The path that leads to a fully integrated solution for telecommunications service providers (Internet service providers, competitive local exchange carriers) is not a yellow brick road. In many cases, there is a man behind the curtain manipulating knobs and pulleys, creating the illusion of enterprise integration.
In this article, we’ll look at the Operation Support System (OSS) architecture, a truly integrated solution for telecom service providers. OSS has been used by the Bell companies for some time, but smaller telecommunications companies are also finding that this architecture can help them manage their business operations and provide more functional and streamlined business processes.
An OSS solution is made up of application nodes. Each node represents a single application, such as order entry, customer services, or billing. Some organizations may require multiple billing system nodes; others may require no customer service node. The nodes are dependent on the business model of the organization.
Because the OSS model is made of nodes, we’ll call it a network model. Certain pieces of the network are essential—for example, the hub. Other pieces are necessary only for certain processes. For instance, the billing system is needed only when a billing event takes place. The network is the infrastructure that connects the various pieces of the OSS model.
In addition to being a network model, the OSS system is transactional. This means that an event may have several workflow assignments that need to occur. If all the workflow processes happen successfully, the transaction is successful and is committed to the system. If one of the processes should fail, all of the processes are rolled back from the system and the transaction has failed.
This model keeps all of the systems in sync. You wouldn’t want a customer to get a bill if his service couldn’t be provisioned. Having a transactional model prevents this.
The integration hub
The heart of the system is the integration hub. All of the application nodes interact with each other through the hub rather than node-to-node because building a bridge between each application becomes increasingly difficult and expensive. To connect five nodes using a node-to-node approach would result in 25 integration connections. Using the integration hub, you need only five connections (one for each application). The hub also controls the workflow process and the system's transactions.
Connectors are the software modules that enable an application node to talk to the integration hub. The connectors bridge the gap between different application APIs and architectures. Some applications may use CORBA, others COM, and others may require a direct database connection. The connector abstracts these differences from the integration hub and puts the data in a common format.
Channels, message queues, publish/subscribe
The integration hub may use one of many different technologies to manage the data and events flowing across it. Some current technologies employ a channelized system, which uses different channels (or pipes) to control the workflow. Applications will put data on and pull data off of specific channels.
Other systems use a message queue architecture. Message queues are similar to channels, but they identify the type of message being sent. So while there are multiple queues, there are multiple message types within a particular queue.
Applications use a variety of methods to put data on and pull data from channels and queues. The publish/subscribe technique allows connectors to publish data to specific channels/queues and to subscribe to specific channels/queues. The subscribing connector will receive the data on behalf of the application and, using the application’s API, send the data to the application.
Technology problems that necessitate OSS architecture
There are several technology obstacles that make OSS architecture an attractive solution. Among them are:
- Application diversity. Not only does a telecom services provider need to support several types of systems, it also must choose between myriad billing packages, customer service applications, and accounting systems. A lack of integration standards doesn’t help either. For example, Billing Package A probably doesn’t support the same API as Package B. Package A meets the business needs; Package B is easier to integrate. This diversity is driving businesses to take control of their workflow and create their own internal standards.
- Accounting and accountability. In addition to simply processing data and moving orders through the system, each business must account for what is happening—not just the cash flow, but also the information flow. If a service order doesn’t get filled, then there should be some accounting that identifies the status and reason why it didn’t get filled. And there needs to be accountability for order failures. If a user forgets or simply doesn’t push an order through, the accountability can be determined by the workflow accounting.
- Workflow issues. Workflow is usually heavily dependent on organizational structure. Many times, there are tedious paper processes involving “interoffice memos” that drive an organization’s workflow. An OSS solution can help automate this process by dynamically routing tasks to the appropriate person and managing late or lost tasks. For example, customer service representatives (CSRs) usually receive orders over the phone or Web. If a customer requests a special discount, then the CSRs’ manager may need to approve the order. But if the manager is out on vacation or is sick, then the customer shouldn’t have to wait.
- Automation/time issues. Organizations that are not integrated are probably using an error-prone and slow, paper-based workflow system. A paper service order can disappear for months in a file or behind a desk, but an automated solution can detect an order that’s been sitting for a week with no status change and flag it for inspection. Plus, the entire order and provisioning process can be carried out in a matter of hours rather than days, weeks, or even months.
- Audit trails. Without an integrated system, audit trails are cumbersome and often inaccurate. It’s very difficult to determine what happens when an order leaves the provisioning system and enters the billing system if they maintain two different auditing trails. The billing system may have no record of the order, even though the provisioning system does. Or a customer that has been overbilled may be difficult to track down in the provisioning system.
- Performance. A customer may order a T1 Internet pipe and find that one company can deliver the circuit in 10 days and another in 60 days. What’s the difference? Performance. A people-heavy, paper-oriented process simply takes too long to use. Rekeying data into multiple systems dramatically lowers business performance and ultimately influences customer satisfaction and purchasing decisions.
OSS: The technology solution
So what advantages does OSS offer? Here’s a rundown:
While the desire to integrate systems and create modular enterprise systems is not really that new, the ability to build a cost-effective integrated solution for an industry is. In fact, this solution will get less expensive over the next several years. Due to new competition and emerging markets, this technology will become available to a lot of businesses that simply can’t afford it today.
Because of its modular design, organizations can add new systems without affecting old systems. It also affords them the ability to migrate to larger hardware as necessary. An integrated system must have the capability to grow with the company.
A truly integrated environment not only benefits the workflow process, but also affects the customer experience and the workload. If the business generates more orders than the system can handle, it simply won’t work. An integrated solution can drastically boost system performance as the workload increases.
This is the cornerstone of an OSS solution. There are many facets to operations that must rely on each other and work together to accomplish the intended business goals. Using an architecture that forces systems to work together allows the business to process data seamlessly and to operate with external customers and vendors. The ability to participate with customers and vendors using e-commerce and e-business practices is crucial to long-term relationships.
Finally, the OSS solution offers longevity, eliminating the need to reinvent the operations process. Once an OSS is in place, it should not require a major overhaul. Businesses that invest in OSS solutions early should be faced with new challenges as new products and versions become available.
If you’re using an OSS, does it offer some of the advantages discussed here? Start a discussion below.