We'll learn how advanced analytics that draws on multiple data sources provide Spirent’s telco customers’ rapid insights into their networks and operations. That insight, combined with analysis of user actions and behaviors, provides a "total picture" approach to telco services and uses that both improves the actual services proactively -- and also boosts the ability to better support help desks.
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Spirent’s insights thereby help operators in highly competitive markets reduce the spend on support, reduce user churn, and better adhere to service-level agreements (SLAs), while providing significant productivity gains.
To hear how Spirent uses big data to make major positive impacts on telco operations, we're joined by Tom Russo, Director of Product Management and Marketing at Spirent Communications in Matawan, New Jersey. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: User experience quality enhancement is essential, especially when we're talking about consumers that can easily change carriers. Controlling that experience is more challenging for an organization like a telco. They have so many variables across networks. So at a high-level, tell me how Spirent masters complexity using big data to help telcos maintain the best user experience.
Russo: Believe it or not, historically, operators haven't actually managed their customers as much as they've managed their networks. Even within the networks, they've done this in a fairly siloed fashion.
There were also customer-care people, who had their own tools and systems that didn’t leverage any of that network data. It was very inefficient, and not wrapped around the customer or the customer experience.
They sort of got by with those systems when the networks weren't running too hot. When competition wasn't too fierce, they could get away with that. But these days, with their peers offering better quality of service, over-the-top threats, increasing complexity on the network in terms of devices, and application services, it really doesn't work any more.
It takes too long to troubleshoot real customer problems. They spend too much time chasing down blind alleys in terms of solving problems that don't really affect the customer experience, etc. They need to take a more customer-centric approach. As you’d imagine that’s where we come in. We integrate data across those different silos in the context of subscribers.
We collect data across those different silos -- the radio performance, the core network performance, the provisioning, the billing etc. -- and fuse it together in the context of subscribers. Then, we help the operator identify proactively where that customer experience is suffering, what we call hotspots, so that they can act before the customers call and complain, which is expensive from a customer-care perspective and before they churn, which is very expensive in terms of customer replacement. It's a more customer-centric approach to managing the network.
Gardner: So your customer experience management does what your customers had a difficult time doing internally. But one aspect of this is pulling together disparate data from different sources, so that you can get the proactive inference and insights. What did you do better around data acquisition?
Russo: The first key step is being able to integrate with a variety of these different systems. Each of the groups had their different tools, different data formats, different vendors.
Our solution has a very strong what we call extract, transform, load (ETL), or data mediation capability, to pull all these different data sources together, map them into a uniform model of the telecom network and the subscriber experience.
This allows us to see the connections between the subscriber experience, the underlying network performance and even things like outcomes -- whether people churn, whether they provide negative survey responses, whether they've called and complained to customer care, etc.
Then, with that holistic model, we can build high-level metrics like quality of experience scores, predictive models, etc. to look across those different silos, help the operators see where the hot spots of customer dissatisfaction is, where people are going to eventually churn, or where other costs are going to be incurred.
Gardner: Before we go more deeply into this data issue, tell me a bit more about Spirent. Is the customer experience division the only part? Tell me about the larger company, just so we have a sense of the breadth and depths of what you offer.
Russo: Most people, at least in telecom, know Spirent as a lab vendor. Spirent is one of the world leaders in the markets for simulating, emulating, and testing devices, network elements, applications, and services, as they go from the development phase to the launch phase in their lifecycle. Most of their products focus on that, the lab testing or the launch testing, making sure that devices are, as we call it, "fit for launch."
Spirent has historically had less of a presence in the live network domain. In the last year or two, they’ve made a number of strategic acquisitions in that space. They’ve made a number of internal investments to leverage the capabilities and knowledge base that they have from the lab side into the live network.
One of those investments, for example, was an acquisition back in early 2014 of DAX Technologies, a leading customer experience management vendor. That acquisition, plus some additional internal investments has led to the growth of our Customer Experience Management (CEM) Business Unit.
Gardner: Tom, tell me some typical use cases where your customers are using Spirent in the field. Who are those that are interacting with the software? What is it that they're doing with it? What are some of the typical ways in which it’s bringing value there?
Russo: Basically, we have two user bases that leverage our analytics. One is the customer-care groups. What they're trying to do is obtain, very quickly, a 360-degree view of the experience that a subscriber is seeing -- who is calling in and complaining about their service and the root causes of problems that they might be having with their services.
If you think about the historic operation, this was a very time-intensive, costly operation, because they would have to swivel chair, as we call it, between a variety of different systems and tools trying to figure out whether I had a network-related issue, a provisioning issue, a billing issue, or something else. These all could potentially take hours, even hundreds of hours, to resolve.
With our system, the customer-care groups have one single pane of glass, one screen, to see all aspects of the customer experience to very quickly identify the root causes of issues that they are having and resolve them. So it keeps customers happier and reduces the cost of the customer-care operation.
The second group that we serve is on the engineering side. We're trying to help them identify hotspots of customer dissatisfaction on the network, whether that be in terms of devices, applications, services, or network elements so that they can prioritize their resources around those hotspots, as opposed to noisy, traditional engineering alarms. The idea here is that this allows them to have maximal impact on the customer experience with minimal costs and minimal resources.
Gardner: You recently rolled out some new and interesting services and solutions. Tell us a little but about that.
Russo: We’ve rolled out the latest iteration of our InTouch solution, our flagship product. It’s called InTouch Customer and Network Analytics (CNA) and it really addresses feedback that we've received from customers in terms of what they want in an analytic solution.
We're hearing that they want to be more proactive and predictive. Don’t just tell me what's going on right now, what’s gone on historically, how things have trended, but help me understand what’s going to happen moving forward, where our customer is going to complain. Where is the network going to experience performance problems in the future. That's an increasing area of focus for us and something that we've embedded to a great degree in the InTouch CNA product.
Another thing that they've told us is that they want to have more flexibility and control on the visualization and reporting side. Don't just give me a stock set of dashboards and reports and have me rely on you to modify those over time. I have my own data scientists, my own engineers, who want to explore the data themselves.
We've embedded Tableau business intelligence (BI) technology into our product to give them maximum flexibility in terms of report authorship and publication. We really like the combination of Tableau and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) Vertica because it allows them to be able to do those ad-hoc reports and then also get good performance through the Vertica database.
And another thing that we are doing more and more is what we call Closed Loop Analytics. It's not just identifying an issue or a customer problem on the network, but it's also being able to trigger an action. We have an integration and partnership with another business unit in Spirent called Mobilethink that can change device settings for example.
If we see a device is mis-provisioned, we can send alert to Mobilethink, and they can re-provision the device to correct something like a mis-provisioned access point name (APN) and resolve the problem. Then, we can use our system to confirm indeed that the fix was made and that the experience has improved.
Gardner: It’s clear to me, Tom, how we can get great benefits from doing this properly and how the value escalates the more data and the more information you get, and the better you can serve those customers. Let's drill down a bit into how you can make this happen. As far as data goes, are we talking about 10 different data types, 50? Given the stream and the amount of data that comes off of a network, what size data we are talking about and how do you get a handle on that?
Russo: In our largest deployment, we're talking about a couple of dozen different data sources and a total volume of data on the order of 50 to 100 billion transactions a day. So, it’s large volume, especially on the transactional side, and high variety. In terms of what we're talking about, it’s a lot of machine data. As I mentioned before, there is the radio performance, core network performance, and service performance type of information.
We also look at things like whether you're provisioning correctly for the services that you're trying to interact with. We look at your trouble ticket history to try and correlate things like network performance and customer care activity. We will look at survey data, net promoter score (NPS) type information, billing churn, and related information.
We're trying to tie it all together, everything from the subscriber transactions and experience to the underlying network performance, again to the outcome type information -- what was the impact of the experience on your behavior?
Gardner: What specifically is your history with HPE Vertica? Has this been something that's been in place for some time? Did you switch to it from something else? How did that work out?
Russo: Right now, we're finishing the migration to HP Vertica technology, and it will be embedded in our InTouch CNA solution. There are a couple of things that we like about Vertica. One is the price-performance aspects. The columnar lookups, the projections, give us very strong query response performance, but it's also able to run on commodity hardware, which gives us price advantage that's also bolstered by the columnar compression.
So price performance-wise and maturity-wise we like it. It’s a field-proven, tested solution. There are some other features in terms of strong Hadoop integration that we like. A lot of carriers will have their own Hadoop clusters, data oceans, etc. that they want us to integrate with. Vertica makes that fairly straightforward, and we like a lot of the embedded analytics as well, the Distributed R capability for predictive analytics and things along those lines.
Gardner: It occurs to me that the effort that you put into this at Spirent and being able to take vast amounts of data across a complex network and then come out with these analytic benefits could be extended to any number of environments. Is there a parallel between what you are doing with mobile and telco carriers that could extend to maybe networks that are managing the Internet of Things (IoT) types of devices?
Russo: Absolutely. We're working with carriers on IoT already. The requirements that these things have in terms of the performance that they need to operate properly are different than that of human beings, but nevertheless, the underlying transactions that have to take place, the ability to get a radio connection and set up an IP address and communicate data back and forth to one another and do it in a robust reliable way, is still critical.
We definitely see our solution helping operators who are trying to be IoT platform providers to ensure the performances of those IoT services and the SLAs that they have for them. We also see a potential use for our technology going a step further into the vertical IoT applications themselves in doing, for example, predictive analytics on sensor data itself. That could be a future direction for us.
Gardner: Any words of wisdom for folks that are starting to do with large data volumes across wide variety of sources and are looking also for that more real-time analytics benefit? Any lessons learned that you could share from where Spirent has been and gone for others that are going to be facing some of these same big data issues?
Russo: It's important to focus on the end-user value and the use cases as opposed to the technology. So, we never really focus on getting data for the sake of getting data. We focus more on what problem a customer is trying to accomplish and how we can most simply and elegantly solve it. That steered us clear from jumping on the latest and greatest technology bandwagons, instead going with the proven technologies and leveraging our subject-matter expertise.
Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Get the mobile app. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
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