Whether it’s a dinner menu or an operations support system (OSS), the options are roughly the same: you can either do it yourself or contract out. Either way, the possibile outcomes range across a spectrum, from a simple dish to five courses, from something “tacked-on” to a sophisticated integration. In the software-intensive OSS arena, cable operators are exploiting all of these approaches. They’re slinging their own code, in both discrete and highly integrated projects. And they’re getting help, using both off-the-shelf packages and teams of external consultants. With all the multiple functions it covers, the shifting line-ups of vendors and solutions, and the wide variety of infrastructures in place, OSS can be a confusing place. But the four basic approaches indicated above can help clarify one’s strategic posture. (See Figure 1 on page 26 for conceptual matrix.) Think food. You can eat your own or someone else’s cooking. Either way, it can be as high or low-end as you like. What is OSS?

Look up “operational support” in the index of the first edition of Modern Cable Television Technology, and you’ll end up with this description: “a common term in the telephone industry for a superset of what the cable industry calls status monitoring.”

In other words, for cable, operational support originally consisted of transponders keeping track of physical elements in the network, such as power supplies. But that was before digital cable, before high-speed data, before cable telephony.

As it happens, the status monitoring industry has undergone its own transition, with AM Communications now in bankruptcy, and the Cheetah assets having shuttled first to Acterna, then to Tollgrade. Moreover, from proprietary to interoperable hybrid management sublayer (HMS) and now to DOCSIS, transponder technology itself has met several disruptions, as well.

Meanwhile, higher level management and monitoring systems are threatening to displace the category. “Why do I need it?” asks Gene White, vice president of engineering for the Tampa Bay division of Bright House Networks.

White helped set the tone for cable technology this year with his pre-conference tutorial on OSS at the SCTE’s Conference on Emerging Technology in January. By shifting the focus from monitoring outages to managing services, White’s Tampa Bay team, along with collaborators at C-Cor.net, cooked up a new dish for the cable industry.

“I did not think of what we have as OSS—more as what we had to do to keep the business running,” White noted at the time. “But that turns out to be OSS.”

So why not status monitoring? “Remember, I’ve got an intelligent device in the home,” White says. “I’ve got my S-A Explorer boxes, or Pace, or Pioneer, or Motorola. They give me their forward carrier-to-noise signal, the reverse carrier-to-noise, forward bit error rate (BER) and reverse BER.”

“I want to know what the customer is seeing, and that’s what I’m monitoring,” he says.
Another goal was to ensure that the customer service rep (CSR) also sees what the customer is—or is not—seeing. And since his January talk, White says the success of the integrated services management system (ISMS) there is noteworthy.

“The surprising thing is the CSRs love it,” White says. “They want the tools to help trouble shoot the customer.”

Whose job is it?

At the Syracuse, N.Y., headquarters for Advance/Newhouse, owner of Bright House Networks, Sergio Gambro is the new senior director of OSS. He reports to Kashif Haq, vice president of data services. Both were formerly with Imagine Broadband, the Accenture-based technical consultancy that has the name of a fresh start-up, but has working with Comcast since the Excite@Home transition.

The idea of reaching toward consultants such as Accenture (previously Anderson Consulting) may have been somewhat outside-the-box two years ago, but the consulting and cable industries both have shifted, moving closer to one another in the process.

This summer, Time Warner Cable recruited Frank Boncimino, a senior vice president and partner of the Telecom, Media & Networks practice of Cap Gemini Ernst and Young, as its first CIO. The salient point is not how little a consulting firm may know about cable’s past but how critical OSS and IT will be to the industry’s future.

Today it makes sense for an MSO to tap into a firm well versed in billing, revenue assurance, customer-relations management, and product launches (to name a few topics from Cap Gemini’s Telecom Media Networks web page.)

Back at Advance/Newhouse, one senses a division of labor. “My main focus is on the OSS strategy and architecture of things to come,” says Gambro, defering on ISMS to White, “as he has done all the great work with C-COR.net in Tampa.”

The point here is not only that OSS is poised to play a key role in cable’s future, especially on its data platform, but that it currently transcends both physical systems and functional disciplines.

For further perspective on what cable OSS is and where it resides, listen to Rogers Cable SVP of IT and CIO Tom Vari, who breaks the category into three parts: “There is the service provisioning component. Then the network element provisioning component. And what we call NSS, or network support systems.”

One of cable’s IT deans, Vari says NSS represents “an evolution of status monitoring to a more general monitoring framework” which at Rogers falls under the SVP of engineering and network operations. IT may have built the software, but the “execution and use and responsibility (are) in engineering.”

As for the other OSS components, “service that relates purely to the network resides in engineering; the piece that relates to customer to customer service to network is under me.”

Vari believes in self-sufficiency. Rogers writes, but mostly buys its software, with Sigma (now Liberate) being one of its providers. But its engineers control and run the software themselves. Vari distinguishes this approach from “a model that’s come up recently in the U.S. over the last few months (around) outsourcing the entire network management function.”

“We’ve never outsourced business-critical functions,” he says. “It’s just been a philosophy of the company.”

Time and money

At the level of specific applications, engineers may have a proclivity toward the do-it-yourself approach. If only there weren’t other constraints.

Time Warner’s New York City system, for instance, facing 350,000 cable modem subs and a somewhat “clunky” diagnostic system, needed a Web-based tool to improve operations at its four separate call centers, Technology Director Sam Gupta says.

The system opted for a product from Solar Winds. (For more on this deployment, see Communications Technology, September 2003, page 8.) But it’s not inconceivable that the operator could have written its own solution.

“If I had the time, I could probably have done it,” Gupta says.

Josh Stevens, director of broadband networks for Solar Winds, positions his software as a low-cost alternative to C-COR.net’s offering. As it happens, Time Warner not only helped develop C-COR’s higher level ISMS product (in Tampa, before selling the property), but also has deployed the software in its Oceanic system. So individual systems within the same MSO may go their separate ways.

But price points are never irrelevant. Indeed, open source software is one option for gathering information. Cox Communications, for instance, uses freely available, multi router traffic grapher (MRTG), a Perl and C-based software that works on UNIX and Windows NT platforms, as the basis for its Cox Metrics, an engineering tool used at the master telecommunications center (MTC) level. In turn, it feeds data summaries into other management systems.

Voice demands

The bold move by Alopa Networks and partner ARRIS to replace for free any competitor’s workflow and provisioning solution with its MetaServ product further illustrates relevance of costs. Alopa President and CEO Tom Engdahl describes the initial response to the offer as “phenomenal.”

Still, differences among and within MSOs make demand lumpy, at best. An early adopter in telephony, Cox has deployed some of the first highly integrated, triple-play, back-office technologies, such as Convergys’ Integrated Communications Operations Management System (ICOMS). Along the way, it has developed a relatively deep IT bench. One of Cox CIO Scott Hatfield’s former deputies, Mike Riddell, is now SVP and CIO at Charter, for instance.

Adelphia, on the other hand, has no comparable telephony experience, but is busy frying other fish. “Our focus, frankly, is on getting our network upgraded.” says Keith Hayes, Adelphia vice president of network planning and construction.

At the same time, Adelphia is busy deploying a user-friendly, high-speed data provisioning tool with remote diagnostic capabilities that is fully integrated with its billing database. Matt Bell, director of high-speed data strategy and applications development, describes the fast-paced project as best-of-breed, customized and flexible.

It is the advanced IP services, especially voice, where OSS will make its mark. (For more on voice-oriented OSS solutions, see Justin Junkus’ Telephony, page 20.) While VoIP remains nascent, thinking big is a useful exercise.

Arjang Zadeh, CEO of Imagine Broadband, says that scaling up to 100,000 monthly incremental voice subs (a benchmark for reaching 1 million) will be no piece of cake.

“More than an order of magnitude more complicated than anything cable operators have ever done before,” Zadeh says, of the impending effort.

The looming dilemma, he says, is that while complexity and costs may rise exponentially, the margin pressure on high-speed data will be intense. There is a present need for “engineering the business to achieve pricepoints that are three and five-years out.”

Business processes and services

Firms with consulting in their corporate DNA are inclined to suggest the need for the larger view. “One of the toughest things to get across when you build these systems is that it’s more than just software apps and hardware: it’s business processes and procedures,” Ed Draiss, product manager of Cisco’s programmable network device instrumentation group (PNDIG), says.

At the code level, that strategy may translate into the kind of object-oriented, business process design promoted by Lemur Networks. The idea is to avoid the dead ends of hard-coded packages.

Within three years, operators will need “forklift upgrades” of their workflow engines, predicts Apollo Guy, Lemur’s director of business development. The result will be increasing operator reliance upon what he calls “body shops,” i.e. firms populated by “professional coders.”

As both triple-play offerings and service differentiation accelerate, so too will the need to track many moving parts. That’s why relative newcomers to cable, such as Auspice, experienced in industries with higher demands on enterprise control, have a compelling story to tell.

But the influence of incumbent hardware vendors, such as Motorola, S-A and Cisco, cannot be discounted. To some extent, any supporting software is linked to the boxes that populate the industry’s NOCs, headends, nodes and customers.

S-A’s BarcoNet acquisition, for instance, has allowed it to add a status monitoring module to its transmission network control system (TNCS). For its part, Harmonic devised a new category of management tools, its NMX digital service manager, to cover both compressed digital video/audio services and the underlying infrastructure.

Moreover, provisioning this gear (one of the three OSS categories mentioned previously by Rogers CTO Vari) is becoming more and more of a differentiating factor among the vendors themselves. Service level agreements for commercial services, for instance, will require operators to assure customers that a precise, very high percentage of frames are being passed per second, Internet Photonics, vice president of marketing, Gary Southwell, says.

Back in the kitchen

Of course, if you can’t stand the heat of OSS in all its multiservice complexity, you’d best get out of the kitchen. But while ordering out or relying on external sources may be appealing options, a balanced approach is more likely to win.

For one, the landscape is changing. “The industry won’t support, can’t support, dozens of software providers,” Vari says. Second, while consultants can be invaluable, especially where inertia has set in and change is necessary, no one knows cable systems like operators themselves.

Operators who nail OSS are going to be the ones who try something of everything, who essentially hit the center of our conceptual matrix by nurturing in-house IT talent, by picking the right outside partners, and by mastering specific applications and the broader business processes.

 

Jonathan Tombes is executive editor of Communications Technology. Email him at jtombes@accessintel.com.

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