Reinvigorating the Telecom Back Office with a Pace-Layered Strategy

Rich Baughman, VP-IT, Shentel
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The telecom back office is perceived very differently depending on who is asked. If employees across all departments were asked to describe their impressions about the applications they use every day to run the business, the responses would range  from stable, reliable, and predictable to old, slow to change, and inflexible. The truth is, all of these descriptions are accurate, but that doesn’t mean they have to stay that way.

"By creating and documenting APIs, IT teams can develop new layers of functionality and user interfaces that will allow them to react quicker to changing business needs while maintaining the stability and performance of the core systems"

For some companies, the initial reaction when dealing with the perception of these systems is to consider replacing them. However, changing out the back-office systems isn’t always a viable option due to the costs associated with such a change as well as the impact to the business. In addition, these systems normally do a very good job at the primary tasks they were built for and don’t need to be replaced. That being the case, the question becomes:

How can these systems be changed to make them more dynamic so that business changes can be made more quickly than the core systems can change?

One effective way of answering this question is to open up these core backoffice systems and surround them with a new layer of applications. The best way of opening up these systems is to create Application Protocol Interfaces (APIs) that expose all of the key features and functions needed for day to- day operations. By creating and documenting these APIs, IT teams can develop new layers of functionality and user interfaces that will allow them to react quicker to changing business needs while maintaining the stability and performance of the core systems.

These surrounding layers of software can be built using newer technologies and following more of an agile strategy, where  developers and the business work together to create, test, and modify new functionality in a matter of days or weeks. This is completely different than how changes are made to the core systems, which normally follow a very structured development lifecycle that include detailed requirements and release cycles that can often take six or more months to get developed and deployed. The ability to implement changes in days or weeks rather than months also gets the business more engaged with the IT team because needs are getting met more rapidly.

The concept described above has been formalized into a well defined strategy by Gartner, which they call the Pace-Layered Application Strategy. In Gartner’s “Best Practices for Implementing a Pace-Layered Architecture Strategy” by Dennis Gaughan there are three layers of applications defined. These are:

Systems of Record—Established packaged applications or legacy homegrown systems that support core transaction processing and manage the organization’s critical master data. The rate of change for regular updates is slow (every six to twelve months) and these applications have a long life cycle. The processes are well-established and common to most organizations, and often are subject to regulatory requirements.

Systems of Differentiation— Applications that enable unique company processes or industry-specific capabilities. They have a medium life cycle (two to five years), but need to be reconfigured frequently (three to six months) to accommodate changing business practices or customer requirements.

• Systems of Innovation—New applications that are built on an adhoc basis to address new business requirements or  opportunities. These are typically projects with a short life cycle (three to twelve months) that use departmental or outside resources.

Unlike systems of record that have been around for long-time, systems of innovation will be built using newer languages and/or tools that allow for fast development. There are two primary options for IT teams for these implementations. The first is to use some of the latest development languages like .NET that can easily tie into web-services and create flexible, web-based user interfaces. The second is to utilize new application appliances that simplify the coding concept. These appliances can import the web-services that were built to access the systems of record, create workflows using drag and drop tools, and create screen templates based on the data that is available from the APIs. By using one or both of these options, IT teams can deliver new functionality in weeks rather than months.

So what kinds of things can be done in this new innovation layer? Logic that could be difficult to add to the core systems, such as data validations, can be developed in the new front-end at a much faster pace and because of the way these are built, they can also be modified rapidly if needs/plans change. In addition, with the ability to expose core system data via APIs, new front-ends can be created for users to enhance how day-to-day functions are performed.

Imagine creating a consultative sales front-end for customer service representatives that asks customers what they want to use services for and what kinds of equipment they are interested in and based on that, automatically recommend certain service bundles that best meet these needs according to cost and location. Once that framework exists, this same functionality can be exposed to sales people (door-to-door and in stores) and even directly to existing and potential customers on the company website and also on branded mobile applications.

Creating these new application layers is becoming more critical as both the industry and the competition continues to change. Customers have increasing options for selecting service providers and as these services start to become commodities, companies will need to differentiate themselves with branding and customer service. By creating new applications at the innovation layer, IT teams can support their internal customers more effectively. This will allow their companies to better support customers and remain competitive for years to come.

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