Head in the clouds or back down to earth?

Head in the clouds or back down to earth? Cloud washing is back; but this time it’s all cloud-native and microservices as vendors aim to convince CSPs to adopt public cloud solutions. Dominic Smith looks beyond the hype and asks whether CSPs are ready to give up control of their BSS platforms in exchange for the public cloud promise of lower costs.

I am a firm believer in public cloud. In fact, having spent the last seven years working in a true public cloud environment with our subscription billing platform, I believe we have more experience than most BSS vendors when it comes to understanding the benefits and challenges of moving billing and charging systems to the public cloud. Nevertheless, the industry hype machine is in overdrive with buzzwords such as cloud-native and microservices being thrown around like confetti as vendors build up their public cloud credentials. But the feedback we hear from CSPs is that they don’t believe the hype. They just don’t believe that vendors are ready.

But why would they? When a SaaS/public cloud pioneer as big as Salesforce opens up about the challenges of migrating from a monolith to microservices, why would any CSP believe a traditional on-premises BSS vendor that says they’ve completely redeveloped their software in this fashion? It’s simply not credible. We’ve already debunked the microservices myth in an excellent blog from our Product Director, Brian Coombs.

There’s no doubt that public cloud has a huge role to play in the future of BSS/OSS solutions, and I agree with those who are saying this will be the default deployment model across the industry 10 years from now. However, the problem lies not in the technology per se, but the softer factors and cultural issues that are hitherto overlooked. CSPs simply cannot make the leap to public cloud BSS solutions and expect to carry on using them in the same way they have worked with their on-premise systems for decades. They need to open their eyes to the different ways of working which will be required:
  •  Direct access to the database? Unlikely.
  •  Control of software releases? Nope.
  •  Customisation? Forget it.
Is direct access to BSS databases important? Well it depends on if you need to investigate data issues, make corrections, do ad-hoc reporting or performance tuning, for example. For this you’ll need to find other applications that integrate with the BSS or buy additional services from the BSS vendor. Some will argue that a SaaS application should provide the full reporting capabilities – well it should and will for most things, but not even Salesforce provides access to the full schema for reporting (e.g. you cannot access internal system tables such as currency exchange rates). It’s by no means impossible, but if you’re expecting your DBAs to be able to use a tool like TOAD that’s not going to happen. So, you’ll almost certainly need to find ways around the restrictions of any native database access, and just think how hard it will make tasks such as system migrations.

So, what about control of software releases? One of the key benefits of public cloud SaaS applications is that they get updated on a regular schedule by the vendor, with new releases rolled out to all customers at the same time. But what if that timing is not convenient? You’re just about to launch a new seasonal promotion and you find out that a new software release is due to be received. Do you have time to test any new configuration? You’ll also find that features are sometimes introduced in phases, where initially something might be optional but in subsequent releases it becomes mandatory; and don’t forget that features you might be using can also be retired. You are now at the mercy of the vendor’s release schedule and need to change your approach to testing and new product launches accordingly.

And finally to customisation, the elephant in the room. We hear CSPs all the time who say that they want to use standard product and won’t customise. But inevitably their competitive situation means that they do. Their marketing team comes up with a new offer which requires changes in the ordering process or product catalogue, or to the charging process or billing schedule. When the IT / billing department responds with “sorry it’s not possible, kitchen’s closed” all hell breaks loose.

With public cloud, the expectation is that this type of software customisation should move to being configuration instead, and in many cases it can be. But this itself brings many challenges in terms of complexity and management. For example, the horizontal “platform” approach of Salesforce means that you can build custom objects, configure your own bespoke workflows and business rules, plug in your own code, and so on. This is fantastic and you don’t need to try and get Salesforce to customise the software – you can do it yourself. But in so doing, you then need to implement a whole new layer of change control and governance to ensure you don’t end up with unmaintainable spaghetti. The responsibility has simply moved from vendor to CSP, and the importance / burden of testing new releases increases at each step.

So the question is why is public cloud getting all the attention and hype ahead of private cloud? This usually comes down to the perceived cost benefits, with much of the touted saving derived from the “elastic” scalability of public cloud, allowing applications to use more or less resources on demand, rather than paying for a fixed capacity which is under-utilised most of the time. But how many CFOs will accept the variability of such a model?
Some vendors are throwing around enormous percentage cost savings by moving to a public cloud model, but without revealing the full business impact of such a shift. And there are growing reports that public cloud does not deliver the cost savings that people are led to believe.

Private cloud may not be deemed as fashionable or architecturally pure, but it might just be the stepping stone that CSPs need to provide the right balance between cost and business flexibility, whilst they are on their journey to a full public cloud environment.

Ultimately, the same management and operational tasks need to be done, whether it is by the CSP, the vendor or a managed service provider. The real question is whether you want control.

Find out more about Cerillion’s private cloud and public cloud solutions.