Why it’s time to start the journey to Telco SaaS
Maybe you’ve heard the joke about the campers who spied an angry bear charging toward their tent. One sprang to his feet, ready to flee, but the other paused to put on his running shoes. When asked how that could possibly help him outrun the bear, the second camper said, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to run faster than you.”
While maybe not with such a cutthroat attitude, communications service providers (CSPs) have to move fast as disruptive webscalers continue to charge into their territory. They can’t take two or three years to develop an architecture, then create applications, and then work out their interactions with cloudified network functions. They need a good pair of running shoes to gain some ground.
The “shoes” in this case? Telco SaaS (software as a service).
A mainstream idea — just not for CSPs (yet)
All kinds of industries and sectors have jumped on SaaS as a flexible, affordable way to achieve business outcomes and generate value. SaaS is often offered as a subscription, which makes the cost predictable — though there can also be usage-related charges — and it’s underpinned by cloud-native technologies for scalability. Because SaaS is by nature a managed service, patches, upgrades and other routine aspects happen automatically, without any burden on the user.
In its ideal, mature state, SaaS provides a fully digitalized business experience, almost like a digital channel: a business can self-serve to spin it up, trial it and subscribe.
While SaaS hasn’t caught on fully in the telco space, there are some key areas where it can deliver value to CSPs — and is even in demand. One that’s emerged in the last few years of transformation is customer experience (CX) as it relates to the business support systems (BSS) layer. The order-to-cash process has been moving to a SaaS or software-on-demand model for some time, and billing seems likely to follow suit.
Other, adjacent applications are also prime candidates for SaaS provisioning and consumption, including analytics, security management and security assurance. These are network management functions that CSPs should be comfortable converting to a SaaS model. While there may be some discomfort moving SaaS further down the stack, closer to the network, the technology exists to provide it there, too.
SaaS is crucial for CSPs today
5G has caused a massive shift in customer expectations. Consumers want faster speeds, and enterprises are building connectivity into solutions to meet end-to-end business needs. New technologies such as enhanced mobile broadband, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have to be managed; new machine-type and machine-to-machine communication interactions have to be supported; low-latency performance requirements have to be met; time-to-value is a more pressing concern than ever before — and CSPs still have to keep an eye on total cost of ownership (TCO).
All of this demands significant automation, and that opens the door for SaaS to deliver real value. The cloud in general and SaaS specifically can offload a lot of the heavy lifting from the CSP. Because the services are available on demand, they don’t need long lead times to set up. SaaS is built on an open application programming interface (API) layer that CSPs understand well how to use for service consumption. And SaaS offerings are extensible, meaning the base capabilities can always be built on. That allows developers to add value on an ongoing basis, beyond merely integrating functions.
Crawl, walk, run
While SaaS adoption is still in its early stages for CSPs, the industry is well on the road. Network function virtualization (NFV) and the move to “cloud-nativeness” have been key stepping stones. CSPs are already relying on the hyperscaler clouds, and they're only going to get better — and push out to the edge. Telco SaaS is a natural addition to the mix.
What’s important is avoiding the temptation to over-engineer and keeping things simple. At Nokia, we’re thinking about this all the time: about the network and how to shift it to SaaS in part or in whole; and about how to extend and create extensibility by enabling what we call service chains or distributed service chains. These chains are basically ways of making it possible for an enterprise or third party to generate value using SaaS as a foundational component.
It's going to take time to get to where we want to go. But the technology is here, and we are providing the necessary capabilities to support our CSP customers. So let's take the SaaS journey together.