If it’s possible to innovate yourself right out of business, traditional communications service providers (CSPs) may be at risk of just that. For years CSPs have invested heavily to create the infrastructure that has made the digital economy possible and made many companies very successful. Yet CSPs now find themselves at risk of being marginalized — or even displaced — by the very organizations and business models that emerged from the disruption they helped enable.
One of the biggest issues is lack of agility. Both consumers and business customers now expect the providers of their communications services to deliver the same experiences they receive from companies like Facebook and Apple. But the oldest of these tech giants is around 40 years, while the CSPs that were once part of Ma Bell, for example, have a legacy dating back 140 years. Most CSPs, regardless of their roots, struggle to compete with technology players, hampered as they are by brittle application monoliths, cavernous skills gaps, and business and IT operating environments with mismatched cultures and little to no collaboration.
Yet the demand on their networks and competitive threats are only going to grow. What should CSPs do now to try to prepare for the next ten years? One thing is certain — to respond quickly and efficiently to unpredictable change, CSPs need to evolve their infrastructure to get brittleness and complexity out and get speed and agility in. They need to replace monoliths with microservices.
Microservices are an architectural style in which enterprise apps are made up of independent services working together. In other words, these apps are divided into single focus, self-contained “blocks” or microservices, with each “block” supporting a specific business function, such as streamlined workflows or mobile payments.
With a microservices architecture, each function can be developed, updated or maintained, and deployed individually without having to overhaul and deploy the whole application. This reduces the complexity of integration, speeds time to market, and reduces downtime of the function, leaving no gap in your customers’ experience.
Consider a telco provider at the Winter Olympics. They have a large volume of customers that have traveled to the Olympics and need to communicate back home on their current devices. Their options are to only use WiFi, buy a local SIM card or pay very high roaming fees. If the telco could temporarily scale its services from this region, they could lower the roaming fee significantly to retain their customers and offer more services while increasing customer satisfaction for this targeted customer segment. In a non-microservices architecture, this would be a costly and timely undertaking. A microservices approach lets the provider quickly scale up and then scale back down with little to no latency. A win for everyone.
Time to Market Cut from 12 Months to Three
A microservices architecture can save significant development time and money. One company I worked with was taking eight to 12 months to develop and deploy new digital products. Twelve months is an eon in today’s industry — think of how many new phones and phone features came out in the past 12 months. No CSP can afford to take a year to launch a new feature or service.
Using the microservices approach to their architecture, that organization was able to deliver a new product in three months. They saved money, but perhaps even more importantly, decreased their time to market and gained major competitive advantage.
After all, speed to market is what differentiates the market leaders from the followers.
The Future is Microservices
Leading CSPs have already begun adopting microservices. This fall, AT&T launched its microservices supplier program, working with IBM to design, develop and deploy microservices that will transform AT&T’s backend processes across sales, ordering and enterprise data. Approximately 2,200+ apps in its IT system will be broken into microservices to create agility, speed, and scalability that wasn’t possible before. In their words, “microservices are at the very core of our vision for the future of our network.”
In a world where anticipating customer needs and creating an unbeatable customer experience is a continuous loop, if you’re planning for your future based on what you know about your customer today, you’re already behind.
There is no way to predict what the next ten years will look like. But speed of change is constant and ever increasing, And for CSPs, it will be one where the race goes to the swiftest. That means the choice between brittle monoliths versus agile microservices isn’t really a choice at all.
William Brown is an IBM Distinguished Engineer & CTO of IBM Global Business Services.