The move to newer generation networks has brought the realisation that a horizontal layered structure of OSS/BSS that is common across service layouts is more viable. Anita Gupta explains that in such architectures, the middleware layer acts as the glue that binds together the OSS and BSS components and makes them truly network independent
In recent years, the telecom market has been proliferated by packet based IP networks, predominantly the wireless networks. As communications companies compete with each other and an entirely new breed of competitors such as the cable operators, the race is on to differentiate their offerings in the minds of the consumers.
Service architectures such as IMS and SOA have started to gain acceptance, though there is no clear winner yet. The network operators have also been deliberating long enough on the potential of migrating from one access network to another keeping in view their long-term viability and growth objectives.
Although, it is impossible to predict the market trend with certainty, it is widely established that the IP networks are indeed the way to go in the future. Operators have been cautiously tracking and adopting the transition from legacy networks like PSTN to the newer generation networks such as 3G, 4G and WiMAX. Amidst this discussion is the realization that the approach of separate vertical OSS/BSS for each service can no longer be relied on. A horizontal layered structure of OSS/BSS that is common across service layouts is more viable. In such architectures, the middleware layer acts as the glue that binds together the OSS and BSS components and makes them truly network independent. In short, this layer of component-based frameworks abstracts the underlying network from the management systems above, and provides ease of migration from one access network to another (say from 2G to 3G).
Where are the wireless networks headed?
Network operators are carefully thinking on their next ‘moves' about their access network deployments. Some of the GSM (2G) networks operators are looking at migrating to 3G networks and some are even thinking of migrating to the evolving fourth generation (4G) networks, where user services are meant to be offered on "Anytime, Anywhere" basis and at a very high data rates. Should companies bypass 3G and leapfrog straight to the 4G networks is a matter of intense debate. It is also being argued that 3G and 4G technologies are not mutually exclusive but are complementary to each other. The fourth generation networks are said to offer the air interface data rates, which is 10 times the data rate offered by the 3G networks. The 4G technologies are still in infancy and the international standards do not exist yet. The CDMA based operators (for example Sprint Nextel in the US) are also looking for fourth generation services primarily saddled on the back of the mobile WiMax as the enabler technology. WiMax, in fact, is being widely adopted to offer several broadband services. On its own, WiMax as a technology provides a means of increasing bandwidth for a variety of data-intensive applications. A variant, mobile WiMax delivers data at a speed comparable to that of conventional third-generation (3G) networks, but it promises to be cheaper to implement because it uses newer, more efficient technology. Then, there are other operators who seem to follow a seemingly straightforward path of transition from 2.5G or 3G to 4G deployments. The 2.5G systems (like GPRS), an interim step between 2G and 3G, provide an enhanced channel capacity, higher data rates and throughput, and optimized packet-data transmission, enhancing Internet access from different wireless devices.
Figure 1: Network migration
The new generation radio access networks will be subjected to operational challenges such as the need to handle erratic traffic patterns based on individual demands of different multimedia services, higher throughput requirements, high costs associated with deployment and operation, and the heterogeneity of different radio air interfaces.
In order to offer ‘anywhere-anytime' wireless access, the inter-working and harmonization among heterogeneous networks are the most important requirements.
Increasing and changing service demands, and the limited radio resources are the challenges of planning the future network. However, more flexible network architecture, advanced radio resource management, as well as spectrum management schemes contributes to the increased spectrum efficiency. It is demanded that the network planning procedure should not only consider features of radio element, but also the traffic demand, resource and traffic scalability, and interoperability of heterogeneous sub-networks as well as the spectrum management schemes. Such performance enhancement measures will effectively help to reduce the CAPEX and OPEX.
Abstracting your network to gain a advantage
Global telecom market trends suggest that the OSS/BSS architectures are evolving to a strategic level. They play a major role in the inter-working of several heterogeneous networks. The challenges in operating in the new paradigm of service environments are aimed at homogenizing these networks to foster interoperability between systems and rationalize the OPEX.
The traditional approach, of having a separate OSS/BSS for each application, that has been a hallmark of the telecom industry, needs to be abandoned in favor of a horizontal structure, if the operators are to make any significant market gains in the years to come.
The telecommunication back-office is facing severe reintegration issues. It must redefine its architecture in order to understand how to migrate its heterogeneous services to a homogenous architecture, and offer the differentiated and converged services the end-user is looking for.
Today, there is a segmentation of the elements between the network and the service areas. However, as service providers move towards a more integrated business model, we are witnessing the emergence of OSS middleware that provides a layer of abstraction - a mediation layer - that can ensure the interoperability of functions and ensure the scalability of services.
Figure 2 Mediation Layer of abstraction for evolving networks
Figure 2 illustrates the concept of abstraction proposed by the OSS middleware layer of mediation. This well-defined layer of applications shields the network/service provider from the changes of configuration, administration, QoS and supervision that every new technology introduces. The network operator experiences a seamless transition from the incumbent to the new network, without having to make any drastic changes to the existing management applications. Such an abstraction layer allows the overall OSS and BSS to be independent of the underlying network elements, helping service providers reduce dependencies on their network vendors' roadmaps and product priorities.
OSS is a strategic area for a service provider and there is no place for trial-and-error experimentation. This least-risk approach means IMS and SOA are yet to have a major impact at this stage in the market. There seem to be a cautious approach by telecom companies to move into either SOA with IMS or any other emerging standard. Most of them are adopting a wait-and-see approach and instead turning to an OSS mediation middleware to converge their systems while they see what happens in the wider market.
The telecom industry should soon see a trend towards outsourcing OSS. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that OSS won't be captive to one operator but rather shift to becoming a hosted service. Service providers want to focus on their core business and let someone else worry about their network. Rather than worrying about the maintenance and deployments of their networks, operators are focusing their energies on their core competences of managing and growing their businesses.
Bringing business and networks together
The need of the hour is to migrate critical applications in all-important areas to evolve a homogenized architecture that is future ready and supports current requirements equally well. These are:
- Customer facing applications
- Operations/Network facing applications
- Common maintenance and support applications
Proper integration of varied middleware components is of utmost importance that influences the critical manageability aspects of all the networks. It ensures a smooth link-up between BSS and OSS enabling rapid development and delivery of the operator's services roadmap. This calls for an investment in building a joint business model for identified solutions and services. Telecom services providers are becoming decisively more inclined in building strategic partnerships with experienced OSS/BSS partners and vendors who have strong telecom domain experience and have invested in building skills and expertise to address all critical success factors.
The true potential of the networks cannot be realized until the businesses that they create are compelling enough for the end customer to embrace. For this to happen, network manageability has to be as responsive to business needs, as businesses themselves are to their customers. It's definitely hard to predict the future, but there is no doubt that the wireless networks are at the helm of technological forefront, yet their proximity to businesses may define winners in telecom.
Anita Gupta is Strategic Business Unit Head, Telecom Service Provider business at Aricent