May 10, 2021

Helping Members with Digital Transformations.

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch.

Craig Corbin:

Welcome to the Broadband Bunch, a podcast about broadband and how it impacts all of us. The Broadband Bunch, as always, sponsored by ETI Software.

Craig Corbin:

Hello, everyone and welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch. Thirty-three years ago, a group of eight companies joined to collaboratively solve systems and operational management issues, with OSI protocols, the family of standards for information exchange, consisting of rules that should represent a standard for physical connections, cabling, data formats, transmission models, as well as the means to ensure correction of errors and missing data.

Craig Corbin:

Today, what was originally known as the OSI Network Management Forum, then Tele-management Forum, and now, the TM Forum, has more than 850 member companies, including all 10 of the world’s top 10, largest telecommunications service providers, that collectively generate $2 trillion in revenue and serve more than 5 billion customers, across 180 countries around the globe. TM Forum provides an open, collaborative environment, along with practical tools and information to help its members in their digital transformation initiatives.

Craig Corbin:

Our guest today, George Glass, serves as CTO for the TM Forum. He leads the creation and industry standard, architectural and business transformation patterns, open APIs, AI enabled operations, self-healing autonomous network services and data models, that enable digital service providers to simplify the transformation of their IT and network estate. All of which help drive the digital revolution underway today. Prior to joining TM Forum, George was chief systems architect for British Telecom, leading their architectural transformations for more than 15 years.

Craig Corbin:

During his tenure at BT, he was an active contributor to the TM Forum, received an Outstanding Contributor Award in 2016 and was appointed a TM Forum Distinguished Fellow in 2018. It is a pleasure to have with us today, CTO of the TM Forum, George Glass. George, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

George Glass:

Thanks very much, Craig, and it’s a pleasure to be here. I’m looking forward to our conversation this afternoon, just sharing with you some of my insights into the work that we’re doing at the TM Forum.

Digital Transformation – Helping Optimize the Customer Journey

Craig Corbin:

And it’s so exciting, what’s going on and you take a quick look around all the press releases, all the events that are going on. And before we jump into that, let’s give those who might not be familiar with TM Forum, a bit of background from your perspective.

George Glass:

Yeah, so we’re an industry association. We’re a not-for-profit organization, set up as I said, 33 years ago on BT, who I worked for, for actually 31 years, was one of those founder members in an original organization. We’ve very much been at the heart of telecommunications,, particularly at the telecommunications IT transformation. With the move to initially, SAW based architectures and then more recently, to component and microservice-based architectures that are cloud native, and using those architectural patterns, those techniques, to actually help our members, on their digital transformation journeys.
George Glass:

We work all over the globe, as you said at the outset, we’ve got the top 10, largest telcos in the world, as members. We also are very privileged to have most of the largest vendors into that population, as members as well, within the TM Forum. And we’re somewhat unique as an industry association because we actually foster collaboration between both the operators and the vendors, for the greater good of our industry.

Craig Corbin:

That is intriguing to me because you mentioned the word, collaborative and that’s the key, from at least my perspective, to the ongoing success of the TM Forum, is the collaboration that goes into all your efforts. And I know that when we look at open digital architecture, the open API project, those are things that have a substantive impact on the day-to-day operation of all your members. Talk about that if you would?

Standardizing the Digital Transformation Process

George Glass:

So that all started about four or five years ago. I was very fortunate to be in a position where I was not only working for BT who was doing some very significant digital transformation at the time, but I was also BTS representative into the TM Forum. And we got together as members of the TM Forum, with a number of other operators, chief systems, architects like myself and we were somewhat frustrated at the number of times that we collectively had interconnected and integrated customer management systems, to billing systems, customer management systems, to product catalogs, to product ordering.

George Glass:

We said, “There’s got to be a better way of doing this. Why don’t we standardize this? Why don’t we actually build a set of open APIs that would actually allow us to connect these components of our architecture together, more simply with an awful lot less friction. And actually, accelerate the transformation within our organizations, in areas which are actually going to be differential, by actually allowing us to work within the components, rather than working at connecting the components together.”

George Glass:

And then out of that, the open API program was born in the TM Forum. And we adopted, I would describe almost like a crowdsourcing technique, to actually drive that implementation of those open APIs. So each of us brought our interface specifications, all of those areas that were connecting the components together. So a customer management to set up a customer, to establish a billing account for the customer, to allow you to order a product associated with a billing account, all of those things. We took the details of those and started to define what was absolutely essential, in terms of the interface and what was optional.

George Glass:

And from that, the concept of the open API was born. The idea being that there’s mandatory, optional attributes or features associated with the API and as a minimum, to maintain the openness within the industry, you implement all of the mandatory elements, and that was the start of the open API program. It was all linked into the work that we’re doing with the open digital architecture, that was about building an architecture that was based on a set of components. Each of those components would encapsulate it and contain business functionality, our business capabilities. And the functionality would be exposed to the other components within the architecture via the open APIs. And that then, gave us this concept of, loose coupling between the components, but tight integration via the APIs.

Accelerating Digital Transformation and Innovation

Craig Corbin:

You talk about the ability to solve problems quickly, accelerating innovation. Those are two areas that are extremely important when you talk about helping your members cut the innovation cycles with that rapid proof of concept catalyst program, that is part of TM Forum. That really makes a difference in the response to customers, that your members are able to make. Talk about that if you would?

George Glass:

All of these concepts, they can seem like great ideas in an architect or a designer’s head, but until you’ve actually got it deployed and built and actually working code, it’s no more than an interesting PowerPoint deck or an interesting abstract on a white paper. So one of the things that we’ve got within the TM Forum, is this whole concept of our catalyst program. And the catalyst program is a rapid proof of concept where one of our members, an operator member, comes with a genuine business problem and says, “I need this problem solved.” And we get together a small team, typically a minimum of four other members, participating in that and we actually build a solution. We build a working prototype of the solution and those prototype solutions get demonstrated at our major events around the globe.

George Glass:

Now, needless to say, we introduce an element of competition because we give prizes for things like, the best catalyst, the best contribution, the best use of TM Forum assets. So the competitive nature of the capitalist means that there’s fierce competition between the participants to try and win some of these valued prizes. But also, the actual participants take a lot of pride in the fact that they’ve solved real business problems and not just on paper, they actually demonstrate the problems working, at the catalyst showcases, where we have 30 or 40 catalysts and they are being shown on the event floor, to all of the participants and attendees at the event.

Digital Transformation World Series

Craig Corbin:

What I love about what you just described, was the fact that you have multiple members working on these projects. And also you touched on the events, where these are then showcased and among the events, perhaps foremost, among the events on the TM Forum calendar, your Digital Transformation World Series. And we go back to November of last year, and as I understand it, it was extremely well attended, more than 8,000 attendees from 157 countries, you had more than 300 speakers, that had to be an incredible event. If you would share your perspective of that event?

George Glass:

It was really quite phenomenal because we’re in the middle of a COVID lockdown, we’ve got severe travel restrictions, even within your own town, let alone around the globe. And we had planned to run our normal flagship event, as a physical event in Copenhagen. Clearly, we realized at the height of the pandemic, that this was not going to be possible. So we pivoted to actually put on a virtual event, bearing in mind that our experience of running virtual events at that scale, had to be zero because nobody else in the world had ever done it and neither had we.

George Glass:

We actually got our heads together, we got our event team, our product team, my collaboration team, we all got together and we put on, what, as you said, was an absolutely fantastic event. It ran for six weeks, we had multiple streams running. A significant proportion of our material came live from a TV studio that we established in London. A number of our speakers prerecorded some of the material, so we were able to get into the diaries of some very, very high profile keynote speakers, who would have been difficult to get them to physically travel to Copenhagen, to a physical event for a short period of time to give a keynote speech. But they were quite willing and quite excited to be participating in our digital event.

George Glass:

And then we ran another series of activities in and around the event proper. So we actually, took our catalyst program and it went fully digital. And we had a digital showcase for the catalysts, on how all of the judging and the demonstration of the catalysts running. We ran masterclasses, so associated with the work that we do, in terms of the digital transformation, the work that we do around cloud-native IT, around autonomous networks. And we actually ran interactive masterclasses, as well. So moving away from just the pure presentation material, our fireside chat type material-

George Glass:

… we actually leveraged the virtual nature of the event and actually used it to our advantage and to our members advantage, so they got maximum value out of that event.

Craig Corbin:

You’re listening to the Broadband Bunch. Our guest today, George Glass, CTO of the TM Forum. And you talked about those masterclasses, the showcase for the catalyst event. I’m always interested to know the responses that TM Forum receives from the attendees, from the members, on these type events. I know that you made reference to the AI data and analytics in particular. What kind of responses have you gotten since those events?

George Glass:

It’s actually proved quite phenomenal. We’ve actually leveraged the event, to actually raise awareness and to actually put a stake in the ground, just to say, “This is the work that we’re doing.” But we also then, explain that the events, whenever we had the masterclasses, we took the opportunity to promote our collaborative way of working. We’ve always been an organization that’s been distributed throughout the globe. Since I joined the organization, I’ve been a home worker, when I’m at home, I work from an office, which was a bedroom in my house. When I’m not there, I would generally have been on the road, traveling around, meeting our members all over the globe.

Evolving the Digital Transformation Process 

George Glass:

I haven’t left my office for over 12 months, but we’ve continued our collaborative work and we use the virtual event to actually invite our members to come and join our collaboration projects and get actively involved and actually participate with us. And actually, defining some of the new standards or looking at the design patterns that we need to abstract services and make the integration of the components within the architecture, easier, faster, less friction, associated with the incorporation of those components, into your architecture. We’ve actually seen a phenomenal increase in the engagement with our day-to-day and week-to-week projects. More of our members get involved, partly because they’re at home, they’re in lockdown, they can’t go anywhere.

George Glass:

But also, because they’re realizing that the information that we produce, now increasingly is machine-readable assets. It’s my objective to try and make the material that we produce, as consumable as possible for our members. Whenever we define or design an open API, for example, we don’t just give you 150-page documentation, a user guide that describes the API, but we actually give you the Swagger file. We build a conformance profile that looks at the allowed values, associated with each of the components. We’ve developed tools ourselves, internally with our members, from that, we actually build a reference implementation of the API and the conformance test kit.

George Glass:

And that means you can actually download a working version of the open API from the TM Forum’s website, and actually implement that API in your organization, into your architecture and get using that within days. And that would have taken a team of designers months to actually design that and you’ve got the benefit because that API was crowdsourced by some of the sharpest minds in our industry.

George Glass:

You’re actually using the brightest and best design patterns for the implementation of that design pattern within the context of an open digital architecture. And that all comes out of the box, ready to run, as a downloadable, executable piece of code. And that’s more and more of what we’re moving towards, within the work in the TM Forum.

How to manage the Digital Transformation

Craig Corbin:

Without question, that is truly a win-win situation, for members to be able to implement what you just described, instantaneously, versus the traditional method, of months and months of effort to get that done and you also touched earlier, in your last remark, about the standards. And from my perspective, I think that, that’s a huge part of the benefit to those who have embraced the TM Forum. And that’s the establishment of industry best standards across the board. If you would share your perspective of that?

George Glass:

Some people might be in a very fortuitous situation, where they’ve only got one vendor, one set of components from a single vendor, in their entire IT estate and across their IT and network environments. But as likely as not, if the organization has been around for any length of time, either you’ll have launched some new products and services that required you to build new systems, or you’ve been through some form of merger and acquisition and you’ll have acquired another company or some part of some other company. And suddenly, you find yourself with two billing systems or a number of product catalogs, or a number of customer management systems.

George Glass:

You’re left then, with the unenviable task of saying, “Well, obviously, more than one product catalog is too many. How do I consolidate or standardize, all into a single product catalog?” Now if by chance, the organization that you acquired happened to have exactly the same architectural pattern and used exactly the same components that you had used, plus had used exactly the same data model. A lot of very unlikely scenarios here, then the migration and the integration of those two environments, might have been relatively simple.

George Glass:

But the likelihood is, that you’ll be working with different versions, of different vendor components and you’ll have to do some form of uplift, some form of upgrade, and some form of migration, of just about every aspect of your architecture. Now, moving to the concept of a component that’s loosely coupled, but tightly integrated through an industry-standard set of open APIs, means that you can take something, and let’s look at the product catalog.

George Glass:

You can take a product catalog and you can standardize exactly how you manage and how you think of the functionality associated with the product catalog. And ultimately, what we’re aiming to do, is to make the concept within the context of ODA, of a component, like a product catalog, a plug-and-play component within your architecture. Now that has been an architectural aspiration of mine, for a number of years. And actually, a year and a half ago, in Nice, through one of our catalyst programs, of what was called, the boss catalysts, we actually demonstrated that working.

George Glass:

We took the TMF620 product catalog management API, we encapsulated a number of product catalogs from our members and these were commercial, off-the-shelf, IPR protected, industry available product catalogs, that spoke to a particular vendor. They were committed to building and confirm it with the open digital architecture. So they exposed their product catalog management, their product catalogs query functions, and so on, through the TMF679, the product offer qualification API, and through the TMS620, the product catalog management API.

George Glass:

We were then able to build a subset of the open digital architecture, plug in the first vendors product catalog, and actually drive the architecture. So take a customer, check out what products were available, order a product-driven from the product catalog. We were then able to plug out vendor ones, product catalog, plugin vendor two’s product catalog, and actually have the architecture continue working. No change to product orders, no change to customer management, and we’re taking that concept through what I’m calling the UDA reference implementation work, and actually expanding that concept out and building more and more of our architecture, of these plug and play components.

Shifting the Digital Transformation Paradigm 

Craig Corbin:

That George is phenomenal because what you’ve just described, I believe means that, you’re ultimately going to be able to replace the traditional RFPs with a much more effective way of selecting and validating, and even deploying, software for telecom providers. Is that right?

George Glass:

Absolutely. So we actually wrote a white paper, an article, about two years ago, about, is it time to kill the RFP? And we’ve actually seen some of our members now, starting to move to this environment, where rather than actually issuing an RFP, on getting a very large document that a number of vendors respond against. And you manually go through and I’ve done it many times myself, scoring each vendor, in terms of, is it partially compliant or fully compliant, with my requirements? And then going into some vendor selection process.

George Glass:

What I actually want to do is, stand up an instance of my architecture, let’s say it’s a product catalog that I’m trying to procure. “Well, I’ll give you, here’s the customer service management, here’s the product ordering, here’s the customer care components that you have to plug into. Plug your product catalog in and here’s a number of use cases that I want you to actually demonstrate as part of the RFP process.”

George Glass:

Now it doesn’t get rid of the procurement process, you still have to do all of the legal checks and the financial checks and all the rest of it. But what it does mean is, you can actually start to test the actual operational functionality of the component that you’re trying to procure, in a simulated environment, that allows you to put your requirements, in this case, if it’s a product catalog, my products, my specification, of how I structure my products and actually let the vendors demonstrate, how they can support that within their component. And that’s a big change in the way-

Craig Corbin:

It’s huge.

George Glass:

… that you actually think of evaluating a vendor, as part of an RFP process.

Craig Corbin:

That’s a quantum leap.

George Glass:

Yeah. That has enabled us, because we published the APIs, B, because we publish the CTKs, the conformance test, that’s associated with the APIs. So that actually, the vendors in advance, they can actually become certified to say, “Yes, I’ve got a product catalog.” They will run the conformance test themselves through their own product management and product development, to verify that they are compliant. And then they come to us and we independently certify their product catalog on the APIs that they’re exposing.

Craig Corbin:

That to me, George, is so vital with regard to the true benefit, of what the efforts of the TM Forum are bringing to the day-to-day operation of providers, worldwide. You’re talking about something that is saving time, money, and ultimately, bringing a much better product into service for the end-users. That’s huge.

George Glass:

Yep. And from our perspective, as software engineers, all of us, have actually implemented those interconnection points between the various components. And it was just a cost of doing business, it didn’t add any value because the real value came from having my product definitions and my product catalog and my product ordering, being flexibly rules and data-driven, so that I could order any product or any service, in my product ordering. But I still had to wire the things together in my architecture-

Craig Corbin:

Sure.

George Glass:

… using my open APIs. I’ve just taken a huge amount of friction, a huge amount of time, out of the implementation cycle and I’ve also standardized it. So then you can now start to look at saying, “Well, if I do another merger or if we do another acquisition and we’re following these standards, then the integration of anything that we acquire, will be much simpler.” My vision and my aspiration is, that over time, actually increasingly, more and more of our members will actually build ODA compliant architectures that have got a full set of ODA components within them, that expose the open APIs.

George Glass:

And that we will ultimately get to the stage where our next iteration of CTKs, are not just at the API level, but are actually at the component level. So you actually get a component CTK, so you can verify a component, ahead of implementing within your architecture-
Craig Corbin:

Sure.

George Glass:

… knowing that it will be compliant with the patterns of the open digital architecture.

Craig Corbin:

That is just transformational.  I’m always interested to know what drives the interest in joining the TM Forum? Made mention at the top of our podcast that I believe enrollment now, better than 850 members just last month, in February I believe, 63 brand new members from all across the world and all sizes, from large providers to tier two, tier three. I’m curious, what you have received from those members about, what drove them to join the TM Forum?

George Glass:

Well, it’s very much about, the TM Forum is an organization, it’s run by the members, for the members. Whenever you look at us, we’ve got a staff of around 100 people that work for the TM Forum, which is quite phenomenal, whenever you see the amount of output that we’ve produced. But that’s because we actually leverage the brains within our members’ organizations. And from our perspective, I work on the mantra that my members will keep coming back to the TM Forum, if we provide value.

George Glass:

And what we see and what we find, whenever we work with the members is that the more they put into the TM Forum, the more they get out of it. So the more they actively participate with us, in actually developing the standards and shaping the projects and running the projects that actually produce the output, then we actually work on the things that are a priority for them, and they get really useful benefits from it. Now, all sorts of members, as you said, we’ve got everything from the top 10, largest telcos in the world, to tiny organizations, like single-person consulting houses, small software houses of 5 or 10 people, who are developing a niche product and they’re actually trying to break into the marketplace.

George Glass:

But all of those people benefit from participating in the forum because they learn from each other. They actually bring something from their perspective to the table, that we don’t always see. And clearly, the largest members and the largest organizations very often will have resources that can spare some time to work with us, where some of the smaller organizations are more consumers of our services than contributors or producers of the services. And that’s fine, though even then, what we find is that, some of those niche players, they participate in a catalyst and they actually start working on a catalyst, providing a solution that actually becomes part of an overall product or portfolio that gets deployed into the largest operators in the world.

Craig Corbin:

Truly exciting.

George Glass:

Those guys, they would struggle to even get a half-hour slot.

Craig Corbin:

Sure.

George Glass:

So with any member of an organization that’s in the top 10 in the world, yet here, they participate in a catalyst program alongside maybe, the chief architect, some of the chief designers or whatever, from some of the largest organizations in the world.

Craig Corbin:

Think about that, that’s priceless. That is a priceless opportunity, what you just described, for members to benefit from the collaborative efforts, across the board. And that to me is exciting, knowing that, what has been created, what is evolving, with the ability to help your members manage the journey, solve the problems quickly and accelerate innovation, is truly having an impact on the day-to-day operations across the board. As we begin to wind down our visit here, and there’s so much to unwrap with the work, the phenomenal efforts that are underway at the TM Forum. I’m always curious from our guest’s perspective, the passion, what drives your passion in the industry, your passion with the efforts at the TM Forum?

George Glass:

I just love solving problems. That’s been at the heart of everything that I’ve done throughout my career and I love big challenges. I love taking on those things that people say, that can’t be done, for us to look at, you think you’re a wee bit mad, you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before. I’ve done it all my career. In BT and billing, we took on moving all of the pricing of the switches. So we used to have over 3,000 switches across the UK and all of the pricing was done on the switches. We decided we were going to move it off the switches, which was all meter-based charging and move it on to real-time charging. And myself and a colleague, came up with a pattern and a design that said, we could do it all on 10 Unix boxes, but bearing in mind that all billing was done on mainframes and we’d never taken charging off the switch before.

George Glass:

We were met with quite a lot of resistance, quite a lot of skepticism in the organization. But nine months later, we took billing and pricing off the switches, deployed real-time pricing, per-second pricing into BT and completely transformed the way billing was done across our organization. And I’m sitting, and I looked at it whenever we got the API program kicked off within the TM Forum, about four or five years ago. And I said, “Look, we can change our industry.” There only were three of us or four of us in a room, and I said, “This will make a real difference to the way operators and vendors collaborate, integrate, participate and deliver services to customers throughout the world.”

George Glass:

And that’s what really excites me. And we’ve embarked on another journey now, we’re just kicking off a piece, where the network is becoming IT, the network, it needs to be transformed the way the IT has been transformed into a set of loosely coupled components that expose their business functionality via open APIs. And our autonomous networks program, we’re actually in the process of renaming that into cloud-native networking and also autonomous operations, because we very quickly realized that, once the network becomes IT, I need to manage it, right across from the customer through the service and down into the network, and right back to the customer again. All a subset of inter-operating IT systems.

George Glass:

So that’s on the agenda, where we’re in the middle of transforming all of that. The world just gets a little bit bigger, but it stays just as exciting because there’s always a challenge and I just love being in the heart of actually, trying to solve some of those problems and make everybody’s life a little bit easier.

Back-to-the-Future Digital Transformation 

Craig Corbin:

And you are doing just that and more and at lightspeed. Last question for you, George, and again, greatly appreciate your time with us today and what I hope will be the first of many visits with us here on the Broadband Bunch. But if you could jump into a time machine and go back X number of years and give yourself a little head start or a whisper in the ear, about a direction that your efforts would have taken with this development, what would that be?

George Glass:

I would go back about four years ago, whenever the guys came along and started to tell me about SDN and NFV, and I put together about four slides that described the problems that I saw with NFV. And unfortunately, those problems have come about, in that they virtualized the infrastructure. They deployed the network functions on virtualized infrastructure, bravo, we needed to do that. But unfortunately, the network functions exposed vendor-specific, interfaces northbound to the USS and left all of the complexity of trying to manage effectively, a number of components that perform exactly the same business function, at the mercy of the USS designers.

George Glass:

We missed an opportunity then, to actually transform how networks are managed, by actually encapsulating the business functionality and exposing it, as an industry-standard set of northbound operational (OSS management for telecoms) and management APIs. We’ve got to do that this time, as 5G comes along and starts to morph into 6G. If we don’t do it now, we will lose another five years, in terms of the transformation of the network, and that is not going to happen under my watch if I can do anything about it.

Craig Corbin:

Sage advise, sage advice. George, can’t thank you enough. And for those who want to learn more about the TM Forum, you can visit tmforum.org and learn so much more about the organization.

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