January 2006 Issue Hey, cable! The telephone guys want to talk! No, it’s not a white flag truce in the convergence wars, but it is a search for some common ground in creating and maintaining back office systems. If you remember the earliest days of both high-speed data service and telephony, one of the biggest challenges to getting into the business was the back office. Setting up new services requires coordination of systems that traditionally didn’t talk to each other, such as provisioning, customer service and especially billing. Not only did we need to figure out how to make information in systems we bought from Vendor A available to systems purchased from Vendor B; we also needed to figure out how to access and secure data across service provider boundaries. The process is not complete by any means. Every time we add an application or need to comply with a new regulation, we are faced with interoperability and cross-vendor compatibility issues, not only to make the application work, but also to support it with coordinated databases and network management. Common ground Our cousins in the telephone business have not been immune to these same problems. Although there was a time when AT&T was the master of all telephony matters and could ensure technology always included coordinated support systems, that time ended with divestiture. Without a single owner, the Bell Operating Companies (remember them?) had no one to guard against creation of divergent solutions to the same problem. Mergers and acquisitions further complicated the telco back office, when Baby Bells and their offspring recombined after going separate ways for a decade or more and ended up with multiple support “silos” within the same company. In 1988, the TeleManagement Forum was founded as the OSI/Network Management Forum to find a solution to communications and interoperability between network management products. Founding members included AT&T and BT on the service provider side, and suppliers such as Northern Telecom and Hewlett-Packard on the equipment side. By early 1989, it had approved its first OSI/NM Forum Protocol Specification, and today it has more than 400 member companies in more than 35 countries. The Forum is almost entirely a volunteer organization that depends upon participants in member companies to develop its deliverables. How this relates to cable is explained by an interview I conducted with Keith Willetts, chairman of the Telemanagement Forum. “We believe that cable has many of the same concerns with interoperable back office systems that the Telemanagement Forum has been addressing. Because of convergence, the cable telecommunications industry and the telephone industry are developing similar back office architectures and are often using the same vendors to create solutions.” Although the Forum has conducted preliminary discussions with CableLabs in the past, it has not been an active part of CableLabs projects and is now looking to develop a closer relationship with both CableLabs and SCTE. Because of the voluntary nature of the Forum, such relationships would be nurtured by cable operators who would join the Forum and by vendors servicing the cable industry. Three-legged platform Willetts further explained that the Telemanagement Forum works at building a set of standards for operations systems and software based upon a three-leg platform. “The creation of high level business metrics is one leg of the process. The second leg is a secure data base for service providers to input their own data for the metrics, and the third leg is an online interactive platform for what-if analysis.” The most notable recent deliverables of the Forum have been a set of standards grouped under the banner “New Generation Operations Systems and Software (NGOSS)” and a benchmarking program for business metrics called the Lean Operator Business Excellence Program. The main tools in NGOSS are a common business process map and an information model. The business process map, called the Enhanced Telecom Operations Map (eTOM), can be described as a two-dimensional matrix. This part of NGOSS contains end-to-end vertical process groupings that are required to support customers and to manage the business. These vertical processes are grouped into the broad categories of “Operations” and “Strategy, Infrastructure, and Product.” Operations includes subgroups covering fulfillment, assurance, billing, and operations support and readiness. Strategy, Infrastructure and Product covers a strategic development and commitment sub-grouping and two life cycle management process sub-groupings. The eTOM also includes horizontal views of functionality across a service provider’s organization, such as marketing, service development and supply chain management, which touch the vertical processes. The value of the model is in its detail. Using the model, systems integrators and software vendors can develop code that links separate processes and functions with minimal redundancy and duplication across these functions and processes. A Shared Information and Data (SID) model complements the eTOM by providing common data definitions for use in software based upon the eTOM. As the Forum developed the SID, it found that it was not unusual to have more than 50 separate ways to describe business entities, such as a customer. This disparity means, for example, that each system interfacing to a network operations center (NOC) needs to be modified to provide a unified view of a network and subscribers. In our industry, this modification is often done by the operator’s in-house IT staff, resulting in one-of-a-kind network monitoring that always requires customization. The SID thus makes it easier to interface software systems that support applications, such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and video on demand (VOD), to each other and to existing databases by standardizing the way business entities are described. Common descriptions allow data to be passed more easily between systems, even when the systems are provided by different vendors. The Lean Operator Business Excellence Program complements NGOSS by providing a way for service providers to verify how well they perform in 53 metrics across operational, customer service and business areas described by eTOM. Security is built into the program to prevent association of any metric with a particular provider, while allowing benchmarking against all participants. Compete and cooperate? Given that operations systems problems appear to be similar in both cable and the telephone industry and that there has been a substantial amount of work already done under NGOSS, it seems that cooperation at a standards level could be beneficial even while hot competition in the marketplace is occurring. The majority of the projects at CableLabs have drawn from existing standards to deal with hardware interoperability and have done a good job at solving the challenges associated with functional, end-to-end systems. We’ve been successful in working with the Telecommunications International Association, the American National Standards Institute and other standards bodies to document standard solutions to technology problems. It seems to make sense to continue reaching out to solve similar problems involved in interfacing support systems. Jim Warner, president of the Telemanagement Forum, is a good contact for further discussions with the Telemanagement Forum and can be reached at 770-663-8803. More detailed information on the TeleManagement Forum and on NGOSS can be found at www.tmforum.org. Justin J. Junkus is president of KnowledgeLink and telephony editor for Communications Technology. Reach him at email@example.com.