Provisioning: What It Is and Why It Matters: Part 1
by Leslie Ellis // December 17 2001
As the headlines keep bunching around Excite@Home, and its horrid split from the industry that gave it life seven years ago, one term seems to keep pinging the jargon meter: Provisioning.
Way back in July of 1995, before newspaperman and technologist William R. Hearst III left as interim CEO of @Home, and before shares of the startup vaulted, and before @Home’s next CEO, Tom Jermoluk, ceded his spot to Excite’s George Bell, and before all of the ugliness intensified, Hearst, when asked within these pages if @Home’s purpose was to overbuild the Internet, gave this response: “I’d say we’re over-provisioning it, not overbuilding it.”
Hearst’s comment is especially poignant now, considering how under-provisioned most MSOs still linked to Excite@Home feel. Ah, if only Hearst’s characterization, or at least his implied emphasis on mundane-but-critical operational matters, like provisioning, had indeed become Excite@Home’s mantra.
Provisioning. What is it, besides proof of why technologists wind up with acronyms built on descriptive word groupings, rather than using one catchall word that describes a confusing array of things?
In essence, to provision is to activate an account for a service, as automatically as possible. Strategically, though, the one who does the provisioning usually is the one who “owns” the customer, from an operational perspective.
For high-speed Internet service, provisioning can include everything from loading browser software on the subscriber’s PC, to linking to billing systems. Assigning IP addresses, and authorizing cable modems to other equipment that might need to talk to them – all are parts of provisioning.
In most of today’s high-speed Internet installations, provisioning is partly manual, partly automatic. Think of it as what transpires between the installer and the customer care representative, back at the office, on the day a new customer gets service. The installer, standing in someone’s den with modem and CD-ROM in hand, phones in the to-be subscriber’s address or phone number. The care representative checks it against the billing system – good money or bad?
If good, the serial number, in most cases the MAC (Media Access Control) address of the cable modem, is tagged to that subscriber’s account. The CMTS (Cable Modem Termination System) in the headend is given an electronic green light for a DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server to assign an IP (Internet Protocol) address to the modem. In a sense, both the modem and the subscriber are identified to the back-office components of the cable provider, so that usage can proceed.
Think back to the first days of addressable controllers, which talked to analog, addressable set-tops. The process of automatically determining whether or not a customer was authorized to receive a scrambled premium service, then to activate that service for that customer, was, in a sense, provisioning. The only difference is, it wasn’t called provisioning back then.
Provisioning, in contemporary usage, also adorns itself with an assortment of prefixes that do a super job at muddying the interpretation. There’s pre-provisioning, auto-provisioning, self-provisioning. There’s bottoms-up provisioning, and top-down provisioning; there’s device provisioning, and service provisioning. Naturally, most of the terms overlap in definition.
The holy grail of it all is full, automatic, self provisioning: The customer walks into a store, buys a modem, takes it home, plugs it in, loads CD-ROM software, and initiates service. Everything that happens in the background, in this case, is the provisioning.
“Everything” goes like this: The connected modem first scans for the transmit frequencies it can use. If it could talk, the modem would then say something like this: “Yoo-hoo! Here I am! Set me up, please.”
The CMTS replies: “I see you, but I don’t know you yet, so please take your user to this IP (Internet Protocol) address.” The customer, sitting at the PC, finds herself at a Web site, where she can enter in all her “information” – address, account number (if she’s already a cable customer), credit card, type of service package desired. That information is electronically conveyed to the MSO’s billing system, which (hopefully) clears it and sends the go to assign an IP address, and begin service.
One step down from provisioning’s holy grail – again, known as “self-provisioning” or “auto-provisioning” — is the notion of pre-provisioning. In this case, the installer walks out to the truck in the morning, with a to-do list that shows what cable modems, already logged into inventory, will be installed that day, to what customers. Maybe cable modem number 12345689 is to go to 42 Springs Drive. In this sense, the billing system already “knows” what’s up for the day, and the installer’s role is to fulfill the to-do list.
Up until now, Excite@Home handled provisioning, and associated databases, for its MSO constituents. Strategically, it “owned” that part. But with Excite@Home going or gone, the onus is now on participating MSOs to re-construct provisioning databases – and regain full customer ownership — with or without Excite@Home’s cooperation.
That’s the what and why of provisioning. Next time: More on how MSOs are considering bringing provisioning in-house.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.
Connectionless, Connection-Oriented and Cans of Corn
by Leslie Ellis // December 03 2001
Oftentimes you’ll hear cable technologists talk about data movement as “connectionless.” It’s their way of expressing the “always on” aspects of cable’s high-speed Internet service. The service is observably connectionless in that it doesn’t hiss, pop and poot, like dial-up Internet connections do.
There are also “connection-oriented” services in contemporary cable systems. Telephony, as it exists today, is one: A slice of bandwidth is “nailed up” between the cable phone and the companion equipment in the headend, a connection is made, and the spectral resource is tied up by the call for its duration.
And it turns out that the notion of “connectionless” and “connection-oriented” data movement reaches well beyond cable’s hybrid fiber-coax plant, into the part of communications networks known as the “backbone.” Backbones are a labyrinth of fiber optic lines and routers and switches reaching outward from the headend to, say, the Internet (as one example).
Backbones matter especially now, because of the ongoing scrape of Excite@Home – which, after all, started as a managed, high-speed backbone for cable’s collaborative use. “Managed” meant it was designed to sidestep the bandwidth clogs consistently associated with the public Internet.
While it’s not really necessary to be a guru on backbone techniques, it probably helps to know the basics about how data moves, after it leaves your network.
And this is where we get to the cans of corn.
If you were a farmer in Iowa, and you produced cans of corn for sale elsewhere (likely far away), you’d (obviously) need to ship those cans of corn. You’d probably have two options: Rail, or truck.
Let’s say you chose rail, and that your cans of corn need to get to San Francisco. They’d get packaged up together in boxes. They’d get placed on one of the train’s freighter cars. Then, they’d move along a fixed and pre-determined route to California. If something went wrong along the way, tough. Your corn waits. Re-routing isn’t an option. On the other hand, all of your corn arrives together and at the same time at its destination.
If you chose to ship your cans of corn by truck, however, their route can innately be more fluid. The driver, alerted to a mess along I-80, could slip south to I-70 and continue west. Or, let’s say some of your corn goes by one truck, and some by another. Maybe the first truck encounters a 27-car pile-up along the way, re-routes himself, and gets there later than the second truck. The corn all arrives, but out of order. The handlers at the other end sort it out.
In this corny example, the corn that moves by rail is connection-oriented. A piece of bandwidth – the railway – is nailed up, and is used solely to move those cans of corn.
The corn that moves by truck is connectionless – the route is adaptable, and responsive to changes in traffic. Routers, along the way (the drivers) can keep a constant eye on traffic conditions, and respond accordingly.
Both sides, of course, have pros and cons.
Data moving along connectionless systems – Internet Protocol and Ethernet, for example – can often arrive at the destination out of order. If those packets comprise a telephone call, you wind up with the symptomatic equivalent of saying “can hear me you?” Buffering is necessary.
Connection-oriented systems, like the ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) developed by telecommunications experts, are great at maintaining consistency in packet transfer, but not so great at optimizing bandwidth. Because the “route” is fixed for the duration of a packet’s journey, that route can’t be used for anything else during that time.
The pros and cons of connectionless systems, for services other than high-speed Internet, will head your way just as soon as packet-styled telephones start ringing. Because the voice-over-IP techniques being pursued by the cable industry necessarily build on top of the DOCSIS cable modem specification – itself connectionless – a transition will need to happen in your network, from connection-oriented, to connectionless.
The underpinnings of connectionless and connection-oriented data engineering are layered in theory. Translation: With the right techs and the appropriate libations, you could talk this stuff until you’re blue (or, more likely, green) in the face. The pros and cons of data transport are one of those chewy engineering debates that go way back.
No matter how you attempt to sort it through with your in-house technologists, the answer (I bet you a dollar) will be “it depends.” That’s because there is no blanket “right” answer. What matters most is knowing how to think it through.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.