Telecoms is highly multi-faceted business, with carriers, telecom equipment vendors and service providers all striving to constantly innovate and offer different competitive solutions to deliver what they need to deal with ever-rising solution complexity and high customer demand.

It’s also an industry with a very wide variety of technology applications — from building out and maintaining great networks, to numerous customer-facing billing and support back office systems. Very much part of the mix now are Smart Homes, Smart Cities and planning for large-scale Internet of Things (IoT) projects, too.

Telecoms do not rely on a single technology to manage these different areas. But notably, one form of software is present across the telecoms ecosystem, and being used to support everything from network-facing activities (OSS), unified network inventory, planning, traffic engineering and traffic intelligence, performance analytics, detecting fraud and customer journey analytics to try and prevent ‘churn’ to personalisation apps.

That one technology: graph database software, and almost always in its native form, and it turns out graph software is a platform relied on for often highly-demanding uses by four of the top five global telecoms equipment companies.

A new way of visualising the world

Why have graph databases proven so popular in this particular market? Because graph software — the world’s fastest growing database technology, used by an increasing number of enterprises to solve connected data problems — provides a powerful and flexible new data model fit for multiple business use cases, a fact that hasn’t escaped the attention on telecoms network builders.

From talking to customers who are doing this, their excitement lies in the flexibility and power of the graph model. Those telecoms enterprise customers who know about graph technology are enthused because they can see it unlocking a new way of not just working with information, but thinking about it — as it’s effectively a new way of visualising and understanding the world.

It’s also a new way to solve old problems. Telecommunications networks are hyper-connected ecosystems of components, services and behaviours, from physical items (such as end devices, routers, servers and applications), to activities (like calls, media and data) and customer information (rights and subscriptions).

Yet critical information is often siloed, so telcos are starting to realise that by using graph databases, cross domain dependencies with a single unified view of the infrastructure and topology are now much easier to visualise. Graphs can also much more naturally capture relationships between data than traditional relational databases, and therefore more easily model network and service complexity.

Graph software’s in-built facility with connections definitely marks out from its RDBMS forerunners that require careful schema building and complex joins to map multiple levels of relationships, which are then inflexible when adding new data, but graph software was actually specifically designed to store and process such multi-dimensional associations. Plus, service assurance in the telecommunications context requires performance and predictability, such as monitoring real-time end-user experience for automated responses — again, graph databases thrive in querying such complexity at scale, easily outperforming RDBMS and even other NoSQL data stores.

Graph telecoms pioneers tell us this is starting to really help service assurance, which has had to rely on fragmented views of the network and services that are typically manually curated and often inaccurate. There’s a real worry now that sticking to the relational status quo could result in costly and unsatisfactory service quality.

A bird’s-eye view of even the most complex networks

Successful telecoms companies are thus embracing next-generation service assurance that leverages a comprehensive, real-time view of services and infrastructure with an eye on end-user experiences, new service creation and predictive modeling. One example is Orange, which is using graph technology for security insights and overall infrastructure monitoring in Orange’s key information systems “and [so] have a bird’s eye view of all its components”.

Specifically, Orange engineers and operators are starting to use graph technology to create a singular view of operations across multiple networks at once, including cell towers, fibre lines, cable, customers and consumer subscribers or content providers. As a result, they are starting to make measurable improvements in the customer experience by minimising the impact of system maintenance or outages, being able to re-route services during an unexpected interruption, or identifying and preemptively upgrading vulnerable servers based on their maintenance history and availability.

Another example is Zenoss, a leader in hybrid IT monitoring and analytics software and which has many telecoms customers, provides complete visibility for cloud, virtual and physical IT environments. Graph technology is used by the company to help users understand what needs to be done to provide the highest quality of service with the greatest uptime reliability — and at scale; Zenoss monitors 1.2 million devices and 17 billion data points a day — more than 60 million data points every five minutes.

It’s that kind of power that is opening up genuinely fresh perspectives for the kind of problems — and the size of the solution — telecoms firms can finally start to think about.

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Emil Eifrem is CEO and co-founder of Neo4j. Emil famously sketched out what today is known as the property graph model on a flight to Mumbai in 2000. Since then Emil has devoted his professional life to building and evangelising graph databases. He is a frequent conference speaker and a well-known author and blogger on NoSQL and graph databases, as well as co-author of the agreed Bible on graph databases, O’Reilly’s Graph Databases