It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the hype and terminology around digital transformation. The core issue for communication service providers and network operators is moving from providing basic services like connectivity, voice and data to offering an unlimited range of digital services from any number of suppliers.
The economics are simple, as their basic services have become commodities – deregulation has allowed multiple players to enter the market, and prices are constantly being driven down. Networks have been around for many years and have gone through multiple transformations, and nearly all are carrying legacy equipment and technology at both the OSS and BSS layers.
It is almost impossible, unless starting at greenfield level, to have an all-singing, all-dancing digital operation without some legacy. It is also impossible to find a network that is homogenous in terms of hardware supplier, operating software, network servers, architectures, applications and even common processes. So how can any CSP hope to become a true digital player and maintain continuity with so much to contend with?
A good way to look at this is by using the analogy of an orchestra where all the elements above, plus products and services from external parties, are the instruments in the orchestra. On their own, or being played ad hoc, the instruments simply do not produce the full effect of an orchestra in concert. The key is the underlying musical score (the processes) that gets everything in sync, and the conductor that guides the players – but without the music, the orchestra is nothing. It shouldn’t matter which orchestra plays that musical score – it should always be recognizable.
It is fast becoming evident that the musical notes that have been missing or underutilized in our network ‘orchestras’ are APIs, which are best defined as a set of subroutine definitions and tools for building application software. To be more exact, an API is a set of clearly defined methods of communication between various software components that enable diverse platforms, apps, and systems to connect and share data with each other – getting them in place is when the music really begins.
You could say that one industry body, the TM Forum, is acting like a composer with its Open API program. With the help of its members it has developed a suite of over 50 Open APIs and launched an Open API Lab, developed with IBM and Neural Technologies, hosted on IBM Cloud. The TM Forum Catalyst Program connects service providers, technology suppliers and global enterprises to create innovative solutions to common industry challenges. They are known as ‘catalysts’ because these are rapid-fire, member-driven proof-of-concept projects that create innovative solutions to common industry challenges.
With APIs in hand, CSPs are able to access and combine individual digital assets from multiple sources and piece them together to offer unique microservices to their customers. These microservices can be adapted for use in multiple contexts. The specific context is decided by the business processes and channels that a customer uses to consume a product and interact with the CSP.
Multiple teams from different IT business domains can implement microservices with their own choice of technology while remaining interoperable, since microservices can natively communicate with each other because of industry-wide adoption of standards such as the TM Forum Open APIs. Think of a drummer in the orchestra with his own specific notes, as the conductor brings the drum sound (the microservice) into the song as a whole. You can find out more on microservices best practices here [PDF], and read an excellent use case with U Mobile here [PDF].
With the expected explosion of IoT devices on networks, the need to be able to orchestrate connections and management at scale will be an issue without an end-to-end API–led approach. As things stand with the IoT today, you can’t get the network effect of IoT applications development, IoT platforms and IoT devices, because they are all using individualized non-standard ways of talking.
To help overcome these challenges, the award-winning OAsIS TM Forum Catalyst project (OAsIS stands for Open APIs for a Vibrant IoT Ecosystem), which Neural Technologies was also heavily involved in, was established. The goal of the OAsIS Catalyst was to identify and adopt the best suited APIs for telco IoT applications, platforms and connected things to make them interoperable regardless of which protocol or framework they use. The team also included AIS, AT&T, KDDI, Globe Telecom, SingTel and Telkomsel as champions, with DellEMC and Ericsson as participants.
It’s no surprise that Neural Technologies features heavily in this space. For at least a decade, microservices have been evangelized by the company and Andrew Tan, the company’s chief technology officer. This stretches back to before they even referred to them as ‘microservices’ (previously they were called “botpacs” – a combination of ‘robot’ and ‘package’). Neural has evolved into a data management powerhouse, given its expertise in AI, data management and data processing was gained from its long successful history and its continued leadership in fraud and revenue assurance.
Andrew may not see himself as the conductor of the orchestra, but there is no doubt he sees his company as a key composer of the microservices symphony.