they understand and implement their business activities. If they are to survive and prosper, telcos have to catch up and value data in a similar way. Sutter says some are, but some are still grappling with the concepts.
"Today I can talk to customers who believe that if they adopt converged networks with IP backbones, then the only thing they need do to stay ahead in the business is to build enough bandwidth into the core of the network, believing that as long as they have enough bandwidth everything will be OK."
This misses the point in a number of ways, claims Sutter.
"Just because the IP architecture is simple doesn't mean that the applications and supply chain we have to run over it are simple - in fact it's rather the other way about. The 'simple' network requires that the supporting service layers have to be more complex because they have to do more work."
And in an increasingly complex telco business environment, where players are engaged with a growing number of partners to deliver services and content, understanding how events ripple across networks and applications is crucial.
"The thing about this business is not just about what you're doing in your own network - it's about what the other guy is doing with his. We are beginning to talk about our supply chains. In fact the services are generating millions of them every day because supply chains happen automatically when a service, let's say a voice call over an IP network, gets initiated, established, delivered and then released again. These supply chains are highly complex and you need to make sure all the events have been properly recorded and that your customer services are working as they should. That's the first thing, but there's much more than that. Telcos need to harness network data - I call them 'transactions' - to develop their businesses."
Sutter thinks the telecom industry still has a long way to go to understand how important end-to-end transaction data will be.
"Take banking. Nobody in that industry has any doubt that they should know every single detail on any part of a transaction. In telecoms we've so far been happy to derive statistics rather than transaction records. Statistics that tell us if services are up and running or if customers are generally happy. We are still thinking about how much we need to know, so we are at the very beginning of this process."
So end-to-end transaction data is important and will grow in importance. How does Nexus Telecom see itself developing with the market?
"When you look at what vendors deliver from their equipment domains it becomes obvious that they are not delivering the right sort of information. They tend to deliver a lot of event data in the form of alarms and they deliver performance data - layer 1 to layer 4 - all on a statistical basis. This tells you what's happening so you can plan network capacity and so on. But these systems never, ever go to layer 7 and tell you about transaction details - we can.
"Nexus Telecom uses passive probes (which just listen to traffic rather than engage interactively with network elements) which we can deploy independently of any vendor and sidestep interoperability problems. Our job is to just listen so all we need is for the equipment provider to implement the protocols in compliance with the given standards."
So given that telcos are recognising the need to gather and store, what's the future OSS transaction record architecture going to look like?
"I think people are starting to understand it's important that we only collect the data once and then store it in an open way so that different departments and organisations can access it at the granularity and over the time intervals they require, and in real (or close to real) time. So that means that our approach and the language we use must change. Where today we conceptualise data operating at specific layers - network, service and business - I can see us developing an architecture which envisages all network data as a single collection which can be used selectively by applications operating at any or all of those three layers. So we will, instead, define layers to help us organise the transaction record lifecycle. I envisage a collection layer orchestrating transaction collection, correlation and aggregation. Then we could have a storage layer, and finally some sort of presentation layer so that data can be assembled in an appropriate format for its different constituencies - the marketing people, billing people, management guys, network operation guys and so on, each of which have their own particular requirements towards being in control of the service delivery chain. Here you might start to talk about OSS/BSS Convergence."
Does he see his company going 'up the stack' to tackle some of these applications in the future.
"It is more important to have open interfaces around this layering. We think our role at Nexus Telecom is to capture, correlate, aggregate and pre-process data and then stream or transfer it in the right granularity and resolution to any other open system."
Sutter thinks the supplier market is already evolving in a way that makes sense for this model.
"If you look at the market today you see there are a lot of companies - HP, Telcordia, Agilent and Arantech, just to name a few - who are developing all sorts of tools to do with customer experience or service quality data warehouses. We're complementary since these players don't want to be involved in talking to network elements, capturing data or being in direct connection with the network. Their role is to provide customised information such as specific service-based KPIs (key performance indicators) to a very precise set of users, and they just want a data source for that."
So what needs to be developed to support this sort of role split between suppliers? An open architecture for the exchange of data between systems is fundamental, says Sutter. In the past, he says, the ability of each vendor to control the data generated by his own applications was seen as fundamental to his own business model and was jealously guarded. Part of this could be attributed to the old-fashioned instinct to 'lock in' customers.
"They had to ask the original vendor to build another release and another release just to get access to their own data," he says. But it was also natural caution. "You would come along and ask, 'Hey guys, can you give me access to your database?', the response would be 'Woah, don't touch my database. If you do then I can't guarantee performance and reliability.' This was the problem for all of us and that's why we have to get this open architecture. If the industry accepts the idea of open data repositories as a principle, immediately all the vendors of performance management systems, for instance, will have to cut their products into two pieces. One piece will collect the data, correlate and aggregate it, the second will run the application and the presentation to the user. At the split they must put in a standard interface supporting standards such as JMS, XML or SNMP. That way they expose an open interface at the join so that data may be stored in an open data to the repository as well as exchanged with their own application. When telcos demand this architecture, the game changes. Operators will begin to buy separate best in class products for collecting the data and presenting it and this will be a good thing for the entire industry. After all, why should I prevent my customer having the full benefit of the data I collect for him just because I'm not as good in the presentation and applications layer as I am in the collection layer? If an operator is not happy with a specific reporting application on service quality and wants to replace it, why should he always loose the whole data collection and repository for that application at the same time?"
With the OSS industry both developing and consolidating, does Nexus Telecom see itself being bought out by a larger OSS/BSS player looking for a missing piece in its product portfolio?
"Nexus Telecom is a private company so we think long-term and we grow at between 10 and 20 per cent each year, investing what we earn. In this industry, when you are focusing on a specialisation such as we are, the business can be very volatile and, on a quarter-by-quarter basis, it sometimes doesn't look good from a stock market perspective."
But if a public company came along and offered a large amount of money? "Well, I'm not sure. The thing is that our way of treating customers, our long-term thinking and our stability would be lost if we were snapped up by a large vendor. Our customers tend to say things like 'I know you won't come through my door and tell me that someone somewhere in the US has decided to buy this and sell that and therefore we have to change strategy.' Having said that, every company is for sale for the right price, but it would have to be a good price."
So where can Nexus Telecom go from here? Is there an opportunity to apply the data collection and correlation expertise to sectors outside telecom, for instance?
"Well, the best place to go is just next door and for us that's the enterprise network. The thing is, enterprise networks are increasingly being outsourced to outsourcing companies, which then complete the circle and essentially become operators. So again we're seeing some more convergence and any requirement for capturing, correlating and aggregating of transactions on the network infrastructure is a potential market for us. In the end I think everything will come together: there will be networks and operators of networks and they will need transaction monitoring. But at the moment we're busy dealing with the transition to IP - we have to master the technology there first.”
Ian Scales is a freelance communications journalist.