Liam McQuillan
James Aitken
Issue: Europe 2005
Article no.: 15
Topic: Where software is leading telecoms
Author: Liam McQuillan and James Aitken
Title: CEO and Principal Product Evangelist
Organisation: Aepona
PDF size: 284KB

About author

Liam McQuillan, the Chief Executive Officer of AePONA, which specialises in OSA technology, has taken the company from a generic consultancy services business to a highly product-focused company. Previously, Mr McQuillan served as the Vice President of Engineering for Aldiscon in Northern Ireland, a provider of SMS solutions for operators. Mr McQuillan then moved on as COO for ApiON, where he was instrumental in ApION’s success in the WAP Gateway market. James Aitken is the Principal Product Evangelist for AePONA. Mr Aitken has been in the computer industry for over 30 years working on a wide range of applications, concentrating on advance services architectures for telecommunications in mobile and fixed networks. Before his current role, Mr Aitken spent 20 years with Logica (now LogicaCMG), working on various aspects of the Intelligent Network (IN) and advanced services product planning and design for 2nd and 3rd generation mobile and fixed networks. Mr Aitken has also been heavily involved in messaging products (SMS and MMS) and, recently, in the design and realisation of ‘service delivery platforms’. Mr Aitken is a regular speaker at conferences and symposia and has given many seminars on IN, service management and mobile messaging.


Article abstract

Typically, digital technology for telecommunications was used either for billing and other administrative systems or for digital switching and one barely impinged on the other. Programming new services required both network and IT specialists and was costly and time-consuming. Services could take years to reach market. Intelligent networks, including mobile networks, separate switching functions from intelligence and service control. This permits programmers with little telecom experience to build advanced systems using applications interfaces that automatically provide the appropriate network functions.


Full Article

Once upon a time, there was an undertaker. One year, there seemed to be a significant drop in the number of people requiring his services. On investigation, he discovered that the local telephone operator belonged to the family of his rival, to whom she diverted calls for his professional services. To combat this, the undertaker is said to have invented the automatic telephone exchange. The operator was, if you like, the first intelligent network. It was not until over 100 years later, with the introduction of digital technology that intelligence came back to telephony. Digital technology entered the field of telecommunications on two fronts: Information Technology (IT), mostly for billing and customer management, and digital switching with the associated programming and protocols. These two disciplines of telecommunications and IT were worlds apart and barely impinged on each other. Telecoms software evolution Hardware and software techniques improved and embedded ‘stored program control’ and increased the intelligence of telephone exchanges (switches). The programming needed for the new services thus enabled was highly complex, labour intensive and time consuming. The engineering staff, so they said, on one vendor’s exchange in the early 1990s peaked at 2,500 people. Of course, newer services and capabilities were always in demand to meet market and competitive requirements. Typical time to market for new services was at least two years. Next, came Intelligent Networking (IN), which separated the switching function from the intelligence and service control. IN was the first step in bringing together the IT and telecoms disciplines. Indeed, services could be implemented by programmers who had little or no knowledge of the details for setting up calls, etc. Mobile network architectures, albeit using different protocols from mainstream IN, are highly sophisticated intelligent networks. The driving force behind IN adoption was its promise of ‘rapid service creation’. The telecoms industry bent itself over to find ways of achieving ‘rapid service creation’ and in search of the perfect service creation environment. This failed because, whilst very successful at switch programming, this accounts for only 20 per cent of service development costs; the remainder was associated with service data, provisioning, customer care, billing, fault handling, etc. Even now in the telecoms industry, there are still initiatives to standardised service logic execution environments (SLEEs) such as the JAIN SLEE. Their narrow focus on telecoms, though, means that they are difficult to use on services that truly cross the bounds of telecoms and IT, so special purpose SLEEs solve only 20 per cent of the problem not 80 per cent. Furthermore, they require network connectivity, which becomes more and more complex as networks evolve and the number of network element vendors and standards increase. Historically, new services were introduced as single function solutions–vertical silos–either offering voice services or messaging, data, location and the list goes on. There has been no cross-functional capability and service silos themselves had limited connectivity to external resources or data. The most obvious example of this vertical integration is Intelligent Network services, where the service creation, service control and service switching elements are typically sourced from a single Network Equipment Provider. This has resulted in little competition or innovation in the market for traditional voice services. IT software evolution In the IT domain, the business and operations support systems became more and more complex and provided ever-increasing functionality, but became increasingly unwieldy. As the implementers of intelligent networks discovered, if it was hard to modify a telephone exchange, modifying data management and billing to handle new services was even harder. Switching enhancement and IN service control for a large European operator’s IN, for example, needed 50 people to deploy it, but IT programming required more than 500 people. Perversely, the new methods that make it possible to rapidly create IT services are showing the way to create new telecoms capabilities and crucially, allowing enterprises and mass market suppliers to develop new services of their own. Recently, we have seen an unprecedented revolution in computing and software. The combination of modern computers and the sophisticated software engineering associated with Java application servers, data management and web services has brought the IT industry closer to the elusive goals of: √ Computing on demand; √ Relatively rapid creation of new IT applications. The cost and complexity of traditional IT solutions have grown inexorably over the last decade. As development times and maintenance costs have spiralled, focus has turned towards establishing a new service architecture that promotes re-use and modularity. This has resulted in the service-oriented architecture that underpins web services. A service-oriented architecture unites a collection of services that communicate with each other. Each service provides a well-defined self-contained function. Complex services can be realised by co-ordinating, or orchestrating, two or more component services. This software revolution has been enabled, in part, by the development and adoption of standard operating systems (UNIX and to a lesser extend in the enterprise domain, Microsoft’s systems) and more recently, application execution environments (Java environments–J2EE and J2SE). The web itself has fuelled the revolution by demanding and encouraging development of the service-oriented architecture and true distributed processing. Slowly, but surely, it is becoming possible to build new services relatively quickly, create and manage the associated data, orchestrate the resulting capabilities and make them available to meet individual, enterprise and corporate needs. Just as with telecoms, because of the complexity and cost, new services are often developed as vertical, unwieldy, silos. We now have tools to break-up these silos, such as: √ Standard operating systems; √ Standard data handling technologies, such as LDAP; √ Definition and standardisation of other key capabilities; √ Standardised application execution environments (the Java environments–J2EE and J2SE); √ web services and service-oriented architectures. Carrier-network operating systems Telecom networks are becoming increasingly complex. At the same time, they are inexorably converging into combined entities that encompass mobile, fixed, IP, broadband, etc. Each new service introduces new elements and adds to the mix of protocols and interfaces required to implement a service. The increase in service options often causes fragmentation of the target market. The services provided on the networks, particularly mobile, have proliferated, but their attraction and adoption has become focused. Thus, for each mass-market service, there may be multiple corporate, teen, family, or leisure group services offered. Although any of these focused solutions might well cross market segments and become the elusive ‘killer application’, the industry abounds with unfulfilled promises and unexploited potential. Therefore, the challenge for the network operators is to economically exploit the capability and capacity of the network service environment. It is necessary to open the network’s service capabilities and make them available to the new IT-oriented application and service development environments. This can be done with what we call a carrier-network operating system. Like traditional operating systems, these provide an interface to the machine’s–in this case, the telecom network’s–without need for special knowledge of telecom networks, drivers, interrupts, protocols, triggers, circuit switching, IP (SIP) and the like. A carrier-network operating system provides a set of software functions to access capabilities within the telecom network. The 3GPP/ETSI and Parlay Group standards bodies have been defining these functions. Open Service Access (OSA) applications programming interfaces allow programmers to easily incorporate functions for individual telecom network services such as call control and charging, among others within Standard Java and Enterprise Java environments. This permits embedding OSA within standard software tools enabling developers to create network applications that use business logic. This is a subtle and significant change to creating applications that are simply delivered by the network. There are powerful, revenue generating services that use both IT and network service capabilities. The virtual PBX is a web-based PBX integrated with corporate IT groupware; it permits replacing fixed-line by mobile phones. It can replace an enterprise’s traditional switchboard attendant and totally replace fixed-line phones with mobile phones, without losing the functions provided by a PBX attendant. When integrated with an enterprise’s IT systems, it can provide sophisticated call reception and PBX functions at a fraction of the cost of a traditional PBX and can provide diary logging, as well as presence, location and role information for each of the company’s employees. Such services will use the carrier-network operating system’s call handling, messaging, presence and location capabilities. Push-to-talk over cellular (PoC) services, powered by IP Multimedia Subsystems, can also be integrated with the virtual PBX. All in all, the virtual PBX can provide the enterprise with much more powerful and cost effective communications services and increase mobile operator call rates and value added service usage. Until now services and applications were either heavy-duty, in-house services implemented by the operators themselves, or message-oriented content services. By opening the network to their enterprise and individual customer bases and to partners so they can provide new content services, operators can better exploit the value of their networks. The use of web services-based, service-oriented architectures provides global standardisation for the process of service creation. A major carrier recently launched an open, standards-based, set of APIs–applications programming interfaces. Using these APIs, companies can put together a compelling features bundle for on-demand communications. Companies can build applications that determine device/resource status and the precise device location. They can also provide intelligent messaging for instant communication and information delivery. Specially built enterprise systems can increase mobile worker productivity, reduce costs and improve customers’ satisfaction. Imagine, for example, a tyre company that has problems locating and dispatching the nearest roadside assistance vehicles, supporting multiple vendors and verifying orders. With one phone call, a specially built enterprise application locates the nearest available resource with the required parts. An interface with the customer’s corporate procurement system, over the extended wireless data network, processes the fulfilment and completes the transaction in real time, reducing billing and procurement errors and improving overall customer communications. The definition of carrier-network operating systems allows software companies to offer standards-based solutions today. By fusing disparate service elements into a service enablement layer, benefits are starting to accrue in terms of innovation and revenues. Importantly, these new concepts make the network itself an enabler–it is the services that the networks make possible that contain value and opportunity. Powered by the IT software architecture and enabled by the carrier-network operating systems, telecom service creation is no longer different from IT service creation; the worlds of IT and telecommunications are converging.