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SofNet 2008: Soft-what?

May 1, 2008 - 0 Comments

logo_header2.gifI’m in London this week for a Next Generation Network conference that I’ve been attending each of the last four years. The first two times, the conference was very much around the transformation of service provider networks from TDM to IP with BT’s 21st Century Network being the shining example -and rightly so, considering their ground-breaking effort firmly puts them as one of the leaders of the industry. Last year, the conference moved to Milan, where the topic was IMS, or IP Multimedia Subsystem. While many of the vendors were jumping on the IMS bandwagon with abandon, Cisco has what I believe to be a more balanced view of IMS. Rather, instead of looking at it as an end-all-be-all approach to deliver services over the IP network, a provider should look at it as one potential part of the solution but not the only one needed. Because IMS is based on SIP, it can’t support many high demand and important current and future services that are non-SIP, from web-browsing to IPTV -and many of the services to be delivered over IMS, such as VoIP, are already delivered over IP in a non-SIP fashion, making its value quite questionable. Add lengthy standards body procedures into the mix, and it makes sense not to bet everything that IMS is going to be an SP savior.Interestingly enough, at the same conference this year, back in London, IMS is barely mentioned and when it is, it is only in a small context role or when talking about historical efforts. Instead, this year the main theme of the conference is”Sofnet” which is software+network. The thinking by some, many of whom are quite respected in the industry, is that in order to compete with over-the-top players, such as google, which can deliver services far faster than most traditional providers, these providers need to move to be more about software themselves, being what some have referred to as a telco moving to a”softco.” Ok, so I understand the general direction that they are taking, and to some extent agree with it but fear it is being taken to an extreme, and in the process, losing site of the advantages they bring. Plus, I have a few issues with this”softco” notion:

1) SPs have always had software -whether it was in their infrastructure, such as Cisco IOS, their Billing or Operations Systems, or databases, software was a fundamental part of their business. Instead, I’d argue that they just need to put greater emphasis on software for the role of service creation, much as they are doing with TelePresence and other visual networking applications today.2) Providers shouldn’t want to be like Google. Here me out here — Google is doing great, and should be lauded on their success. But service providers have invested billions in their infrastructure and instead of trying to duplicate what a challenger is doing in the way they are doing, the provider industry should be focused more a few moves ahead, much like a chess game. In my opinion, providers will be much better off focusing on the differentiators that their network can give their heightened application play as well as that of others. If they create a robust, reliable platform, and provide means for other applications to take advantage of the benefits it delivers (for a price, of course), then all parties win -the SP gets more revenue, the application provider can give more reliable and even tiered offerings, and the customer gets a better experience. 3) Lastly, perhaps it’s my military background, but in general, I don’t think providers should be”soft” -they are titans of industry, delivering all aspects of communications and helping to not only bring the world closer but to also help turn it into more of a community. Soft? Not in my book.

Some of these thoughts were summed but J.P. Rangaswami, Managing Director, Service Design at BT (and one of the most thought-provoking speakers I’ve heard in quite some time): “Sofnet is not a concept of tomorrow, but rather what the industry is trying to catch up to today.” I’ll go even further, because as the industry has looked at some of the latest trends, whether it be IMS or the ill-fated PBT, they have embraced it with too much enthusiasm with the hype pendulum swinging far to one side. Instead, I believe, the pendulum is best suited more in the middle, to adopt some of the best practices of other industries and challengers with what they have at their disposal them -a hardened IP platform full of possibilities and opportunities for themselves, their partners, and their customers. Nothing soft about that at all.- DougPS. I’ll write about some other observations from the conference in the weeks ahead, and will definitely plan to attend again next year. Because despite some cold, rainy weather, and a disconnect on name or hype cycle, the conference is a great forum to exchange ideas. Plus, you can’t help but being amazed at how much potential this industry has to quite literally change the world.

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