Expert interview: The shift towards platform-based software architectures
Not too long ago, cloud solutions were the talk of the town in the circles of the tech savvy. The ideas of what that would entail were quite vague and tentative at that point. Cloud-based solutions have long since surpassed the point of being a novelty. They are here to stay, with many of us using them daily in our private lives. In the world of corporate IT, they’ve become an even more important factor, effectively changing the way computing-heavy tasks are being approached. Distributed networks, cloud storage and slim, web-based services are replacing full-blown monolithic solutions and actively transforming the working environment as we speak.
You have probably heard about containerization platforms like Docker, which facilitate virtualization and node deployment in cloud-based environments. Working together with an orchestrator (like Kubernetes), such systems can be designed to handle massive computing workloads with variable resources and flexible scaling potential. For many industries, these technologies are real game changers, substantially transforming the IT landscape and shaping the tools people are working with every day and on all levels.
We sat down with our VP Technology & Products Khaireel Mohamed to find out how he views these developments and how they reflect here at NTS Retail.
NTS Retail has been involved in the evolution of retail software solutions since the earliest stages more than twenty years ago. A lot has changed since then and once emerging technologies are now a staple in workflows pretty much everywhere around the globe. How have these changes been impacting NTS Retail?
KM: For a long time, the approach was to keep the solution with all its components in a big package: the underlying logic, any libraries or required binaries. We refer to these packages as “monoliths”, because they stand on their own, are massive and immobile – or as “rich clients” as they contain everything the software needs to run, with the focus set on completeness rather than efficiency. While this approach creates somewhat static, slow solutions, it’s upside lies in the independence from fast broadband connections – they may even be operated completely offline.
In many ways, the retail industry has been quite slow to adapt to changes. Fundamentally, it’s still about barcode scanners and cashdrawers. For the longest time, software solution providers got away with adhering to the tried-and-true workflow: You scan a product, get its price and book that price as a payment once it’s been processed.
The emergence of e-commerce, and certainly the shift to mobile devices as well, have finally pushed the retail industry out of its comfort zone and created the need for change. We’re experiencing this every day: self-service terminals, cashless payments using NFC, personalized web shops, purchasing online with in-store pickup – they are all a deeply integrated part of our daily experiences in retail.
For us as a cutting-edge solutions provider, these changes started to impact us a while back. We have been busy working on and evaluating new solutions, but as always, the actual implementation aligns with the way customers respond to the changes in the environment. That means it’s a particularly exciting time for us: The fundamental shift has happened, and we have so much great technology to work with at our disposal.
How does that align with the product strategy at NTS Retail?
KM: We’ve been pursuing a platform-based approach for a while and are absolutely convinced that this is the way to go. In terms of NTS Retail and our solutions, this means that we are dismantling, restructuring and recategorizing our software into fine-grained services, which become the building blocks for our modular solution. Our platform – NTS commerce platform – enables our clients to assemble their own solutions based on our services. They can either use our out-of-the-box modules, which we are aligning with best practice standards suggested by TM Forum, or they can build their own modules connecting to our APIs. Either way, the solution delivers – fast, seamlessly and flexibly.
We’re envisioning NTS commerce platform like a set of building blocks: You can take our set and use it as it is. You can also take a part out of the set and replace it with something that better suits you. Or you can use our blocks to construct an add-on to your existing set of systems. It’s up to you and what you need. Plus, we are always happy to assist.
The workflows our software is involved in are complex in nature, plus they have been refined and tweaked over two decades. In facing these complex challenges, the cumulative expertise at the company really helps us design smart solutions: We are absolutely determined to set the standard in modern commerce solutions. Our inherent focus lies in telco retail – that’s what our experts live and breathe – but we’re also discovering that what works in the telco industry can be applied to other industries with a strong focus on product consulting just as well. High-end electronics and fashion retail are just two examples of markets with great potential for our solutions.
Why are the leading tech companies all leaning towards deploying platforms and platform-based solutions?
KM: To give a simple answer: because it’s the only feasible strategy to face the challenges of the future. The advantages from a technical standpoint far outweigh any potential downsides. Scalability, simplified and modular deployment, booking on-demand resources: these are all necessities when we are talking about a modern IT infrastructure. The demand in computing resources is growing exponentially rather than linearly, so we must take all these factors into account and, rather quickly, that leaves us with the need for distributed computing. In order to manage systems that consist of multiple nodes and virtualized machines, platform-based architectures really are the only sensible way.
We’re talking with leading international telecom operators on a daily basis and there is a consistent focus: They are all online and they are all shifting towards slim, web-based applications. It simply makes everyday operations easier and allows them to streamline processes, from on-boarding to operations and maintenance. There are a couple of specific challenges in moving large-scale retail solutions to web-based platforms – one of them being sustained resilience regarding network failures, especially in the payment process. We have designed a couple of really clever solutions to address these issues and that’s where we benefit from the full scale of the cumulative experience here at NTS Retail.
Where do you see the main benefits of shifting to a platform-based approach for NTS Retail?
KM: Flexibility has always been a strong suit for us. The operators we are serving need partners, who can provide them with an adaptable and reliable solution that can meet their specific requirements. CSPs have unique workflows, most of which we can satisfy out of the box, others we’re able to implement using customizations. With the shift towards a platform-based architecture, we benefit from a simplified rollout and incremental updates. Since we are designing our services to be as fine-grained as possible, it will be easier for us to update specific parts. Workflows that might have required a fully customized monolith previously, can now potentially be solved by slightly adapting the way our services are addressed. This is great news for our customers and partners, as it also means that they will be able to do some customizing on their own. We will provide best practice kits, but if they need to assemble those kits differently, they will be able to do so.
For our new front-end applications, we are envisioning a seamless experience. The transition along the various touchpoints during each customer’s journey needs to happen without a perceived change of interface. As an example, it’s a key priority for us to empower sales reps to provide highly personalized consulting to their customers. To do so, we’ve conceived a 360° customer view, which they can use to review customer usage statistics, existing contracts and possible next best actions. From there, they can smoothly shift into the payment process. All from a single front end. We envision our tools as an essential part of a journey, during which confident sales reps provide exceptional service to satisfied customers with lasting success.
As the big tech companies are taking on the role of both infrastructure (e.g. Google Cloud or AWS) and solution provider (Google or Amazon) with a vast range of services catering to different industries, where do you see companies like NTS Retail fit into the picture?
KM: Staying ahead of the curve is a major concern for the leading tech companies. In order to not be outrun by a smarter approach, they need to make sure that they are the ones who produce the next generation of smarter solutions. For those companies, investing in research is also an investment in securing their position. If, on top of that, they are also the only ones who can really provide the technical resources for their solutions to run on, then that just strengthens their position.
The challenge for us is to find a spot within the field of play of the big guys. We’re responding by bringing our expertise in retail solutions to the table, while still keeping pace with the changes in technology and functional requirements. By providing an adaptable state-of-the-art solution in our field, we’re able to present a pretty strong USP.
This leads us back to the point I made earlier: The combined depth of experience at the company helps us solve specific problems in telco retail smartly, perhaps more so than generalists can. We possess niche competence, which might not be as desirable to the big players, but comes rather naturally to us, because it’s what we’ve always been doing.
Dr Khaireel A. Mohamed is NTS Retail’s Vice President of Technology & Products. Khaireel is responsible for NTS Retail’s key solution designs and he oversees the advancement of TM Forum’s principle concepts and technological architectures in NTS Retail’s digital platform product lines.
Since joining NTS Retail, Khaireel has led several development teams in designing and fulfilling retail solutions for NTS customers in Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He defines and drives the company’s strategy on regional and global retail business trends, based largely on an exhaustive set of current and future customer-specific demands. With over 15 years of IT and Telco experience, he adds value to NTS with his deep understanding and ability to finetune state-of-the-art technologies, and channeling them toward the growth and expansion of NTS Retail’s commerce platform solutions.
Khaireel holds the Doctor of Philosophy (summa cum laude) degree from Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg in the fields of Algorithms, Data Structures and Statistical Mathematics. An accomplished mathematician and a keen musician, Khaireel has successfully led several academic and commercial campaigns in Singapore, Australia and Germany for the Ministry of Manpower, the National Liaison Committee, and the International Students Services as its Director, Secretary of State and State Convenor.
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