Stop me if you’ve heard these terms before: data grid … database virtualization … data management … you get the point. Well, it turns out there are different ways to tackle the same problems, and the telecommunications space currently is reaping the benefits of one of the newest attempts to solve the distributed data nightmare.
The solution du jour is Xeround’s Intelligent Data Grid, a product that goes beyond hardware-footprint constraints of traditional data grids and actually allows for a federated view of data scattered across the distributed network. The result, says Xeround CEO Charlotte Yarkoni, is more of a “database virtualization engine” that spans multiple existing data stores and creates on logical view of the subsets of data. The company currently is targeting the “communication service provider sector” — that is, anyone with subscriber data that needs to be managed — with the biggest fans thus far being the telcos, who often have subscriber data spread around globe and no real way to make sense of it in real time.
According to Ari Banerjee, director Yankee Group’s Enabling Technologies Service Provider division, more than 80 percent of telcos believe subscriber data management is a big problem, mainly because better subscriber data management means more revenue. Maximizing subscriber data enables them to provide targeted services and advertising, location-based services and other alternative business models. Wireless providers, for example, could provide a Red Sox fan with pertinent information, coupons, etc., that could be of use to that subscriber while traveling outside Boston. However, says Banerjee, the window of time to provide such services is small, and having data stored in separate silos inaccessible to one another makes rolling out this new business model difficult. In a recent Yankee Group survey of 150 Tier1 and Tier 2 service providers, more than 60 percent of respondents cited either “inability to personalize the experience” or “inability to have a common view of subscriber background” as the biggest factors inhibiting innovation.
Another example Banerjee points to is the customer service experience, where finding just one phone number to handle all of your issues is a rarity. “I buy cell phone service and landline service from, say, AT&T,” he hypothesizes. “You have to have two [customer service] numbers to call if you want to complain, just because they don’t have visibility; it goes back into that siloed environment. … That also means that when you call and you talk to them as a wireless customer, they don’t know that you also are an existing wire line customer because the data of your wire line usage, etc., is stored in a different domain.”
The traditional methods for solving this problem have been either centralization of subscriber data or, unfortunately, doing nothing at all. Banerjee says less than many but “quite a few” telcos have invested in centralization, but even though it might be the promised land, many stay away because they view the process as expensive, time-consuming and potentially disruptive to business. Centralizing all of a provider’s data stores is “like open heart surgery,” Banerjee says, and the process can take months to more than a year. On top of that, he added, unless all of a provider’s legacy systems and platforms are retired (which is rarely to never the case), subscriber data still will be spread across the network, even after a multi-million-dollar transformation project. Replication also has been attempted, but it is a cumbersome and not wholly effective process. “That’s why we see the mentality of service providers,” he explains. “Typically, they’re more reactive than proactive, and it’s always been that way.”
The other approach, says Banerjee, is data federation, which is “shorter-term, less expensive and … faster to implement.” It also is less disruptive and allows service providers to centralize their data gradually instead of all at once.
And in steps Xeround …
Four Key Differentiators
Xeround’s Yarkoni says the Bellevue, Wash.-based company’s Intelligent Data Grid (IDG) distinguishes itself from other data management solutions in four key ways: heterogeneity, grid computing, geo-distribution and self-healing.
In the past, she says, telco networks were pretty straightforward, but more elements were added as the number of offered services grew, with each element sitting in its own network location with its own customer data. Not only that, but, increasingly, these disparate elements don’t even house the same type of data. Some are relational databases (SQL), some are hierarchical databases (LDAP) and “in more recent times,” says Yarkoni, “we’ve seen a lot of the content platforms that get produced use XML as the way they store their data, which is a completely different format.”
“The analogy you should think about,” she explains, “is: You’re trying to build a set of database capabilities, but you have to be able to speak English, Russian and French simultaneously to look at that data simultaneously, because each one of them are stored in a variety of formats.”
IDG addresses this problem with its N-way Access Protocol, which lends the ability for the software to interact natively with different data formats. Yarkoni acknowledges that other products can interact with multiple formats, but that usually has requires some type of add-on tool, which can have an impact of performance and might not address future data formats. “We don’t have to have a translator sitting there with us to have a dialogue with each one of these entities [SQL, LDAP, XML, etc.],” she says.
2. By applying its grid computing algorithm to the database layer rather than the physical layer, a process Xeround calls “virtual partitioning,” Yarkoni says the company has created a powerful product that expands on the traditional data grid notion of having to keep that data within a defined set of physical resources. “At a very basic level, when you have a data store, a physical disk that sits out there, that disk comes with an index,” she says. “If you want to do any type of I/O with that disk, you route through that index to understand what ones and zeroes sit on that disk. This is the same concept that we apply to our software but, again, we did it at a database level so that we have the ability to look at multiple physical data stores — again, regardless of their format — and because we have one virtual index that accesses them, we can treat them all as one logical entity on the backend.”
3. Xeround’s patented geo-distribution technology enables IDG to “function with LAN latency over [a WAN] at any given time,” says Yarkoni. Telecommunications companies take fault tolerance and redundancy very seriously, so they always have multiple copies of data on the network. IDG exploits this redundancy by finding the shortest route on the network to the closest copy of the data. While she admits this is similar to data caching, the difference, she says, is that many caching solutions are read-only, whereas IDG allows for true read-write I/O and synchronization — a two-way street, if you will.
4. The self-healing properties of IDG should be apparent. Because it is not tied to any specified hardware, it is not affected by any particular box going down or going offline. In addition, Yarkoni adds, this means IDG is linearly scalable, and no reconfiguration is necessary if more hardware is added to the mix.
Why Telecommunications? Who’s Buying?
Put simply, the reason for Xeround’s focus on the communication service provider market is that the company likes a challenge. As Yarkoni puts it, Xeround wanted to “crack the hardest nut first.” She explains: “The reason why we’re focused on telecommunications today is when we went and looked at the requirements for what needed to be built, it was a very simple discussion, which is: there is immediate need in the communications service provider industry today. And, by the way, they have the most strict requirements around availability, performance, accuracy [and] resiliency of their solutions. So, there was a discrete decision to actually engineer our product to function, for example, in a five-nines environment — because we saw very clearly that if you can run in a five-nines environment, it’s very easy to run in a five-eights environment.”
The company officially launched in January, got its first contract in February and did its first live deployment in July. And although it realized that telecommunications “typically is a long sales cycle, a slow-moving beast, if you will,” Yarkoni says Xeround is seeing a lot of excitement and has a few more contracts underway. A big reason for this, she says, is that IDG “actually solves a variety of pain points today. It is not associated with a tomorrow or future trend that’s yet to come.” Because it leverages existing infrastructure, she adds, customers can build incrementally and not “rip and replace” — and the orders-of-magnitude cost savings customers have experienced don’t hurt either.
That first deployment (a four-month implementation cycle) was with Pelephone, an Israeli wireless operator serving 2.6 million customers and offering many advanced services. Sharon Alalouf, development and software infrastructure manager at Pelephone, says the company needed an ultra-responsive and extremely scalable solution that it will be able to use for real-time operations as the company’s networks evolve and accrue services. Additionally, Pelephone wanted access to subscriber data for both its existing SQL-based applications and its increasing number of LDAP-oriented services. “The primary challenge was identifying a solution which guarantees real-time responsiveness, for both read and write operations, via an LDAP interface,” Alalouf explains. “Our experience and research led us to the conclusion that Xeround’s Intelligent Data Grid suits our needs right out of the box and provides the best means to execute our project.”
Apparently a not-too-uncommon scenario, Pelephone initially planned to use its existing data management infrastructure until it became apparent that a general-purpose solution would not satisfy the provider’s requirements. Echoing Xeround’s value proposition, Alalouf says the move to IDG is allowing the company to “gradually phase out legacy application-specific subscriber data silos and replace them with a single, robust data management system.” “The true gain, in my opinion, is that now we have the actual means that we need to advance Pelephone’s consolidated subscriber data vision and won’t have to repeat that integration for each new application we rollout,” Alalouf says.
She added that IDG requires very little upfront investment and ensures “unrelenting availability.” Now, Pelephone can deploy patches and upgrades in a rolling fashion with no service interruption and minimal resource expenditure. Alalouf says Pelephone was adamant about not compromising on key requirements, which included maintaining service performance and availability.
Alalouf is familiar with several data management and database optimization solutions, but believes Xeround “outshines them all in terms of data latency, availability, robustness and cost.” As a result, he sees the company having a bright future in the telecommunications space. Yankee Group’s Banerjee generally agrees, but notes that competition with the other approaches and more established players will be intense. He notes, however, that Xeround has high benchmark numbers in tests with Nokia Siemens and is working with IBM in some deployments. If these companies, which have potentially competitive solutions, are willing to work with Xeround, there must be some proof to the company’s value proposition, says Banerjee. A key to success, he adds, will be educating the market on IDG’s value proposition and ideal subscriber data management strategies, as well as spreading the word across the greater service provider and financial communities.
“I can definitely see how other operators can benefit from taking an approach similar to ours,” concluded Alalouf. “Even more importantly, the same technology can also offer substantial value to most vendors in the industry whose products access subscriber- or customer-centric data. Once you start using it, you wonder why no one thought of doing it this way before.”