Best-of-breed: Is history repeating itself in the cloud?

Best-of-breed: Is history repeating itself in the cloud? Cloud-based BSS/OSS applications are overcoming a lot of limitations of their predecessors. Richard Doughty analyses this rise of cloud systems which are enabling rapid transformation in the telecom industry.

If you were a telecoms operator in the late 1990s / early 2000s there was typically just one way to approach business transformation; you ran your RFx processes for the siloed functions across your ecosystem and sent those tenders to Systems Integrators who would then tie these ‘best-of-breed’ platforms together using middleware to form (what you hoped would be) an integrated solution.
Despite all the promises, the industry was littered with failures from this inefficient approach. Many projects, despite running for years, left operators unable to show a bill in their CRM systems, understand the services on their network or make sense of a centralised product catalogue (which wasn’t really centralised as each system was doing one form of mastering or another).
Then, about a decade ago, there was a definite shift away from this trend. Most vendors began offering their own end-to-end solutions, often referred to as ‘best-of-suite’. Some of these were pre-integrated in the truest sense (one company writes and owns all the software and gives some thought on how it should hang together) while others were the net result of a series of acquisitions that brought disparate product lines under one roof.
However, over the last 18 months or so, we’ve seen quite a rapid resurgence of the best-of-breed approach, with a raft of new applications (and new vendors) emerging from the cloud. These are essentially lots of little clouds which merge together to form end-to-end solutions: a cloud CPQ (configure – price – quote); a cloud CRM; a cloud billing system; a cloud accounting system, and so on. Your cumulus in to cumulonimbus if you will!
But won’t it just be the same again?
There’s a big difference now. 15 years ago, integrating these best-of-breed solutions was a difficult process. Individual systems spoke very different languages and some didn’t expose themselves for integration in any usable manner. Since then, there have been many attempts to mitigate these limitations such as top down initiatives from vendor agnostic industry groups (e.g. TM Forum) and bottom up movements such as the 3GPP design movement.
TM Forum’s SID and its more recent Open API program have driven the need for standardised integration across the industry. These have focused on developing a common format for entity exchanges and then the API ecosystem itself which looks to standardise the actual interfaces and not just the exchanged data structure.
The 3GPP organisation has been around for a while but it has really come into its own with the opportunities arising from LTE and the effective greenfield design incorporating network and service control systems. This collaborative evolution of standards between parties involved on all sides of these systems has greatly simplified the integration of network and service management.
So, what does this mean for the present and the next generation of BSS/OSS solutions? All of these new cloud systems offer a wide range of APIs and it is quite common for them to expose their full functional capability through their APIs. And those APIs are pretty sociable too. They are standards-based, offer example code, use common protocols and are well documented. These are quite significant changes. In fact, they allow operators to do this integration work in-house and to embark on it with a greater level of confidence and have access to user groups and forums through which experiences can be shared.
We’re already seeing contemporary examples of operators using this siloed functional approach and integrating these platforms themselves, often using the new generation of cloud-based middleware too. Since this integration has become less specialised, operators have been able to take ownership themselves without the dependence on Systems Integrators.
As we move towards an increasingly connected world, cloud applications are truly disrupting the telecom industry by eliminating inefficient legacy systems and driving efficiency gains. The change in the risk and complexity historically associated with best-of-breed integrations may well see a refocusing of vendors towards providing specialist functional modules rather than end-to-end solutions.
But this is not a green light for the Systems Integrators to step back in to build the solutions. The openness and building block like nature of the integration lends itself to a core-edge approach that empowers operators to take ownership and build around a key set of capabilities, integrating to those platforms as they require. So, the growth in cloud-based BSS/OSS means good news for operators; more focus required by vendors; but the future role for large Systems Integrators is much less clear.