System Integration Becoming Mission Critical

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Integrating disparate software applications and system hardware into the physical layer of a cable plant is a puzzling and at times frustrating exercise for many cable operators and multiservice providers as they push their networks into the new era of services.

Add to the equation the management and maintenance of a veritable smorgasbord of software and hardware components being integrated into cable systems today, and how they work together in a fluid infrastructure, and the vision of a truly integrated system can get blurred in a hurry.

From network-status monitoring and software applications to node division and testing, integrating the various technologies, software and hardware to allow Internet access, high-speed data, Internet-protocol telephony and other 21st century services is prompting a surge in system-integration solutions and creating companies that insist they can provide them.

And although few companies admit to being able to offer the entire "end-to-end" system-integration solution, more are adding integration components such as status monitoring, maintenance, network management, testing and software applications to their core businesses as cable operators scramble to tie their systems together.

"System integration is central to our whole strategic plan and to the expansion of our company into C-COR.net [Corp.]. It's moved us into a fully broadband life-cycle company," said Dave Woodle, president and CEO of the State College, Pa.-based company that designs, manufactures and markets cable-transmission products.

"Now we have to design and provide fiber and RF products, activate support in the field, help manage the network and provide maintenance and, through our Network Operation Center, monitor the network and the system. It's a whole different world," he said.

The world of system integration, Woodle admitted, now requires smarts and speed, on top of the traditional equipment needed for headends and other sections of cable plant.

Getting smarter also means monitoring and managing the system. With more operators now offering lifeline services and competitive pressures mounting to provide unequaled reliability, the ability to quickly identify and fix trouble spots is fast becoming a mission-critical function for cable systems. It's also changing the strategy of many status-monitoring and network-management companies.

"The drive for cable operators and other customers to be more reliable has caused us to change our thinking, and our requirements have risen dramatically. Operators want to increase operational efficiencies, and to do that, they must identify system problems quickly," said Brigitte McCarthy, director of product marketing for Cheetah Technologies, a Bradenton, Fla.-based provider of hybrid fiber-coaxial network-management systems.

Unifying a system with a mish-mash of software, hardware and 20-year-old methodologies will take time, however. Orchestrating a disparate system to work in concert with old and new components also isn't easy.

Joe Melanson, president of Internet Cable Corp., an HFC-network-management provider, said building an integrated system should begin in the construction phase. Integrating engineers and technicians-and teaching them to speak the same language from the same page-is another issue that must be addressed.

Most experts agreed that the path to true system integration begins in the design stage. By designing in "best-of-breed" software applications and equipment, much of the pain caused by disparate components can be eliminated, or at least reduced. Yet quality training and engineering must be included in any system-integration strategy.

"Cable is a different business now. There's a lot of system integration, which requires a learning curve. You can't make mistakes," said Scott Kimble, manager of system-integration company Broadband Networks Inc.'s NOC.

A good start to system integration, Kimble said, is a quality preliminary system design. "We'll ask whether the system is running IP or other technologies, then do a full walkout with integration technologies for power, racks and electricity, then go over design issues and conduct a barrage of tests," he explained.

With many cable systems entering the early stages of system integration, software applications now abound to help operators glue their networks together. But finding the right software to tie the myriad functions together is a monumental quest. Getting them to work in harmony with other system functions such as billing, dispatching, call centers and installations adds to the problem.

"There are lots of heterogeneous systems that are becoming standardized, but also lots of disparity in billing, dispatch and other back-office types of functions. It's a crazy mix of back-end systems, and those are now an operator's core competencies," said Kip McClanahan, president and CEO of network-software provider BroadJump Inc.

As operators push into the new era of services, which require new and sophisticated software to run them, scrapping an entire software application and adding a new one can be extremely pricey and time-consuming.

"Cable has grown up with home-grown systems and off-the-shelf software applications, from capturing customer information to inventory and databases. Now, applications have to tie together with other parts of the network," said Fred Thompson, vice president of communications industries for New Era of Networks Inc. (NEON), a software provider to the cable and telecommunications industries.

Cable operators, Thompson continued, are faced with the problem of integrating their provisioning process, from order-taking to service activation. "The whole integration process has to work together," he said.

It must also work together sooner, rather than later, as time-to-market issues become more critical in the increasingly competitive new services arena.

"Time to market is a big concern. Operators know they must start billing and providing quality service," said Steve Gordon, vice president of marketing for system integration at ADC Telecommunications Inc., a global supplier of network equipment and integrated services for the broadband industry.

Brainy, fully integrated systems may be the ultimate competitive edge for cable operators as they drive their networks into multiservice markets, but getting there will require smart, savvy business models.

Concluded Woodle: "People are coming into this space with solutions we've never competed with before, and there's a new solution every two months, but you can't re-engineer costs, so we must figure out ways to integrate these new technologies and get a payback for them.

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