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As next-generation network (NGN) skills become more specialized and network complexity more daunting, network operators are turning to outsourcing as a means of fulfilling complex telecom network operations and integration tasks. The advantage is that outsourcing offers contractually guaranteed services at a fixed cost and frees the operator from hiring and sustaining a skilled staff.
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The primary drivers for both network integration projects and network outsourcing are the same.
The two main types of outsourced contracts are for network integration and network operations. These may appear to be separate issues, but the two have common drivers and useful points of cooperation and symbiosis between them.
The primary drivers for both network integration projects and network operations outsourcing are the same—the growing complexity of networks and services and the growing difficulties sustaining a qualified staff. It's just a matter of where these drivers create a critical mass that justifies a decision to outsource. For many operators, the answer will be "both places," and assuming that both forms of outsourcing are on the table can be of significant value at the beginning of any major NGN project.
An optimized network outsourcing project will require some technical preparation, particularly in terms of how the outsourced network operations center (NOC) services are linked into the current operations processes. The notion that standard interfaces solve this problem has long been disproved in practice, according to telecom operators, because there are too many standards and extensions.
Four main steps to an integrated operations outsourcing plan
If a carrier is thinking about a major NGN upgrade and using a prime vendor to lead the network integration project is part of the plan, then one goal of the integration project should be to prepare for a future network outsourcing plan, even if network outsourcing isn't an immediate plan.
Network operators should work through four main steps when creating an integrated network operations outsourcing plan during a network integration project.
1. Create an integrated operations plan as part of the network integration process during NGN infrastructure build-outs. This will assign specific roles to components of the operations support systems (OSS), billing support systems (BSS) and network managed services (NMS) chain. While it may seem that these roles are implicit in the names themselves, modern practices of feature virtualization and abstraction allow a "network manager" to present what are actually abstract services to the OSS/BSS layer, for example, or an OSS/BSS to create these abstract services.
New industry trends have created special integration issues that relate to the ability of software elements to "model" their own and lower-layer facilities and thus to simplify software elsewhere. Virtualization and abstraction let a network layer create models of service components that are "reasonable" or "facile" to layers above or around it. So a billing system or an activation system can produce an abstract structure that represents what it does. This abstract structure can simplify the processing in adjacent software components.
For example, a network management system can represent the complete structure of a service as a single device to an OSS. In that case, the OSS only knows about controlling the abstract or virtual device, and it's the NMS that creates the real network commands. In dealing with multiple software components that are increasingly virtual or abstractions, operators have to decide who "sees" the real complexity at any point, and how that complexity is represented abstractly and thus simply to the network components surrounding it.
2. Make black boxes out of the current operations systems. A "black box" is a technical element whose internal properties are abstracted by its interfaces alone. Creating an abstraction for OSS, BSS and NMS systems, and any other specialized activation or service-related systems, can link them to a central network operations process more easily. The process should also address how the current systems link to each other so the same set of interfaces and tools are used.
3. Test and refine coordination between the outsource firm and your own staff. Virtually no operator expects to outsource all network operations, particularly facility-based providers that dispatch technicians for installation and maintenance. Even those that might—non-access providers and some mobile providers, for example—will have to coordinate their outsourced network operations with the remainder of their Operation, Administration, Maintenance and Provisioning (OAM&P) processes.
Since these kinds of coordination requirements are almost certain to emerge during the transition phase of NGN deployment, and thus fall under an integration contract, the experiences here can be used to guide requirements-setting for a future decision to outsource network operations tasks.
4. The most significant step is to assess the skills of the network integration provider to certify them as a future network operations outsourcing provider. More than 80% of network operators believe both tasks would draw bidders from the same pool of vendors—those with strong professional services organizations. Two-thirds say that they would likely make participation in network integration, at least at the bidding level, a mandatory requirement for bidding on a network operations outsource contract. There is also some evidence that having the same vendor provide both services creates a greater chance of overall project success and ongoing satisfaction with the results.
Continued: See part two, Network integration outsourcers need network operations know-how
About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecommunications strategy issues. Check out his SearchTelecom.com networking blog Uncommon Wisdom.