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Building telecom SOA: An architectural roadmap to profits

Telecom carriers need to find new ways to build out revenue-increasing opportunities. TM Forum chairman Keith Willetts looks at the promise of service-oriented architecture (SOA) for telecom carriers and the Forum's efforts to standardize its next-generation OSS to help carriers create flexible new business models in a digital media era.

The communications industry today experiences many of the pressures and challenges that affect other business types, including how to cut costs while improving service to customers, how to be more flexible and innovative, and how to adapt to changing markets and business models.

The TM Forum is also in the process of aligning its work with other major industry-wide initiatives, including service-oriented architecture.
Tom Nolle
PresidentCIMI Corp.
Most industries, including telecom, have information and process silos that contain inaccurate data and are built on a fragmented, spaghetti-like back office of generations of legacy systems.

Since its inception, the communications industry saw itself as special, needing hand-built, expensive technologies to support its unique business model and scale. But as the industry evolves, a lot can be learned from understanding how others outside the industry are tackling similar challenges to work smarter and are working to create, deliver and monetize services through a highly simplified, automated and integrated infrastructure.

Looking at outside models: A two-way street

At the TM Forum, we help companies become agile and flexible enough to adapt quickly to new business models, new technologies and new partnering agreements in today's digital services market. To do that, we are increasingly looking at approaches adopted by other industry segments, both to learn new tricks and to leverage commercial, off-the-shelf technologies. The TM Forum is also in the process of aligning its work with other major industry-wide initiatives, including service-oriented architecture (SOA) and the ITIL process management model.

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At the same time, we're finding that things we've done can offer a lot to others. For example, our Business Process Framework (eTOM) is a very rich end-to-end enterprise business model compared with ITIL, which is primarily a process model for running IT within an enterprise.

It's a two-way street -- the wider industry is learning from us and we're learning from it. From a TM Forum perspective, it means we're upgrading and enhancing our existing frameworks to align with external software standards, which are absolutely critical to the SOA approach.

The next stage in revenue building: Service-oriented architecture

There's an old saying: "When you are in a hole -- stop digging." To help our members get out of the spaghetti-like nightmare that is the back office of so many service providers and prosper in the brutally competitive world of digital media services, we're developing a clear roadmap to guide future investment in rational processes and systems. Known as the Blueprint Initiative, it builds on the Solution Frameworks -- sometimes known as next-generation OSS (NGOSS) -- to the next stage of evolution.

The aim is to help companies realize the goal of building a service-oriented enterprise (SOE), which is essentially a business that has absorbed and adopted SOA principles and become agile and flexible enough to adapt quickly to the new business models, new technologies and new partnering agreements in today's communications market.

A service-oriented approach breaks down internal business functions into building blocks, like Legos, that can be run in-house, outsourced or provided to third parties on a "cloud" basis. The beauty of this approach is that, like Legos, the components can be standardized (and therefore lower in cost) and assembled into a unique combination that suits individual business needs -- squaring the circle of having both standards and differentiation. To enable the SOE concept, you need to develop an SOA, and this structure is the basis of the Blueprint Initiative.

Building blocks for future business models

At the Forum, we already have a lot of the underpinning elements that the roadmap needs. For example, we have a mature and comprehensive process model in our Business Process Framework and a rich common data model in our Information Framework (SID). Both are widely deployed and are essential for turning an SOA from a sterile, academic exercise into a working business blueprint that can deliver real bottom-line results quickly. We're building on these by creating reusable building blocks and defining how they are put together.

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In addition to aligning our work with SOA principles and the ITIL process management model, we're rewriting those documents in order to make our frameworks much more accessible to a broad range of people and give guidance and advice on how to bring everything together, rather than expecting everyone to figure it out on their own. We're working to come up with a blueprint for the communications and media industries that is a very clear description of how to get a business operating at lowest cost and with the highest levels of customer service and a flexible platform for new service innovation.

A big plus of the Blueprint Initiative approach is not only that we will have done the work that saves members huge sums of money, but also that -- as the majority of service providers and suppliers in the world align around this model -- IT and integration costs can tumble as the industry unlocks major economies of scale and leverages technologies used by many other industries. There is no longer a need for the level of custom engineering seen until recently. That belongs to the old world of high margins and no competition.

Competition in a standardized world

How do you compete in an environment where everyone uses the same base technology? Rather than forcing everyone to conform to a particular model, the Blueprint Initiative's SOA-based approach allows you to build whatever you want from standard components and be assured that the bricks themselves have a standard set of characteristics that allow them to fit together.

These building blocks are known as Business Services, which relate to standard business functions. They could be things like "service launch," "billing" or "customer care" that can then be assembled to meet the needs of individual companies. The definition of these Business Services is under way within our Blueprint Initiative. So rather than spending precious time and resources to define your own set of building blocks and have every block custom-made for you, you can take our standard design for the blocks and put them together in a way that will help you get the results you need.

Amazon's SOA model as the perfect case study

During Management World 2009 in Nice this May, we are featuring a session that will address how communications and media companies can go about moving toward the concept of SOE.

Amazon has already gone down this path. In its current model, the company is, in essence, running two businesses: selling millions of goods of every type, as well as enabling other people to sell things using its platform. This is an SOA approach because it defines what you do as a set of services that can be used internally for your use or exposed externally for a new set of capabilities that you make available for others to use. We think this is the future of the industry, and our Blueprint Initiative will play a big role in giving companies in the communications, media and entertainment sectors the right tools to take their businesses down the path to success.

About the author: Keith Willetts is recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on communications management. As co-founder and chairman of the TM Forum, he has been the driving force behind its continuous evolution. Currently managing partner at Mandarin Associates Ltd. in the U.K., Willetts consults with companies on a wide variety of business development issues. He previously held executive positions at BT and TCSI. A regular presenter and writer, he co-authored the highly influential book The Lean Communications Provider.

This was last published in April 2009

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