The telecom industry is undergoing a paradigm shift with communications service providers (CSPs) moving operational support systems (OSS)/business support systems (BSS) to the cloud. Cloud OSS/BSS offers increased scalability, flexibility and speed as compared to legacy systems. However, opinion over the adoption of cloud OSS/BSS remains divided in the industry globally with some players shifting their systems to the cloud while others adopting a wait-and-watch approach.
Gaining a competitive edge through the cloud
Over the past 10 years, web-scale companies (companies that have built private, efficient and scalable cloud environments) have transformed their software development processes, software architecture and software deployment infrastructure. This has brought in tremendous economies of scale through an integrated and highly automated software platform. There are three key elements that characterise this new way of doing business in web-scale companies: DevOps, which is a combination of software development (Dev) and software operations (Ops), cloud-native software architectures, and cloud deployment.
- DevOps processes: IT major Google operates some of the most reliable data centres in the world, which ensure that its services are “always on”. The core principles of Google’s operations are encapsulated in the company’s site reliability engineering paradigm, which espouses the idea of building software products with an operational mindset. This philosophy, more popularly known as DevOps and widely adopted by other web-scale companies including Amazon, brings the software development and operations functions together right from the start of the product life cycle. Google’s operations division consists of a group of software engineers who apply their programming skills to automate repetitive manual tasks, thus removing the risk of manual errors during operations.
- Software platforms with cloud-native technologies: Web-scale companies have launched services with a rapid iteration cycle and a high level of resilience. This has been made possible by architecting next-generation software “cloud native”, which is beyond the three-tiered client/server technology.
A key component of this new cloud-native architecture is the concept of microservices, which enable rapid, reliable and independent software releases across regions. Microservices architecture enables the creation of small and highly granular functional software modules that can be used to develop applications. A microservice is self-contained and highly available; it can be configured, scaled, enhanced and replaced independently without affecting the availability and reliability of the cloud-native applications of which it forms a part. However, if such architecture is to function effectively, the microservices must interlink and communicate with one another using application programming interfaces (APIs). APIs are one of the most powerful features of microservices, which enable them to be dynamically called by other microservices as part of a larger application.
- Business platforms on the cloud: Web-scale companies deploy their business platforms on virtualised data centre infrastructure that give them the advantage of lower cost, automatic scaling and reliability. While some companies are using private cloud platforms, others are using the public cloud. However, without the availability of software that is designed exclusively for the cloud (and is not just cloud-ready), it is difficult for web-scale companies to achieve the required reliability.
Emerging trends in the cloud OSS/BSS space
- CSPs are moving their OSS/BSS stacks to hybrid and private clouds to reduce costs: Data centres are rapidly virtualising and automating the administrative processes that support BSS and OSS applications. Although both OSS and BSS are being moved to the cloud, BSS is much ahead of OSS. However, going forward, network function virtualisation will accelerate the migration of OSS to cloud computing. Concerns over data privacy are a primary factor deterring CSPs from moving their systems to the public cloud, thereby making the option of hybrid cloud popular. A CSP’s application can only be run on a public cloud if it is deployed as software-as-a-service, or as a managed service.
- CSPs are implementing DevOps cloud processes and architecture in selected areas: Most CSPs have teams that use DevOps and cloud-native architecture, but only in selected areas. CSPs are sceptical about the fact that DevOps will establish itself as the best practice for all domains, owing to the quality advantages accrued by the separation of development from testing and deployment.
Many IT organisations still use the waterfall methodology (following a linear sequential flow of the software development process), but they do wish to move to agile processes. DevOps is mostly being used in new areas of software development, especially in digital experience areas such as portals, connecting both internal resources (such as catalogues or ordering) and external resources (such as suppliers and partners).
- The need to justify the business case and the lack of organisational readiness are inhibiting DevOps implementation: A number of factors are inhibiting the wider roll-out of cloud-native architecture and DevOps processes. The need to justify the business case for DevOps and the difficulty of running bi modal operations are the largest factors. Another major challenge is the need to reorganise the current siloed structure of the IT organisation and improve employee skill-sets.
- CSPs are planning to build new OSS/BSS stacks on microservice architecture: CSPs are planning to build new OSS/BSS stacks on microservice architecture. Microservices are currently the fastest mechanism to develop and deploy software applications, and have matured at the right time to coincide with the digital transformation of CSPs. Using a microservices architecture in conjunction with DevOps software engineering principles, CSPs can significantly reduce the time needed to apply changes to their operational platform and develop new codes. As a result, they can also reduce the time it takes to launch new services in the market.
- CSPs likely to face challenges in managing bi modal or tri modal operations: CSPs realise that it will be challenging to operate traditional monolithic applications alongside new cloud-native applications, referred to as bi modal operations. Tri modal operations, where CSPs simultaneously manage applications developed using waterfall, agile and DevOps methodologies, will also emerge as a major challenge. There will be a long period during which these approaches will coexist, and hence there will be a need to ensure that new capabilities offer backward compatibility with the existing IT ecosystem.
Key challenges faced in the adoption of cloud and DevOps
- Legacy: While web-scale companies have recruited mostly young people and implemented the latest software that they largely wrote themselves, CSPs have a substantial legacy of both. Their software systems are a patchwork of home-grown systems and systems bought from a large number of vendors over a long period of time. This puts a greater burden on CSPs in terms of upgrading both their systems and the skills of their staff.
- Regulation: Web-scale companies are lightly regulated, whereas CSPs face extensive regulatory oversight. Regulations, especially those relating to consumer privacy, restrict storage methods and geographical data placement, while privacy concerns severely limit how CSPs can use customer information.
- Organisational structure: CSPs are organised in silos based on their functions, customer base and technologies. Each of these organisations within a CSP has been working for decades to automate its activities. It is difficult to fund and implement modern, automated processes that transcend the boundaries between the individual silos. In contrast, web-scale companies are organised around their software platforms, which follow business process flows and are thus free from the silo effect.
Some CSPs are moving very aggressively to the cloud, making major investments and enlisting support from their software vendors. They believe that this transition can give them major competitive advantages such as lower operational costs and business agility. There is a large gap between these few companies and others in the industry. Other CSPs have adopted a more gradual approach in terms of making major commitments, and they foresee a graceful migration to the cloud. They are making faster progress on the move to cloud infrastructure than on the transition to DevOps. A third group, the sceptics, remains unconvinced of the rationale for moving to the cloud.
Based on a white paper, “Market Pulse: Digital Transformation of BSS/OSS to the Cloud and DevOps”, by Analysys Mason