Optiva CEO: Google Cloud Spanner changes the BSS game for telcos

Google announced the public release of Cloud Spanner on the same day that Danielle Royston started her job as CEO of Optiva. (Optiva)

Optiva CEO Danielle Royston hopes to disrupt the telco business support systems (BSS) sector by working with Google's Cloud Spanner to put its products into the public cloud.

Cloud Spanner is a cloud-native, enterprise-grade, globally distributed database that was built in-house by Google. On the same day that Royston started her job as CEO of Optiva 18 months ago, Google announced the public release of Cloud Spanner.

Earlier this month, Optiva announced that its Optiva Charging Engine is now available on Google Cloud Spanner, which followed on the heels of June's announcement that OCE was generally available on Kubernetes. Both were key steps in Optiva's move toward the public cloud.

Sometimes a fresh set of eyes from outside of an industry can lead to a dramatic reboot of a company's fortunes. Such was the case with Royston, who had no experience in the telco space.

"One thing that I saw when I first looked around—me as an outsider—there was no cloud talk going on in this industry," she said in an interview with FierceTelecom. "A lot of times telcos think virtualization equals cloud, but I'm talking about public cloud. If you're one of the big public cloud providers, like Google's public cloud, those platforms could really transform the way the telcos are deploying our applications."

Optiva provides charging and metering services for telcos' mobile and landline phones. Telcos count on BSS vendors to help them monetize their services and keep track of minutes in real time. MVNOs can also use Optiva without needing to set up their own data centers and servers.

"BSS is a very database-intensive application," Royston said. "You're doing a lot of look-ups and reads to see what plans people have, how many minutes they have. It's also a very write-intensive application because you need to atomically write and connect the changes that just happened on a particular transaction. Every single CDR (call detail record) that comes across that network is tracked in real time and then deducted from their plan."

Royston said that Oracle has had a strong hold on telcos' enterprise database capabilities. Telcos use Oracle to set up their database servers to handle all of the BSS functions, but Oracle databases have physical limits and the licensing fees can be costly. When usage spikes on cell phones, iPads and smartwatches, telcos need to purchase more compute from Oracle or prepurchase it for when they might need it. With Cloud Spanner, telco customers are able to elastically scale their databases.

"When I talked to the engineers in our company, we were just twisting every knob and getting every little bit of performance from the Oracle databases," Royston said. "We have customers that pay $100 million a year in licensing to Oracle outside of our own application. A big percentage of the CSPs are running a charging system with Oracle. We're throttled by Oracle. At some point, we tapped out on their transactions per second limit."

Optiva looked for a way to beat Oracle's performance by a factor of 10 at a tenth of the cost.

"Google's Cloud Spanner was unique in the way that it handles distributed high availability, has super low latency and has the atomic capability to sequentially write a lot of transactions," she said. "We put an engineering team behind it, and pretty quickly they figured out that we were getting 10 times the performance. Then with some tweaks to our application, we could dramatically bring down the cost. That is our message."

With Cloud Spanner, Optiva can handle more than 500,000 charging transactions per second.

Google is known for "eating its own dog food," which means its employees try out various applications and services on their own. But Cloud Spanner has been used internally by Google for seven years and is currently in use for most of its mission-critical systems and a lot of its databases.

The first step toward running its applications in the cloud was getting Optiva's customers "cloud ready," according to Royston. To help with that, Optiva's products are running in containers in Kubernetes, which is generally available on Optiva's OCE.

"The idea of Kubernetes is that you can run an application in any cloud, public or private, and if it works it should work in any cloud," Royston said. "You can port it very easily. That'll be the first step. A lot of customers will adopt a Kubernetes approach. That will get them some savings, but the continued saving will not happen until they move to public cloud."

Royston said that Optiva was ready to go live with Cloud Spanner, but there would be questions to answer around data regulation, data privacy and security in the various countries that it operates in. Cloud Spanner is in several proof of concepts with Optiva customers.

"Coming soon you'll see the whole package," Royston said. "It'll be our product in Kubernetes running on Spanner and then finally running in Google Cloud."

Some of Optiva's customers include Telus, Vodafone India and Vodacom South Africa. All told, Optiva has 100 customers in 80 different countries.

Royston took part in a session with Google Cloud's Deepti Srivastava at the Google Next conference this week in San Francisco.

Competition in the BSS space

Optiva competes in the BSS space against Ericsson, Huawei and Amdocs. While Huawei is building its own cloud, Royston didn't think BSS is a primary focus going forward for the Chinese vendor.

"Huawei is a huge company that has lots of different products, and BSS is not their breadwinner," she said. "I think the same goes for Ericsson. They have a product, but I don't really hear them talking about the cloud, or even really talking about containerization.

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"Amdocs is not necessarily a software company. They're more of a build-whatever-you-need kind of company. For them to commit to the cloud I think is a little more difficult."

Turnaround time

When she took on the role of CEO, Royston was under pressure to turn Optiva's fortunes around. Optiva was founded as Redknee Solutions in 1999. The company acquired some additional BSS capabilities from Nokia Siemens in 2015 and bought another company out of bankruptcy the same year.

At the time Royston started as CEO, Optiva had about $80 million in debt that the banks were calling on, but EWS Capital invested $80 million to subtract the debt.

"In 2017, we raised about $75 million to do a rights offering to fund our restructuring," Royston said. "I've been in the job now for about 18 months just really trying to turn around the company. My perspective, with my back is against the wall, is I'm trying to save this company. I'm really trying to pivot it into a success story. We believe that the cloud not only is soon, but it's now. We consider this a paradigm shift for telcos."