Notes on the Complexity of Internet Billing Systems


When using a product or service in business, it’s almost instinctive to think of ways to make it better. This is especially true when it’s a customer-centered application. For some, this thought process is just a habit. However, for others, it leads to innovation and new product development.

I recently experienced this type of stream of consciousness when working with network access control products and billing systems. Rather than just disregarding my conclusions, I decided to take a few notes on what could be changed for the better. These are just a few of the thoughts that came to mind.

The ideal product would:

  1. Cost next to nothing
  2. Auto-sense unique customer requirements
  3. Suggest differentiators such as custom Web screens where customers could view their bill
  4. Roll out the physical deployment bug free in any network topology

Up to this point, the closest products I’ve seen to fulfilling these tasks are from the turn-key vendors that supply systems en mass to hot-spot operators. The other alternative is to rely on custom-built systems. However, there are advantages and drawbacks to both options.

Turn-key Solutions

Let’s start with systems from the turn-key vendors. In short, these aren’t for everyone and only tend to be viable under certain circumstances, which include:

  1. A large greenfield ISP installation — In this situation, the cost of development of the application should be small relative to the size of the customer base. Also, the business model needs some flexibility to work with the features of the billing and access design.
  2. If you have plenty of time to troubleshoot your network — This translates into you having plenty of money allocated to troubleshooting and also realizing there will be several integrations and iterations in order to work out the kinks. This means you must have a realistic expectation for ongoing support (more on the this later). Projects go sour when vendor and customer assume the first iteration is all that’s needed. This is never true when doing even the most innocuous custom development.
  3. If you are willing to take the vendors’ suggestions on equipment and the business process — Generally, the vendor you’re using provides some basic options for your billing and authentication. This may require you to adjust your business process to meet some existing models.

The upside to these turn-key solutions is that if you’re able to operate within these constraints, you can likely get something going at a great price and fairly quickly. But, unfortunately, if you waiver from the turn-key vendor system, your support and cost cycle will likely increase dramatically.

The Hidden Costs of Customization

If you don’t fit into the categories discussed above, you may start looking into custom-built systems to better suit your specific needs. While going the custom-built route will obviously add to your initial price, it’s also important to realize that the long-term costs may increase as well.

Many custom network access control projects start as a nice prototype, but then profit margins tend to drop and changes need to be made. The largest hidden cost from prototype to finished product is in handling error cases and boundary conditions. In addition to adding to the development costs, ongoing support will be required to cover these cases. In our experience, here are a few of the common issues that tend to develop:

  1. Auditing and synchronization with customer databases — This is where your enforcement program (the feature that allows people on to your network) syncs up with your database. But, suppose you lose power and then come back up. How do you re-validate all of your customer ? Do you force them to re-login?
  2. Capacity planning — In many cases, the test system did not account for the size of a growing system. At what point will you be forced to divide and tranisition to multiple authentications systems?
  3. General “feature creep” — This occurs when changing customer expectations pressure the vendor to overrun a fixed-price bid. This in turn leads to shoddy work and more problems as the vendor tries to cut corners in order to hold onto some profit margin.

Conclusion

Based on this discussion, it’s clear that the perfect, one-time-fix NAC billing system may still only be in the minds of users. Therefore, it’s not a matter of trying to find the flawless solution but rather of taking your own needs into account while understanding the limitations of existing options. If you have a clear idea of what you need, as well as a reasonable expectation of what certain solutions can provide (and at what cost), the process of finding and implementing an NAC billing system will not only be more effective but also more painless.

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