Dawn of the Network Experience Provider

The shift from a supply-led to a demand-led model is challenging the role of the network equipment provider, shifting focus to QoE outcomes.

Telecoms is a funny business. The only thing the industry uniquely does is copy information about faster than the postal service. It’s really not very complicated. Yet in doing so, it generates amazing complexity, and often confusing terminology.

I am supposedly an expert, yet there’s often a moment in meetings when I have to quietly reach for the telecoms dictionary to find out what an SFP, TCAP or TR69 really is when you catch and cage one. There’s a little moment of inner panic when I think “I heard every word you said, yet recognised very few of them.” Yeah, it’s not just you…

I’ve spent 16 years in this strange telco game, and one of the plethora of new telecoms acronyms I’ve had to master is the NEP. I quite like how “nep” flows off the tongue, although it does make me imagine it’s a small Madagascan biting insect that transmits some terrible tropical disease. The reality is rather more mundane: a NEP is a Network Equipment Provider.

NEPs have historically been the bedrock of the telecoms business, since they provider the brains to the network operator’s brawn. (Commentators like me supply the beauty, since you ask.) A common complaint is that the major telcos have lost too much of their own science and engineering capability, making them vulnerable to nasty budget nips from NEPs, due to technical lock-in.

What I am noticing in my work is that a new kind of NEP is needed. Today’s equipment providers treat the end user experience as a thing that happens in a far-off land, the “other side” of the network operator. They aren’t responsible for how all the kit from different suppliers is assembled into a service, cloaking it in a “somebody else’s problem field”.

In this present paradigm, NEPs don’t concern themselves too much with matters like measurement and analytics. They instead sell their equipment based on features of the individual boxes that get installed into racks in data centres and telephone exchanges. Telcos issue RFPs for individual systems, like a DSLAM or base station, and NEPs bid on those requirements.

This is all changing, not least with the transformation of telecoms from a hardware to a software business. The individual systems are less important in this new paradigm, because what matters is the “system of systems” that makes up the whole network. After all, this is what the customer experience is made from, being the result of the interaction of all the subsystems.

Increasingly, NEPs will find themselves contractually on the hook for experience and business outcomes, not just inputs. Rather than being an afterthought, measurement of the delivered experience becomes the anchor from which everything else flows. The individual systems essentially become irrelevant, since their value is only found at the “system of systems” user experience level.

The move to software-driven everything (which is more than just SDN) is a fundamental challenge to the current NEP business model. The network equipment RFP of the near future (to the extent that telcos still buy individual boxes) will inevitably ask “how will I performance integrate your technology?” and “what is the differentiated experience, cost or cycle time that will result?”. If you can’t answer that, you’re not going to sell anything.

We can already see the leading edge of this transition, with Gartner writing about “intent-based networking”, mainstream publications like Forbes picking up on the trend, and companies like CiscoForward Networks, and Apstra all joining the bandwagon. Even the IETF is looking at Intent-based Policy Management [PDF], although I’m not holding my breath for any rigorous QoS engineering.

Who knows, maybe someone might have even figured out the basic maths and science for “intention engineering”, and their technology could be deployed to deliver a network that was “intentional by design”. Wouldn’t that be something!

My money is on such an intentional Network Experience Provider being the industry winner of the future. All of my money, that is — literally.


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