Making Networks Smarter

Signs of intelligent layers: Xacct eases reworking of data networks

The Internet was built by ivory-tower engineers and it shows: the smartest networks are as dumb as a bucket when it comes to making a buck.

More and more managers in charge of developing Internet Protocol-based services are discovering that data networks carrying IP traffic dont have what it takes to provide billable information. Moreover, they dont have what it takes to monitor traffic that goes through carriers wires.

Some of the biggest IP network operators lack the technology to gather even basic information on their traffic -- whos making connections, what kinds of services are being bought, how long sessions last -- which gives new meaning to the concept of "dumb pipes." Carriers from Colt Telecom Group to Genuity all share this same problem.

Circuit-switched networks might seem prehistoric, but when it comes to making a dollar, they could be compared to working adults while IP network operators are still teen-agers burning though a trust fund set up by a rich uncle.

Data networks inability to monitor new applications and bill for them creates a major problem for service providers interested in using their bandwidth to launch premium services: Voice-over-IP, interactive TV or tiered usage plans for bandwidth hogs.

Rolling out these services without a major network overhaul, on the fly, presents a problem for most carriers.

Fraught With Trouble

Take, for example, Portugals TV Cabo, a major cable operator passing 2.3 million homes in a country where only 3.5 million homes have a TV. The company decided to go digital with its cable service, and then top off its cable modem and digital cable offerings by becoming one of the first international Microsoft partners to launch an interactive TV initiative. The iTV service has been in beta trials since last December and will roll out commercially in June.

The problem with TV Cabos plan was evident from the outset.

"We wanted to use the same CCB [customer care and billing system] for this new business," says Manuel Sequiera, TV Cabos director of infrastructure deployment. But TV Cabos billing system, supplied by DST Innovis, was not equipped to harvest billable information from Microsofts interactive TV platform.

Nor could it get billable information off Cisco Systems routers, various fiber-optic switches and cable modem termination units, all involved in both delivering the service to TV Cabos customers and establishing their billable identity.

Not that this was a surprise for TV Cabo. DST Innovis multimillion dollar billing platform was purchased to support analog cable TV plans. Preferred or basic cable. Two premium channels or three. Simple stuff. But then came the expansion plans.

Building Is One Thing . . .

"In 1999, as a preparation for the rollout of Interactive TV, we started our data-over-cable business," Sequiera says.

The conversion to digital cable led TV Cabo to the same conclusion that dozens of other service providers in the IP game have reached. Building out a network with partners like Cisco and Nortel Networks that allows carriers to physically provision advanced services and make creative use of carrier bandwidth is one thing. Developing a monitoring, reporting, billable and, eventually, service-provisioning infrastructure that would help them use these magnificent networking assets to make money is an entirely different investment and technological process.

For the missing piece of the puzzle, TV Cabo has turned to Xacct Technologies, a mediation services provider turned intelligence infrastructure designer. The Santa Clara, Calif., company, which rolled out its intelligence layer infrastructure in Portugal over the span of six short weeks, recently recast its Xacct Usage product as a network-to-business application, a manifestation of the new overarching strategy.

"We form the middle layer, linking two isolated parts of customer operation," says Anil Uberoi, Xaccts senior vice president of marketing. "We are like an operating system in your PC: Once your applications are written to Xacct Usage, it automatically guarantees their interoperability with any underlying hardware."

Xacct has a good track record in the industry, having installed its platform to help Genuity and ITC DeltaCom bill for voice-over-IP traffic, Colt to facilitate peering and Bell Nexxia to create billing plans spanning both circuit-switched and IP networks. The vendor is in different stages of installation of its platform with 60 carriers worldwide.

The reason for Xaccts success is obvious: Carriers struggle with building their own intelligence-layer solutions because such software requires ongoing maintenance. For example, updating a Cisco Internet Operating System requires first that new code be downloaded, followed by an update of the N2B intelligence layer application. The more network elements that are involved in the billing and mediation tasks, the more complex this problem becomes.

Another benefit of outsourcing intelligence layer maintenance is easier access to platform upgrades. TV Cabo is the first installation where Xacct has tried a commercial version of its service-provisioning module, which automates service provisioning for customers that want to upgrade, say, from digital cable to interactive TV. The technology is expected to save TV Cabo a lot of money in truck rolls, as customers essentially can self-provision many services that had to be provisioned by technicians.

Theyre Not Alone

Xacct is one of several vendors attacking the intelligence layer market. The lineup of players in this emerging space is as diverse as the Internet itself, some hailing from billing mediation space, and some getting into the game as second-generation dot-commers.

From mediation and billing space come Hewlett-Packard and Narus, with Narus quickly ramping up its own carrier lineup to include Cable & Wireless, Exodus GlobalCenter, Road Runner and Yipes Communications. Agilent Technologies, Micromuse and NetScout Systems emerged from the network-monitoring world. And from Web hosting/managed services come players, including NOCpulse.

And then there are niche players. ISPSoft has emerged to help Internet service providers and carriers make sense of virtual private networks. The company addresses a common problem that Internet managers face: wrestling with different services that do the same thing.

Anand Desai, ISPSofts executive vice president in charge of sales and customer services, joined the company after being a product marketing director at AT&T at the time when the company amassed a number of different VPN setups through various development paths and acquisition.

"I started launching VPN services in 1995, and through the next five years we were scratching our heads trying to figure out which way the market was going to go," Desai says. "Through the period of about four years we ended up with seven different products in the VPN space."

Provisioning seven different VPN and firewall setups on a software level, though one interface, is what ISPSoft offers large carriers like AT&T that have to deal with several product architectures for the same service.

SS7-Style Sharing?

Some vendors say the next step in the intelligence layers evolution will be a Signaling System 7-style interoperability standard. They say vendors will develop standards that allow different intelligence layer systems to communicate with each other. Theoretically, just as a mobile phone customer can roam on a different carriers network, Xacct and Narus-powered intelligence layers sharing information might allow a TV Cabo iTV customer to "roam" on Road Runners network.

But most vendors say a dominant OS is a more likely outcome. They say one intelligence layer system will become the Microsoft of the category, with a couple of strong also-rans nipping at its heels, since intelligence layer-powered services are so different in various IP networking settings, that no single platform will be agile enough to work in them all.

"The space is so diverse that I am not sure that one platform fits all scenarios," Uberoi says.

There is also an expected dissonance as to where in the network the intelligence layer should live.

"There are always going to be people like HP selling client-server environment, but with an intelligence layer you got bits and bytes flying across the glass. Where do you manage that information? At the router," says Paul Santinelli, president of NOCPulse, a managed service provider selling software licenses for its monitoring product.

Breaking Rank

Some vendors, however, are breaking rank and have started to spread the gospel of the unified intelligence layer. The nascent industrys niche credo was summarized for the first time this winter, by James Cashiola at a Frost & Sullivan Fourth Next Generation Internet conference.

"There is a change in the market place, and next-generation infrastructure would have to go through the same process SS7 technology went through years ago," says Cashiola, CEO of intelligence layer vendor Simplified Development.

Simplified is positioning itself as a major player in the market and is offering a product built on the premise that a networks functionality and service provisioning must be moved from the hardware to the software. When most networks are built, they are made with a particular service in mind. Simplifieds platform would move all of the existing functions of a network -- including end-to-end financial management, Web-based network management, Internet self-provisioning, real-time authentication, least-cost routing and flexible rate control -- to the software layer.

How successful the approach will be with carriers remains to be seen; most carriers have only just tapped the intelligence layer in attempt to offer premium services. Still, Cashiola says his platform has been deployed by several "large carriers," though nondisclosure agreements prevent him from revealing their names.