Netcracker’s AVP: Is This the Right Approach to SDN and NFV?

I had an opportunity this week to look over some material from Netcracker on their notion of a “digital service provider”, part of the documentation that relates to their Agile Virtualization Platform concept.  I also reviewed what was available on the technology and architecture of AVP.  I find the technology fascinating and the research and even terminology a little confusing.

Netcracker is an OSS/BSS player, of course, and as such they represent an interesting perspective on the transformation game.  My surveys say that the OSS/BSS vendors are obviously more engaged with the CIO, but they are also better-connected with the CFO and CEO and less connected with the COO and CTO.  That makes them almost the opposite of the network equipment vendors, and that alone means that their vision could be helpful in understanding what’s going on.  It’s also a chance to compare their views with what I’ve learned in my own contacts with operators, so let’s start at the top.

What exactly is a “Digital Service Provider” or “digital transformation” to use the TMF term?  Obviously not just a provider of digital services because “digital” in a strict sense is all there is these days.  I think what both concepts are getting at is that operators need to be able to create a wider variety of services more efficiently and quicker, which means that software and IT have to play a larger role—perhaps even the dominant role.  So the notion of AVP is to facilitate that.

What drives operators to want a digital transformation, says the material, is almost completely reactive.  Customers demand it, revenue gains depend on it, competition is doing it…these are indications of a market driven by outside forces rather than one trying to get ahead of the curve.  It’s not that operators are being dragged kicking and screaming into the transformation, perhaps, but they are surely not romping off on their own accord.

The barriers to achieving the transformation are equally interesting, or at least one point is.  Operators told Netcracker that technical factors like operations and integration was the most important inhibitor only about a quarter of the time.  Factors like staffing and skills and culture were far more important in the survey, and perhaps most interesting of all was the fact that only about 15% of operators seemed to be groping for solutions—the rest said they either had transformed or were well on their way.

I have to confess I have a bit of a problem with these points, for two reasons.  First, it would seem the survey shows that AVP is too late and doesn’t address the main issue set, which is skills and culture and not technology.  Second, it’s hard to see how Netcracker or anyone else would have much of a shot at solving market problems if 85% of the buyers don’t need a new approach.

My own surveys have yielded different responses.  The overwhelming majority of operators tell me that their driver for change is profit compression for connection-oriented services.  Only a small percentage (and almost all of them Tier Ones or MSPs) have an approach lined up, and an even smaller percentage says they’ve made substantial progress implementing one.  Thus, my own data seems to make Netcracker’s case for opportunity more strongly.

Interestingly, a different Netcracker document, the AVP brochure, frames it differently.  There the big problem is network resource and configuration, staff and culture second and third, with cost and operations processes and systems trailing.  This brochure also lays out three reasons for the “slow process” (recall that the other one says only 15% are lagging).  These are commercialization uncertainty, operational complexity, and organizational misalignment.  The last of these corresponds to the staff/culture point and I’d say that the other two are different perspectives on the “resources and configuration”, “cost”, and “operations processes and systems”.  I don’t think the inconsistencies here are fatal issues, but they do create a bit of confusion.

My surveys say that operators are generally committed to a two-prong approach.  In the near term, they believe that they have to make operations processes more efficient and agile, and they believe this has to be done by introducing a lot of software-driven automation.  In the longer term, they believe that they need to find revenue beyond connection-based services.

AVP is interesting from a technology perspective, perhaps even compelling.  Netcracker says it’s made up of composable microservices, and that sounds like the approach that I think is essential to making OSS/BSS “event-driven”.  Unfortunately, there aren’t enough details provided in any of the material for me to assess the approach or speculate on how complete it might be.  For the record, I requested a complete slide deck from them and I’ve not received one.

AVP is a Netcracker roadmap that has many of the characteristics (and probably all of the goals) that operators’ own architectures (AT&T and Verizon’s recent announcements for example) embody.  Their chart seems to show four primary elements—a professional services and knowledge-exchange practice, enhanced event-driven operations processes, a cloud deployment framework that would host both operations/management software and service elements, and the more-or-less expected SDN/NFV operations processes.  Netcracker does have its own E2E orchestration product, but the details on the modeling it uses and how it links to the rest of the operations/management framework aren’t in the online material.

If operators’ visions of a next-gen architecture are valid (and after all the operators should be the benchmark for validity) then the Netcracker model is likewise, but it does have some challenges when it’s presented by a vendor and without specific reference to support for operator models.  My surveys say that the big problems are the state of SDN/NFV and the political gap that’s inherent in the model itself.

Remember who OSS/BSS vendors call on?  The CIO is surely a critical player in the network of the future, and might even be the critical player in both the operations-efficiency and revenue-agility goals.  However, they aren’t the ones that have been pushing SDN and NFV—that’s been primarily the CTO gang.  Operators are generally of the view that if there is any such thing as a “digital transformation” of infrastructure, SDN and NFV are the roots of it.  Interestingly they are also of the view that the standards for SDN and NFV don’t cover the space needed to make a business case—meaning fulfill either the cost-control or revenue goal I’ve already cited.  So we have CIOs who have the potential to be the play-makers in both benefits, the OSS/BSS vendors (including Netcracker) who could engage them…and then across a gap the CTOs who are driving infrastructure change.

Properly framed, the Netcracker model could not only link the layers of humans and technology that have to be linked to produce a unified vision of the network of the future.  Properly framed, it could even harmonize SDN and NFV management from within, and then with operations management.  It’s easier for me to see this being done from the top, from the OSS/BSS side, than from the bottom.  But it’s not going to happen by itself.  Vendors, operators, and even bodies like the TMF at whose event Netcracker made its presentation, need to take the process a little more seriously.  Absent a unified, credible, approach from benefits to networks, operator budgets will just continue their slow decline under profit pressure.

I think OSS/BSS vendors have a great opportunity.  My research and modeling shows that an operations-centric evolution of network services could produce most of the gains in efficiency and agility that have been claimed for SDN and NFV.  Without, of course, the fork-lift change in infrastructure.  That story should be very appealing to operators and of course to the OSS/BSS types, but what seems to be happening is a kind of stratification in messaging and in project management.  Operations vendors sing to CIOs, network equipment vendors to CTOs, and nobody coordinates.  Maybe they all need to take an orchestration lesson themselves.