Rating, Charging, and Billing for the Clouds

Cloud has revolutionized the way we think of computing now. Now everything is on-demand, self-service, pay-as-you-go, and scalable. Although, these are welcome features that tremendously reduces the CAP-Ex and OP-Ex for any business, but the true potential of the clouds in regards to novel rating-charging and billing potentials has yet to be realized. Infrastructure clouds are being treated as commodity now. Much of the innovation is now shifting towards platform and software services over infrastructure clouds.

Telecom domain has always seen lots of innovations in this regard – different tiers of pricing, bundled services, numerous packages, and what not. And think about it – they only offer in reality just 1 type of service namly voice traffic. They have standardized their protocols, they even have a standard to facilitate charging and billing a.k.a Diameter. Not downplaying the significance of their innovation, the standards are needed as the consumers are mobile and they roam from one business domain into another – and unless their interfaces, user-equipment radios, accounting is streamlined (read standardized) it would be almost impossible to support the demands of a modern telco consumer.

So now the question to ask is – is there a need to replicate what has been done in the telecom world for the cloud services? I tend to lean towards a NO. The needs of the cloud consumers are not same as a telco consumers. By keeping things manageable and simple – cloud providers can keep costs low which further reinforces the USP of the clouds – simplicity and lower costs. The computations in the cloud are generally not mobile – there is typically no need. By virtue of the Internet – a computation could take place in any part of the world and there is a complete delinking of customers’ actual location and where the services are being offered from, as long as certain broad-ranging SLAs are satisfied. Therefore there is no real need for cloud hardware systems to implement complex plethora of standards. And that could be argued for the charging and billing strategies too (there is a need for standards in the consumer facing management interfaces for mitigating vendor lock-ins, but I reserve it for another blog post for another day).

A unified and simple billing strategy would work wonders for the consumers. But one also should be mindful of willy-nilly application of such a strategy. There is a need to justify the cost to the consumer as well as the cost to the provider. And hence a proper rating-charging engine is desired. And that is where there is still a lot of room for innovation in the world of clouds. Modern infrastructure management stacks including CloudStack and OpenStack already include monitoring models and metering functions in their core offering. These must be utilized by the provider in determining the real cost of operating their cloud infrastructure, and then tie this to the cost offered to the consumers.

A proper rating-charging engines would really help the providers make a sound judgement in this aspect. There are already numerous open source products including jBilling, openbillingsystem.com, opensourcebilling.org, etc. in the market. The “open” part is a severely crippled offering either providing simple billing interfaces, or features without ability to compute and process “usage data records” (UDRs). There is a real need for a true open-source platform that would allow numerous cloud services to accurately undertake rating-charging activity for their customer so that they can keep the billing model accurate, simple but “no simpler”.

If we now consider PaaS services – there is a scope to do lot more with a unified RCB engine. The umbrella of metrics of interest would be dependent on the platform services and therefore the RCB engine must be adaptive for such systems. The built-in measurement systems have to be evaluated and proper metering mechanisms enabled / provided.

In summary, rating-charging-billing innovations are necessary for several reasons (money, money, and more money …), and the innovations in the world of the clouds are just starting.

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