Business processes and regulation impose strict requirements when it comes to revenue assurance and the accuracy and validity of billing. László Kiss looks at how stability testing can help
As the telecom industry is becoming a mature business, more and more stakeholders, politicians and regulatory bodies feel themselves authorised to control and monitor telecom operators' internal processes, such as metering, charging and billing.
New business and regulatory obligations impose strict requirements, especially when it comes to revenue assurance and the accuracy and validity of billing. Furthermore, the number of business processes and the complexity of the systems that operators run are increasing – and assuring and proving their accuracy is a growing headache.
Even if an operator's systems are fulfilling the highest subscriber needs, this must be officially proved. If operators fail to do so, the consequences are hard: for example, ranging from a fine of 1-3 per cent of the total revenue, up to losing the frequency concession in case of regulatory non-compliance.
Finding the balance between the high-cost proactive and the high-risk reactive strategies is a serious concern. 'Testing', 'validation' and 'auditing' are key players, serving diverse goals, but even the terminology is confusing and lacks consistency: the definition, separation and integration are not always clear.
If we are talking about testing, it is usually applied when novelties are introduced: new services, new systems, new tariff plans. Efficient and comprehensive testing shortens time to market. But currently, even if there are well-established methods, there is an extremely high resource need to execute extensive testing. Past test scenarios are lost and forgotten due to the fact they are so difficult to repeat. Does it serve efficiency? Definitely not.
We can find the same situation in the case of validation, which is used for verifying the correctness of running systems. There is a lack of methods and methodology, even the execution is barely established.
Contrarily, auditing – inspection typically executed by an independent party – is supported by excellent methods, but the services are incredibly expensive. Besides, there are a lot of disadvantageous factors: due to its one-off and reactive character, it does not support continuous monitoring and improvement.
Furthermore, a common problem in billing system testing, validation and auditing is that the coverage is not sufficient, and increasing it requires enormous resources. Problems are mainly concentrated in the execution and evaluation phase: test execution is never perfect. Failed and repeated calls, imperfect timing and unsatisfactory call identification make testing both a difficult and involved task. All the problems noted at test execution roll over to evaluation. As a whole, there are two critical points: the production of test data and the evaluation of the results. Neither of them has been fully automated previously.
New method in town
Fortunately a new method is coming to town bringing a solution for the problems above: stability testing.
Stability testing – time based regression testing – is a focused, efficient and cost-effective method ensuring that the tested system preserves its quality level over time.
Stability testing for billing and call detail record processing is based on a representative test record set that is actualised and submitted to the rating system for each test run. In this case evaluation means the automated comparison of the recent and previous results. Only the differences are investigated – errors are corrected, foreseen changes are approved and consequently reference results are updated. Therefore, maximal efficiency of test evaluation is assured.
The automated nature of stability testing allows a dramatic increase in test coverage at a reasonable cost.
But how to overcome the fact that manual call initiation and automated call generators lack accuracy and efficiency? The solution is a test Call Detail Record generator tool instead of a test call generator. The test CDR generator solves the test data production issues and the stability testing methodology removes the resource barriers of the test evaluation.
Sounds encouraging – doesn't it? Stability testing is so impressive that the solution built on it has won the World Billing Awards 2006 in the Best Revenue Assurance/Management Project category.
But an important point still applies: if the role of a solution is to prove the correctness of your systems, it must be at least one magnitude more reliable than the object of monitoring. Deploying any testing solution that has no attestation of an accredited, independent authorisation body? Don't try this at home…
The business advantages that can be reached by stability testing and the solutions built on it are:
• Proven legal and regulatory compliance
• Effective testing, supporting service and tariff development
• Automated execution, higher testing efficiency and wider coverage with less resources
• Decreased revenue assurance and legal non-compliancy risks
• Seamless evolution from a project to a process-based approach
Stability testing as a methodology, and the solutions built on it, has many advantages – it is imperative that not only billing managers and testing engineers but legal compliance officers and revenue/quality assurance managers know about it as well.
Business continuity testing
Every change, even small ones, affects the quality level of an operator's systems. Stability testing ensures the stable, automated operation of these systems and processes in case small changes occur. But what to do when the system itself and the related process change? Does stability testing lose its grip? Of course not. It becomes a part of a bigger picture – Business Continuity Testing.
Getting new abilities by changing a system does not affect the quality level already achieved, stability must be assured at process level as well as at system level. A telco operator itself, as an organic living system, must have stability and the ability for development at the same time.
For example, in the case of a billing system change or upgrade, the most evident requirement is to rate the CDRs correctly. Accuracy must be assured and everything that should not change must not be changed. It sounds simple, but it is not as easy to perform as it seems. The complexity comes from the nature of the task: every phase has to be tested with an adequate method. During the development and customisation phase, functional testing is done, whilst the acceptance phase needs regression testing. The parallel pilot operation of the old system and the new one is controlled by comparative tests, whilst during the operation, the stable and seamless running at the expected quality level is assured by stability testing.
The main advantage of the Business Continuity Testing methodology is that the four test areas mentioned are not regarded as four different processes but a single, cumulative one. Therefore, you do not have to reinvent the wheel in each phase, because they build on each other's results.
Two major requirements are fulfilled: the new system is able to keep every function of the old one, while the new abilities are ensured. Business continuity ensures a stable and always renewing organization.
It often happens that there is not enough time to carry out every phase of the process. In this case the methodology enables you to test high value customer processes, guaranteeing that your major accounts are fully satisfied from day one.
Stability and Business Continuity testing as automated processes ensure the optimal balance between the high-cost proactive and high-risk reactive approaches. The problems – be they small or big, made intentionally or by accident – will be detected at the moment of their occurrence, enabling you to solve them in time and with minimal cost.
What is the benefit for you? You are the person who discovers the problems and has the ability to solve them, if needed. In this way stakeholders, management or any controlling authority will be informed about problems already detected and under control.
László Kiss is CEO and Head of Innovation, Allround.