Back-end support vital to IMS push

IMS, which has been around for years as a 3GPP standard in the cellular world, enables telcos to monetize their IP networks by giving them much-needed control over their bit pipes. It reinstates a model in which telcos can add legitimate value and charge for it.
While IMS promises telcos the capability to more quickly implement a wealth of new convergent services for individual customers, carriers will need to have best-of-breed BSS and OSS systems in place to gain all the benefits IMS promises.
'BSS and OSS are telcos' spinal cords that support whatever fancy plans they have or IMS services, so they need to be sure that their BSS and OSS systems can support IMS,' says Arindam Banerjee, senior analyst for telecom software strategies at Yankee Group. 'IMS has a lot of impact in how you rate or bill sessions, because it's pretty different than the way it was done previously.'
Specifically, real-time charging capability is becoming extremely important in the IMS environment, especially with the advent of 3G, mobile data and video content.
It is particularly important for operators to increase revenues when dealing with third-party or unsolicited services. In many cases, third parties will be involved in providing both digital content and multimedia. Many commercial offers and promotions (such as a discount the subscriber can accept or reject) will be made in real-time, so the calculations must also be done in real-time, says Graham Cobb, director of IMS product marketing at Telcordia Technologies.
In other words, the IMS system must handle complex promotions, discounts and settlements with multiple parties across a wide variety of services and media.
The rating/billing systems must also enable the operator to offer creative pricing plans as a point of differentiation, as well as rapidly integrate new service delivery platforms so that operators can introduce new services, rate plans and promotions in days, minutes or even seconds, not months.
'IMS is all about services. The whole purpose of IMS is to enable innovative services and to allow operators to move away from competing on just voice-call pricing,' Cobb says. 'So, it is critical that the new services can be charged for in a flexible and cost-effective way.'
In addition to the billing side, IMS will also bring a set of new requirements to the OSS systems. Burt Sky, director of research, carrier operations and strategies at Gartner, says telcos need to consider how they converge IMS services at the back-office to the OSS side. Telcos, for instance, need to plan in advance the network and session management with a full set of rich features that allows the end-user to access, activate and experience the services in a timely and responsive manner with the level of quality expected.

BSS/OSS convergence
This can be referred to as the service fulfillment portion where OSS vendors enable a complete suite of integrated functionality leveraging a single database with managed rules and processes, he says. 'This is very different than in today's point applications that address discrete areas such as inventory management and trouble ticketing.'
Recently announced partner relationships with Amdocs and Cramer, he adds, demonstrate the evolution of not just billing but the convergence of BSS and OSS as the critical next phase of the business and operational requirements.


According to research firm OSS Observer, telcos' OSS spending to support IMS will grow from $30 million this year to $500 million in 2011 at a CAGR of 72%. While real-time convergence will drive early growth, the need to control operational costs, rapidly deliver new services and provide a reliable customer experience will drive spending on horizontal, multi-service OSS solutions in 2007 and beyond, according to the OSS Observer.
OSS Observer says Europe is currently ahead of North America and Asia-Pacific in terms of IMS spending, but all three regions will see significant IMS spending in 2006. While mobile services such as video sharing have been the early drivers for equipment spending, fixed services such as IP Centrex and IP telephony are now becoming more significant. Converged services using dual-mode handsets will also drive IMS spending in 2007.

Phased approach
To help carriers migrate their billing and OSS system to support IMS, billing vendors and telecom equipment vendors are adopting a strategy to enable the interfacing of multiple billing systems using standard interfaces based on Diameter - the base protocol in IMS for charging and credit control. The strategy has been designed to meet the IETF's requirements for authentication, authorization and accounting.
Jean-Charles Doineau, senior analyst at Ovum, says traditional IT billing vendors have been deploying a real-time billing approach at an IT level for quite a while, with an off-switch or off advanced intelligent network value proposition, or deploying mediation tools on top of prepaid systems. They now basically keep the same approach and add Diameter interfaces to their systems, if these interfaces don't exist already. Telecom vendors, on the other hand, are doing the same, but leveraging an IN-based value proposition.
Apart from implementing Diameter protocol, vendors are also trying to make sure that their solutions are also complaint with eTom and other standards by the Telemanagement Forum, says Banerjee of Yankee Group.
Given that the IMS service business case is not yet proven, Doineau recommends carriers should first move to convergent prepaid and posted billing by putting in IMS interfaces.
Some industry players also contend that telcos should adopt a phased approach to replacing their legacy billing and OSS systems, instead of the immediate 'rip and replace' approach in migrating to IMS.
Brian McCann, director of product marketing at Portal Software, says the best strategy for carriers moving from their current legacy environment to IMS is to gradually replace the legacy billing infrastructure by focusing on achieving an ROI for each and every phase. Industry data shows that a transitional approach to any software project has a much higher chance of success and carries less risk than the 'big bang,' he says.
McCann adds that most transitional replacements involve first supporting the new services (such as IPTV, VoIP or content/video) while still maintaining a single view of the customer. Over time the legacy services are transferred over to the new IMS-enabled solution.
Some carriers, meanwhile, choose to deploy a low-risk solution provided by vendors like Telcordia, says Cobb at Telcordia. This allows operators to essentially retain their existing billing system but add a real-time charging solution between the network and the billing system. This strategy, Cobb notes, allows them to get the benefits of converged real-time charging, while managing risk and leapfrog competitors waiting for more evidence.

Integration challenges


While IMS provides a compelling architecture for operators to launch new services, there are still a number of obstacles and barriers to widespread adoption. For one, IMS is still a few years away from being fully mature.
Another problem is that vendors and carriers define IMS slightly differently, Sky adds. He cites Diameter as an example that also applies to the back office.  'Diameter is a protocol and it is generic,' he says. 'We find that carriers like BT, Vodafone and the like are creating their own little favorite way on how Diameter is applied in their network infrastructure and everybody else has adopted it within their own carrier environment.'
With so many people coming out with their versions of IMS, this will make it difficult for billing vendors to keep the standard/protocol generic. That's where system integrators come in, he adds.
System integrators will create the final piece of the puzzle that links IMS between the billing vendors and the network equipment vendors or software providers.  'They are going to link it together and create a library of interfaces to adopt any kind of different IMS favorites that each carrier may want to have,' he says.
System integrators also will play an important role in helping carriers resolve the complex and unique integration issues carriers face in IMS migration, Yankee Group's Banerje points out. 'Carriers will face challenges when integrating existing networks, devices, user interfaces, service platforms, OSSs, customer portals, billing systems and customer care systems,' he says. 'Trusted and knowledgeable systems integrators can ease the pain of the carriers for a price.'
Although IMS will help eliminate the existing stovepipe model in today's telecom infrastructure, some industry players worry that network operators and their equipment vendors will replicate the  IN model and end up creating a new group of IMS silos.
Like IN, IMS comes with several revisions, and most are not yet standardized.
Gartner's Sky says telcos must be careful not to lock in their products to specific vendor ware. Carriers should take a more proactive role in driving the development and evolution of the IMS standards, he adds. 'That's kind of the area in that carriers should focus, because only carriers know their own business and network topology.'

Don't miss the boat on IMS

Adopting IMS architecture is not an easy task for telcos because it involves many variables. For one thing, IMS is not yet fully mature. While the overall IMS architecture has been clearly defined by 3GPP, all the pieces needed from the software, hardware and the device management sides are not standardized.
However, this doesn't mean telcos should adopt a wait-and-see strategy and hold back on their IMS implementation plans until the challenges are resolved. Instead, they should jump on the IMS bandwagon now by adopting a phased approach so that they won't miss the boat, says Arindam Banerjee, senior analyst of telecom software strategies at Yankee Group.
Telcos should roll out a few IP-based services, for example, and insure that these services are IMS-compliant. 'They should introduce them to the market in limited trials to iron out QoS and other technical issues before offering them to the whole market,' he says.


'So they gradually build on it, and later on when they are really in the mood, or you have funds to roll out full-IMS architecture, it won't be too late.'
Already many large telcos are either gradually adopting this architecture or planning to do so in the near future.  He expects to see some live IMS deployments in Europe and North America in 2007 or 2008. Telefonica and Vodafone, for example, might have their IMS deployment live by early 2007.
Banerjee says that OSS and BSS vendors also must also position themselves correctly and make their presence felt early. 'Carrier reference will be critical for success. The earlier the vendors can get carrier references, the sooner they will be able to consolidate their position in the market.'
The easiest way to jump on the IMS bandwagon is to hook up with traditional telecom equipment vendors like Alcatel, Lucent or Nortel, which are trying to come up with an end-to-end IMS solution, he notes.
Indeed, a slew of partnerships and strategic relationships have been announced during the past 12 months.  Alcatel, for instance, launched its end-to-end, triple-play IPTV BSS/OSS solution and has integrated its application server and service creation environment with applications from its strategic OSS partners such as BEA, Cramer, Micromuse and Syndesis. Nortel has launched its CMS portfolio and is working with strategic partners including IBM, MetaSolv, Sonim Technologies and Ubiquity Software.
Banerjee says this trend will continue because no single vendor can provide all the pieces to the network value chain.  'Getting on the IMS bandwagon early in the cycle will prove profitable because there will be enough spending on IMS in the next few years to justify the R&D expenditure to get into this market.'
- Fiona Chau