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Q&A: Interview with Prabhu Ramachandran, WebNMS Talking Networking Orchestration

I recently had a conversation with Prabhu Ramachandran, senior director of WebNMS, a division of Zoho Corporation, where we talked about how service providers are improving their networks with orchestration.

VMblog:  The entire industry is talking about orchestration.  Why is orchestration important to service providers?  And what is WebNMS offering in this area?

Prabhu Ramachandran:  The end goal of orchestration is service agility - delivering services more quickly and using automation to control operational costs. At WebNMS, we released the Symphony Orchestration Platform to address this need. Symphony is a suite of software solutions and tools that give service providers a foundation to build service orchestration applications that automate their operations. It helps providers deliver much more dynamic services to their customers and reduce their OPEX.

VMblog:  How is Symphony different from other orchestration products?  What do you offer that's unique here?

Ramachandran:  From an operator's perspective, Symphony is unique in that it combines true workflow customization with an unmatched library of multi-vendor network management solutions in an open environment. Symphony focuses on helping providers automate existing, well-defined services to get OPEX efficiency now and prepare for SDN and NFV, with open APIs that prevent vendor lock-in.

Symphony leverages the WebNMS Framework, a field-proven, carrier-class network management solution, with over 400 service provider and system vendor customers. This eliminates many integration headaches, unifying their network management, which we see as a first step on the path to orchestration. We want users to focus their efforts on workflow automation.

Third, to make those workflow automation efforts more tractable and efficient, we've applied our experience with software frameworks to deliver a purpose-built tool for custom workflow automation. Providers can efficiently create complex workflows, either themselves or working with a system integrator.

VMblog:  How do you define ‘workflow'?

Ramachandran:  First of all, we chose the word ‘workflow' because people can relate it to their day-to-day activities, which we are trying to make more efficient through automation.

To us, a workflow is a representation of a process in sufficient detail and completeness that it can be executed by automated software, repeatedly.

Workflows include the inputs and outputs of the process as well as the steps of the process itself. One important input is the state of the network, which is often very complex and brings about the need for big data tools as part of workflows. Workflows often modify that state, say by configuring a new service. They also deliver outputs like reports, acknowledgements or a list of issues that need resolution.

Symphony helps structure workflows, which improves productivity, but creating workflows still takes effort.

First of all, workflows need to be complete for a scope of work. In our manual processes, after we do them a few times, we can learn to take completeness for granted. Think about teaching kids something new. How many times do you leave out a step? Correct workflows capture all the steps, no matter how obvious.

They also must be repeatable - or automated. You get ROI from the Nth iteration, not the first. When the workflow is invoked by some event, it should produce the desired results the vast majority of the time. One hundred percent success would be great, but sometimes the incremental work to describe that level or completeness is not worth it, at least not right away. Practical workflows often need exception paths to handle rare cases - perhaps escalating an irresolvable performance issue to a NOC engineer.

I like thinking about printers as a good example of workflow optimization. Printers are part of our workflows. Having a home or office printer is infinitely better than having a typewriter or getting film developed, but I still run out of paper or ink sometimes. Adding paper every few days is an acceptable trade-off for me. Of course, the printer companies are trying to improve their customer experience through improved automation - they warn me when my ink cartridges get low and will place an online order for new ink. But, for me, that's a diminishing ROI compared to the ease of printing directly from applications.

We are very hopeful about many workflow possibilities for networks (i.e., ordering new infrastructure, particularly NFV resources based on load), but we feel the biggest near-term return will be in service provisioning and assurance. Providers need to make that dramatically more efficient because it happens all the time, and end users want to get new services faster!

VMblog:  Are your customers automating service assurance workflows?

Ramachandran:  Yes, service assurance is a common thread. It's critical to provider customers, and it can be a time-consuming task, particularly when you have a large installed base of customers.

For example, we've partnered with VeEX to automate remote service activation testing, initially for Carrier Ethernet. When establishing a new service, a workflow provisions the service and then instructs the remote test equipment to verify the expected performance with a live network test. The benefits here are you get an assured service without a truck roll - saving time and expense.

Then, once services are established, another workflow can monitor all of the services continuously and ensure they are performing within acceptable limits. If performance drops off for one or more services, the workflow can raise an alarm for resolution.

VMblog:  You also mentioned big data.  How about big data use cases?

Ramachandran:  Right now, big data's primary benefit is reliability through performance at scale.

Orchestration centralizes information processing. All the workflows share a common database of real-time information to stay in sync. This database grows over time and can get "big" pretty quickly. Raw size is one stress on performance, so the scalability of big data is helpful.

But, performance reliability when the network itself is under stress is even more important. When something goes wrong in the network, it can generate a flood of alarms. Workflows issuing and processing of these alarms generate spikes of database operations. It can overwhelm conventional databases. If the database performance lags, the operator can't trust the underlying automation and must fall back to manual operations at the worst possible time. Our big data repositories are showing dramatically improved performance - removing the database as the bottleneck and providing headroom for business growth.

Over time, we expect providers will find many creative and proactive uses for big data analytics. An analysis of the load on a business user's service might show a service usage saturation trend and allow the provider to inform the customer that a service upgrade is needed to avoid performance problems. Particularly for fast-growing SMBs, likely without their own sophisticated IP, getting that warning through a customer portal could avoid slowing down their business - adding value to the provider's service.

Our customers see the potential for innovation here. Today, most are focused on streamlining their current operations but want a platform that can integrate these capabilities once baseline automation is in place.


With over 14 years of experience delivering service provider software solutions, Prabhu Ramachandran directs WebNMS, the service provider division of Zoho Corporation. Prabhu leads strategic marketing, product management, customer support, partnerships and professional services for WebNMS. Leveraging the technology of the corporation's flagship WebNMS Framework, Prabhu has expanded the business from its longstanding leadership position in multi-vendor network and element management software into vertical solutions for Carrier Ethernet, MPLS, broadband, LTE and satellite networks. In 2012, Prabhu began driving WebNMS into network orchestration, SDN, NFV and IoT/M2M platforms, all critical enablers for service providers to grow profitable businesses. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Electronics and Communication from Madras University, Chennai, India.

For more information about WebNMS, please visit, and follow the company on Twitter at @WebNMSIoT. 

Published Thursday, May 28, 2015 7:58 AM by David Marshall
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