Is NaaS to networks what Agile is to software?

Image credit: Alfa Photo | shutterstock.com

After Telstra’s NaaS (Network as a Service) program won a TM Forum excellence award, I promised to share a post that describes why I’m so excited about the concept of NaaS.

As the title suggests, NaaS has the potential to be as big a paradigm shift for networks (and OSS/BSS) as Agile has been for software development.

There are many facets to the Agile story, but for me one of the most important aspects is that it has taken end-to-end (E2E), monolithic thinking and has modularised it. Agile has broken software down into pieces that can be worked on by smaller, more autonomous teams than the methods used prior to it.

The same monolithic, E2E approach pervades the network space currently. If a network operator wants to add a new network type or a new product type/bundle, large project teams must be stood up. And these project teams must tackle E2E complexity, especially across an IT stack that is already a spaghetti of interactions.

But before I dive into the merits of NaaS, let me take you back a few steps, back into the past. Actually, for many operators, it’s not the past, but the current-day model.

I’ve used the old TMN pyramid as the basis of the diagram to tie the discussion to legacy solutions, not to imply size or emphasis of any of the layers.

As per the orange arrow, customers of all types (Retail, Enterprise and Wholesale) interact with their network operator through BSS (and possibly OSS) tools. [As an aside, see this recent post for a “religious war” discussion on where BSS ends and OSS begins]. The customer engagement occurs (sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly) via BSS tools such as:

  • Order Entry, Order Management
  • Product Catalog (Product / Offer Management)
  • Service Management
  • SLA (Service Level Agreement) Management
  • Billing
  • Problem Management
  • Customer Management
  • Partner Management
  • etc

If the customer wants a new instance of an existing service, then all’s good with the current paradigm. Where things become more challenging is when significant changes occur (as reflected by the yellow arrows in the diagram above).

For example, if any of the following are introduced, there are end-to-end impacts. They necessitate E2E changes to the IT spaghetti and require formation of a project team that includes multiple business units (eg products, marketing, IT, networks, change management to support all the workers impacted by system/process change, etc)

  1. A new product or product bundle is to be taken to market
  2. An end-customer needs a custom offering (especially in the case of managed service offerings for large corporate / government customers)
  3. A new network type is added into the network
  4. System and / or process transformations occur in the IT stack

If we just narrow in on point 3 above, fundamental changes are happening in network technology stacks already. Network virtualisation (SDN/NFV) and 5G are currently generating large investments of time and money. They’re fundamental changes because they also change the shape of our traditional /BSS/OSSIT stacks, as follows.

I use the terms OSS/BSS as per TMN pyramid. The actual demarcation line between what OSS and BSS does tend to be grey and trigger religious wars.

We now not only have Physical Network Functions (PNF) to manage, but Virtual Network Functions (VNF) as well. In fact it now becomes even more difficult because our IT stacks need to handle PNF and VNF concurrently. Each has their own nuances in terms of over-arching management.

The virtualisation of networks and application infrastructure means that our OSS see greater southbound abstraction. Greater southbound abstraction means we potentially lose E2E visibility of physical infrastructure. Yet we still need to manage E2E change to IT stacks for new products, network types, etc.

The diagram below shows how NaaS changes the paradigm. It de-couples the network service offerings from the network itself. Customer Facing Services (CFS) [as presented by BSS/OSS/NaaS] are de-coupled from Resource Facing Services (RFS) [as presented by the network / domains].

NaaS becomes a “meet-in-the-middle” tool. It effectively de-couples

  • The products / marketing teams (who generate customer offerings / bundles) from
  • The networks / operations teams (who design, build and maintain the network).and
  • The IT teams (who design, build and maintain the IT stack)

It allows product teams to be highly creative with their CFS offerings from the available RFS building blocks. Consider it like Lego. The network / ops teams create the building blocks and the products / marketing teams have huge scope for innovation. The products / marketing teams rarely need to ask for custom building blocks to be made.

You’ll notice that the entire stack shown in the diagram below is far more modular than the diagram above. Being modular makes the network stack more suited to being worked on by smaller autonomous teams. The yellow arrows indicate that modularity, both in terms of the IT stack and in terms of the teams that need to be stood up to make changes. Hence my claim that NaaS is to networks what Agile has been to software.

Similarly, the size of the NaaS layer is to bring attention to it rather than to imply it is a monolithic stack in it’s own right. In reality, it is actually a much thinner shim layer architecturally.

You will have also noted that NaaS allows the Network / Resource part of this stack to be broken into entirely separate network domains. Separation in terms of IT stacks, management and autonomy. It also allows new domains to be stood up independently, which accommodates the newer virtualised network domains (and their VNFs) as well as platforms such as ONAP.

The NaaS layer comprises:

  • A TMF standards-based API Gateway
  • A Master Services Catalog
  • A common / consistent framework of presentation of all domains

The ramifications of this excites me even more that what’s shown in the diagram above. By offering access to the network via APIs and as a catalog of services, it allows a large developer pool to provide innovative offerings to end customers (as shown in the green box below). It opens up the long tail of innovation.

The analogy between NaaS and Agile is to show similarities, not to imply that NaaS replaces Agile. They can definitely be used together.

Some telcos will open up their NaaS to internal or partner developers. Others are drooling at the prospect of offering network APIs for consumption by the market.

You’ve probably already identified this, but the awesome thing for the developer community is that they can combine services/APIs not just from the telcos but any other third-party providers (eg Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, etc, etc, etc). I could’ve shown these as East-West services in the diagram but decided to keep it simpler.

Developers are not constrained to offering communications services. They can now create / offer higher-order services that also happen to have communications requirements.

If you weren’t already on board with the concept, hopefully this article has convinced you that NaaS will be to networks what Agile has been to software.

Agree or disagree? Leave me a comment below.

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