TAKING STOCK: INVENTORY MANAGEMENT GROWS UP
Networks are beginning to develop minds of their own, routing data and using assets by whatever whim their algorithms fancy. That makes proper network inventory--the perennial bane of a network operator's existence and the most elusive goal of the back office--command the attention it has long deserved by biting inattentive service providers in the OSS.
Despite all the changes telecom has gone through since the upheaval of divestiture in 1984 — the introduction of digital technology and packet data, new competition and the growth of wireless — one support system has steadfastly held its place in the annals of network operations: TIRKS, the trunk integrated record keeping system developed by Bellcore in 1974.
But its long run as the pre-eminent network inventory system is coming to a slow end. While TIRKS and the ancillary systems that grew up around it have survived many changes in the industry, each event has chipped away at its ability to stand alone in support of carrier networks.
TYPICAL UNUSED CAPACITY
The system still has a long future. Even the innovators — Telcordia Technologies included — that hope one day to replace TIRKS recognize they must be patient. And they must learn to work with the clumsy giant before chopping away at its knees.
What will eventually stand in its place is a service resource management system that is the heart of the OSS rather than its third eye.
“TIRKS is not something that you can rip out and throw away. It just won't happen,” said Sanjay Mewada, director of The Yankee Group's telecom e-business practice. Mewada said replacing TIRKS must be done in phases.
Kimber Lewis, Cramer Systems' president of North American operations, agreed. “Nobody is going to fire Telcordia or decommission TIRKS. It would be fundamentally impossible at this point,” she said.
However, Cramer and other leading inventory management vendors such as Granite Systems, MetaSolv Software, Telcordia and newcomers such as NetCracker Technology and Visionael aim to do just that — eventually.
Although TIRKS is still the bedrock of incumbent carriers' time division multiplexed (TDM) networks, it is not pervasive throughout the industry. The system has proved too expensive and unable to handle the new technologies being adopted by start-up service providers and wireless carriers.
It also is not perfect. Today, most inventory systems poorly reflect the actual state of the service provider network. Databases in well-run operations are at most 80% accurate, according to a recent study by The Yankee Group, and on average they are only 40% to 60% accurate. With reconciliation tools and proper operational procedures, The Yankee Group study found database accuracies of more than 95% could be achieved, saving rework time by 10% to 20%.
To be that accurate, inventory management systems need more flexible, open architectures that can integrate with other systems.
“It's the challenge of reconciling the network as it was designed, the network as it was built and the network as it exists,” Mewada said. Because the network is affected by network planners, provisioning and maintenance personnel, those three states easily get misaligned.
Prior to 1984, AT&T owned it all — the network and the inventory system that supported it. By 1984, nearly everyone associated with the old AT&T system had implemented a version of TIRKS.
TIRKS “is based on the way the job was done manually at one time, and the processes were mechanized year after year until we got to the size TIRKS is [now],” said George Cray, executive director of SBC customer solutions for Telcordia.
TIRKS evolved into one of the most complex, robust and largest software systems ever developed. However, 1984 provided one of the system's first major evolutionary challenges. It was the year of divestiture, which created AT&T and seven independent Bell companies — all with separate inventory requirements.
“It would be off-base to say divestiture wasn't a major headache — it was,” said Ron Armellino, executive director of network provisioning systems for Telcordia. “The good news was that the inventory movement was all mechanized, and we were able to move those systems between the long-distance and RBOC businesses.”
Inaccurate network inventory can trace its roots to a number of factors:
Putting Ma Bell into the old folks home was just one of the major hurdles inventory management had to overcome. The proliferation of data and the introduction of synchronous network technologies such as Sonet in the mid-1980s and synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH), its European counterpart, posed a new challenge. Service providers were not dealing with just TDM anymore.
“Sonet was a big challenge in inventory management because of the behavior of the equipment. It no longer [depended] on time slots,” Cray said. TIRKS was able to accommodate Sonet, although according to Granite Chief Marketing Officer Mark Mortensen, it took two-and-a-half years to accomplish.
As the network evolved, however, carriers and Telcordia, their sole supplier at the time, were forced to rethink network inventory management.
Soon thereafter, Telcordia began developing its new paradigm. The company's Network Configuration Manager was built to be interactive with these new network elements, taking advantage of such capabilities as auto-discovery. It also was based on a common information model, which has become the foundation of Telcordia's new Integrated Operations Infrastructure.
Not all the changes for inventory management were prompted by technical innovation. The Telecom Act of 1996, designed primarily to promote competition among service providers, also ushered in a highly competitive software environment for OSS, including network inventory management software.
“For an industry that hasn't changed a lot, the last five years have been a whirlwind,” said Julie Wingerter, vice president of strategy for NetCracker, an inventory company moving in from the enterprise space. The next few years may be just as wild, despite cutbacks in overall service provider spending.
This market, which The Yankee Group refers to as service resource management (SRM), remains a healthy one. “With a combination of incumbent and new players in addressable markets, SRM systems [will] represent a $2.7 billion subsection of the communications industry [by 2004],” Mewada said.
Granite joined Yankee in coining the term “service resource management” to reflect the need not only for traditional physical configuration but for logical configuration, software configuration management and the ability to map services to them. “An SRM system is an inventory management system all grown up,” Mortensen said.
Cramer Systems, a recent European import, uses its own nomenclature for the inventory space it serves but agrees that the term “inventory” does not do the market justice.
“Inventory is critical to the success of any of the emerging providers as well as optimizing the operational efficiencies of the incumbent providers,” Lewis said. “However, ‘inventory solutions’ is sort of a misnomer in that it has been packaged in a way that service providers think they will get instant operational efficiency if they can document their inventory. That's not necessarily true.”
That's a lesson not lost on TDS Metrocom's Brian Friedl, OSS manager of planning and implementation. “You can have the best system in the world, but if you don't know what your process is and how you're going to manage your inventory, you're not going to find it in a system,” Friedl said.
TDS Metrocom has been doing business with MetaSolv since March 1998. The company uses MetaSolv's Telecom Business Solution, or TBS, for tracking inventory and managing orders. “If you're a CLEC that's going to make it in this tough industry, you can't be second-guessing where your inventory is,” Friedl said. “You have to know what your inventory and capacity is at all times, and you have to be able to quickly assign that inventory on a per order basis.”
MetaSolv continued to evolve its TBS along these lines, combining inventory with order management and service activation. Other vendors such as Granite stayed focused on inventory. Both have met a great deal of success in the last few years.
SRM Systems manage and automate the following engineering functions:
Source: The Yankee Group
But ultimately the flurry of business enabled by the Telecom Act could not be sustained. The growth software vendors planned for was thwarted by the stunted growth of the CLEC market they served. And it was time to retool once more.
“When you think about the rise and demise of the CLEC community — what went right and what went wrong — they might have overbuilt their networks, but they also didn't manage their OSS infrastructure properly,” Lewis said.
CLECs weren't the only ones with that problem. Many wireless operators are still struggling to put inventory management systems in place. Verizon Wireless is just now in the process of implementing Granite's Xpercom inventory management system. With its acquisition of GTE and portions of Ameritech Cellular, Verizon's inventory troubles were compounded. GTE was still using TIRKS, and Ameritech was using paper.
“In areas where we have fully deployed [Granite], it has decreased costs significantly,” said Scott Frost, director of wireless network engineering applications for Verizon Wireless. “So when we have it [fully] deployed, it will be pretty critical to our bottom line.”
For such a high-tech community, taking inventory management seriously has been a long time coming. As the industry moves into the next generation, these same vendors will make sure inventory is at the forefront of any new network buildout.
MetaSolv renamed its TBS solution MetaSolv Solutions in February to capitalize on its name and exhibit a broader focus — and perhaps to better address the enterprise space. The company also will add location-based management capabilities through its acquisition in July of Montreal-based Lat45 Information Systems, a provider of geospatial software for network design and planning.
Meanwhile, Granite will migrate Xpercom to a new Xng platform that addresses next-gen networks. Cramer joins the fray from Europe, where it has had success with emerging and incumbent carriers with its inventory-centric service provisioning model. And NetCracker brings to market its Web-based enterprise solutions.
Telcordia will remain focused on the Tier 1 market, but it is working toward some of the same goals as its competitors: open systems and a common information model that puts inventory at the center of the OSS, a migration path to next-gen networks and Web-enabled access to the inventory that makes it a business tool as well as an engineering tool.
And all this enables the most important direction for inventory management: service fulfillment.
“It's not just about being able to document your inventory. It's being able to use that inventory,” Cramer's Lewis said. “You need to be able to turn up services and turn down services. You truly need to be as efficient as a manufacturing plant.”
While activating service has always been a function of the inventory, it is now becoming a matter of survival. “The future of inventory is being able to map specific services or being able to deploy a service and map it precisely from an overall inventory perspective,” Yankee Group's Mewada said.
In order to map services precisely across a network to several independent network elements, inventory systems will need to better communicate with those elements as well as other OSSs. Said Verizon's Frost: “The key to any system really becoming effective in is it has to talk with other systems, leveraging the information with those systems.”
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