The network integrated inventory strategy has long seemed like a pipe dream for telecom organizations. Offering a complete, geospatial view of the entire network within a single dashboard, such a solution would revolutionize the way that many telecom organizations operate, but most strategies have never made the leap from the drawing board to reality, due to the complex processes required to implement them.

On top of this, while there is a vocal demand for this type of strategy, the logistics involved in trying to achieve it are themselves daunting.

That said: the industry now stands on the precipice of change. In a bid to meet consumer demands for quad-play services, broadband internet providers and mobile network operators are joining forces. We’ve already seen BT unveil its merger plans with EE, and Hutchison Whampoa recently announced its acquisition of O2, a move that will see the integration of O2’s network with that of Three. In order to manage such vast digital infrastructures, telcos will have to consolidate all of their assets into a single infrastructure. The time therefore, to reassess an integrated inventory solution has never been better.

What is an integrated inventory?

At its core, an integrated inventory solution brings together both the physical and logical networks to deliver a complete view of the telco’s network location, its connectivity, capacity and availability.

Historically, a lack of skills, resources and technical know-how as well as the sheer size of current networks has left telcos struggling with the integration of disparate inventory systems. This in turn has then driven up the cost for service providers as they look to manage their networks more effectively.

But telcos need to tackle these obstacles head on if they’re to future proof their networks and consolidate and merge them into a single infrastructure.  An integrated inventory provides a platform from which the network integrity can be constantly enhanced. By removing the data silos, telcos can enjoy a seamless and consistent view of their network. Such visibility enables service providers to plan for the entire, end-to-end network, not just its component parts.

There are a number of benefits to this approach, such as the fact that upgrades or capacity stretching can be made earlier; avoiding any potential network bottlenecks or disruption. Furthermore, the management of Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping can be dramatically simplified, once again helping to improve the overall operational efficiency of maintaining the network.

Tackling the obstacles

As with any major integration programme, there are challenges which need to be addressed. At the very top level, we need to address a ‘blurring’ in how each of the physical and logical networks are mapped. Critically, this means setting up a system in which the logical structure provides a holistic, end-to-end view of the network, while the physical layer can then be overlaid, providing a granular level of detail on individual cables and equipment. This overlap would offer a big advantage, providing a way to validate the integrity of both systems. So at a high level, the start and end point of all the elements in the physical inventory should, for activated elements, have an identical entry in the logical network.

Telcos also risk running into challenges which are specific to the physical network. Though GPS technology has significantly helped providers to map their physical assets – often to an accuracy of less than a meter – it has also presented some issues for old data sets, all of which now need to be updated to cope with the new accuracy requirements. This can be a time-consuming and somewhat disruptive process. Additionally, the challenge of maintaining a real-time view of the network means that providers must ensure any change to physical assets is recorded and uploaded to the system as soon as possible.

On the other side of the coin, the logical network also presents challenges. Specifically, there can be issues in which more than one instance of the network are generated, This typically occurs when providers attempt to accelerate time to market, in line with increasing consumer demands for faster, ‘always on’ connectivity across multiple services. For example, providers may have created an instance to map the Fibre Broadband Services and another to map the HFC. This complicates the process of service fulfilment, at best, requiring data to be inputted multiple times and at worst, causing serious confusion as providers search for the most up-to-date and accurate version of their network.

The road ahead

These challenges are not insurmountable. They do, however, necessitate the development of a clear roadmap.

To begin, telcos need to understand where they are starting from in terms of the systems, the data and accompanying processes. If they start with a geospatial system, for example, they would need to look closely at the current technology in use (e.g. whether it is a copper, fibre or HFC network), what systems are supporting the platform and whether there are any external factors that could be relevant to its management. In cases where multiple systems are in place, we can also look towards using hybrid systems, which comprise all data and result in a single view network for service providers.

Telcos must plan their roadmaps in such a way as to strike a balance between program complexity and the incremental ROI. A big bang approach simply won’t cut it, as moving to integrated inventory requires incremental steps. An initial focus on consolidating the physical network is a simple place to start to gain the benefits of an integrated inventory.

Although undertaking any such ambitious program can appear daunting, benefits can be seen very early in the overall lifecycle. With a realistic roadmap and timeline, the concept of an integrated inventory and the associated benefits can be achieved. But telecom organisations should operate at their own speed, and hold off any attempts of vendors and consultants to accelerate or block this process.