Members of the telecommunications industry love their trendy acronyms and buzzwords, and API – short for application performance interface – is just the latest to dominate the media. As the bridge between software components and the functions they fulfil, APIs are in many ways what connects the concepts of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) – themselves initialisms-du-jour in the current telco landscape.
There’s a little bit of irony tinging the industry’s latest obsession with the nascent term API, as connectivity and communication have defined telco for almost 150 years. Yet only now are experts in the field – from OSS teams to sales and marketing – obsessing over the communication between different software components in delivering the best human-to-human connections to their customers.
It goes without saying that the technology and business functions that telco teams relied on in the past have advanced. Automation through software isn’t necessarily a new development – the wheels have been in motion for nearly four decades. Why then, are APIs consuming the minds of experts across the industry?
Operating networks is expensive. This is not just the equipment itself, but the tools and people necessary to design them, plan them, implement them, and maintain and optimize them. Due to the heavy specialization on all of these teams, both in terms of function – for example, operations versus capacity planning – and by network domain – optical layers, IP, radio access, to name a few – the different stakeholders involved in network operation cannot react in real-time with one another and with the end customer.
New services often mean new equipment, and that means manual effort to setup, deliver, and install that equipment. But if all those elements of provisioning, assuring, and optimizing could be automated, not only would that accelerate operations, but it would also reduce the amount of manual effort that goes into each process and the associated costs. This would therefore enable software-based functions to interact with one-another and the end subscriber via APIs, delivering a significant benefit to all parties involved.
Network access is the number-one driver for the end user. If there is no access where a subscriber requires service, there is no service – period. But coverage can be a challenge and incredibly expensive for a single operator, which makes working with other operators to provide the connectivity and coverage required by the end customer critical for all CSPs.
However, setting up and maintaining that partnership to extend the reach of a service provider’s network to off-net locations is time consuming and costly. However, embracing common information models and protocols – like MEF, for instance – to communicate requirements, capabilities, and provision access between partnering providers creates a truly responsive network service to the end customer, removing any fine print regarding locations or restrictions.
Furthermore, those amalgamations of networks under a single brand projects a vision of a single network to the market. However, the interconnectivity of different properties within such a brand is at times identical to the on-net/off-net situation. With a way of accessing information and sending instructions on requirements for service delivery through an API between partner networks suggests an internet-like ubiquitous network that can be assured for the unique needs of a single customer. In essence, common APIs can enable and accelerate delivery of the ubiquitous network access characteristic of the public internet to a CSP’s customer.
With today’s software-centric network architectures, so many valuable services can be delivered on-demand to end customers. Consider perimeter security services like firewalls, or SD-WAN type services that combine multiple networks, including the internet into one, super-intelligent WAN for the enterprise.
Services like these provide new revenue streams to CSPs that help combat declining ARPU, make up for lost voice revenues and enable synergistic value between connectivity and application required by enterprises. Order-to-cash automation using APIs can translate customer need to operator revenue with a few mouse clicks of the end customer in a CSP-provided portal, increasing the stickiness between operator and subscriber while increasing revenue, per site and per subscriber.
Adherence to standards and collaboration key to useful APIs
Creating APIs to address these challenges is no easy task. The scope of the problem is global, involving people from many different cultures and languages. Therefore, consistency as well as flexibility are critical attributes. That’s where community collaboration is a must.
Today, that collaboration spans traditional methods, such as standards groups like TM Forum as well as more modern methods, such as open source projects like the recently announced ONAP. And then there are hybrid communities working to organize and accelerate these activities such as the MEF, its Third Network Vision driven by its OpenCS and OpenLSO initiatives, along with UNITE to ensure rapid, pragmatic and adoptable solutions are developed and brought to market quickly.
Meanwhile, a toolkit approach is necessary, where suppliers – both software and hardware – ensure their solutions are open and adaptable; incorporating de facto technologies such as REST, and using combinations of open source solutions and supplier optimized software while ensuring alignment with the community (formal or de facto standards). When coupled with the right APIs, this approach can truly drive forward this digital revolution.
While buzzwords are common in the telecommunications space, many of them are fly-by-night and exit the lexicon almost as abruptly as they entered. APIs represent much more than just a passing fad, as they promise to bridge the connectivity gaps that have the most potential to impact both customer experience and service provider revenues.
Christopher Cullan is director of product marketing, business services solution at InfoVista, where he evangelizes the merits of SDN, NFV, Carrier Ethernet and application-aware networks for realizing CSPs’ full potential. Cullan is also InfoVista’s liaison to the MEF, focusing on Carrier Ethernet performance management.
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