The path to more effective network inventory management

24 September 2019

The path to more effective network inventory management

Effective network inventory management is of fundamental importance to all operators. They need to understand all of their assets and how they can be correlated with services. Without this knowledge, they cannot deliver services efficiently or effectively to customers.

That’s because a specific service is delivered across a range of assets, which spans both physical inventory as well as logical and virtual resources. Since services involve each of these, a clear understanding of inventory can be seen to have the utmost importance. So, if services depend on inventory, what is the right path to effective network inventory management? This post provides some simple guidance to get started.

Managing your network more effectively - location, location, location

An operator’s inventory is the sum total of the assets it has at its disposal. These include the locations in which its servers are installed, the servers and equipment, the racks, termination points, wayleaves, cables, conduits….and much, much more. To deliver a service, operators must know where all of these are, because a service is delivered to a customer.

Let’s consider a fiber broadband service that is purchased by a residential customer. The customer premise (let’s call it a house) occupies a street address. The customer will have been sent an appropriate modem or termination device to which the fiber will be connected. Now the operator must light up the connection to the customer and check to see if any additional apparatus – such as a specific fiber from a cabinet to the house, for example. There may be several steps along this path. To ensure continuity, the operator must know where all of the service elements can be found, so that the steps in the path can be connected, quickly and easily, and any work orders initiated and actioned.

Put simply, the operator must know what equipment has been deployed and where. That sounds easy, but the simple truth is that this data may be spread across different systems and it may be in multiple formats. So, while pinpointing the geographic location of each asset is essential, it’s just the first step along the path to more effective network inventory management – and service delivery.

The challenge of network inventory management - creating a common language

Most operators support a range of technologies. A service may be delivered across several of these, as we move from the core of the network to the edge and, finally, to the access point. Understanding what these technologies are and cataloging them is essential to complement the geographical location data.

For example, the network will be composed of a range of different technologies, such as SDH, WDM, L2, RAN connections (2G, 3G, 4G, VoLTE, and soon 5G), PTP/PTMP and so on. These need to be categorized and described according to a language that can easily be understood by all stakeholders. This technology information needs to be aligned with that available from what are known as Network Management Systems, or an NMS.

Most elements that are used to build the network are equipped with an NMS. This provides real-time data feeds of vital health and support information, such as status. As such, knowing where something is, understanding what it does and its status are essential. That’s because the status – active, in-service, out-of-service, etc. and the current capacity - are key indicators that tell network operations staff whether there is, for example, sufficient resource availability to deliver the desired service.

However, there’s more to the common language than this. Defining the technology supported is one thing, but we also need to consider logical resources. Logical resources are also assigned to a service – a simple example is a telephone number. A phone number is essentially an abstract concept but it needs to be assigned to a physical device or location.

Of course, a phone number can have some geographic context and will form part of an agreed numbering plan (with an area code and further differentiating elements), but they can also be non-geographic. In which case, they need to be mapped to a geographic number – in effect, aligning several strings of logical information to a customer, in the right sequence.

Mobile networks also take advantage of several key identifiers, so the task of mapping these to customers and to equipment can be complex. Other examples of such virtual information include IP addresses, VLAN identifiers, and so on. Each technology typically has several such resource identifiers, so this is a key task that requires management, across all solutions deployed in the network.

Network inventory management – fit for purpose? A single database and data model

Of course, all of this information needs to be stored somewhere, so that your network inventory management solution is really fit for purpose. If it is to be used constructively, the information needs to be clearly defined, according to common principles. So, a single database and a common data model are both key steps towards more effective network inventory management.

The problem for many operators is that they have many different databases and these may use different data formats to describe the information they store. This makes accessing, sharing and using key information relating to network inventory difficult and limits the agility of an operator to make decisions, implement changes and, ultimately to deliver services to customers that purchase them. Reconciling these and converting to a common format makes an important difference.

Solving the problem of inventory management with better data

Another important task is to ensure data quality. This raises questions that trouble many operators. What if the data available is imperfect? How do I know if it’s correct or of the right quality? The reality is that much data is of poor quality and is incomplete. Any program to migrate to a more effective network inventory management solution must also include a program to cleanse and define data in terms of quality.

For many operators, this has proven to be a difficult, even insurmountable task. Fortunately, there is a solution. This is the crucial difference with the CROSS NI approach to network inventory management. CROSS NI has defined a unique methodology, process and technical solution that enables imperfect data to be imported, cleansed through time and tagged, with an objective indicator of quality. This allows data to be improved but, crucially, it doesn’t present an obstacle to the key step of embarking on a network inventory management update.

In conclusion, an effective network inventory management program requires a number of key steps and a series of actions to ensure that operators take the right path. Our experts can help with the necessary activities and can deploy CROSS to solve the problems of legacy solutions. It’s a comprehensive solution that gives operators the agility they need to deploy, manage and, most importantly to sell their services to customers – and to support them once activated.