How Cosmote, Greece’s largest mobile network, uses Grafana Enterprise for billing system observability and beyond
Calling or texting with a mobile phone may seem like a simple process, but behind the scenes, network providers are engaged in a constant exchange of transactions to pay each other for connecting their customers. If telecom companies don’t stay on top of the data and billing, they could be surprised with their own big bills at the end of each month.
How does Cosmote, the largest mobile network in Greece, handle the challenge? With Grafana Enterprise. Using Grafana dashboards, the company is able to visualize its business metrics, track revenue and expenses, and more. It’s been a time-saver for the billing teams and improved every aspect of their operations.
Bills, bills, bills
Every second, millions of pieces of call data come into Cosmote. Every time one of its customers calls or texts someone on another provider’s network, Cosmote must pay that other telecom company a fee — and vice versa. That information is fed directly into Cosmote’s billing system and compiled into invoices for the finance department. Those invoices are forwarded to the other companies each month.
Until about 2018, Cosmote’s billing department was practically working in the dark. “I wasn’t able to see 100 percent of the data because I didn’t have a monitoring tool,” says Nikos Mexas, a senior analyst responsible for the company’s billing systems. “When it came to any level of our services, we didn’t have a clue how to monitor online, 24/7.”
If Nikos wanted to be alerted on expected revenue or expenses, he’d have to ask a member of the lower level IT support team to contact him if, for example, a number hit a certain threshold.
Beyond the trouble that went into getting those alerts, in order to simply visualize data (meaningful or granular), Nikos needed to manually extract information from Cosmote’s Oracle database, put it into Excel, then plot it on a table or graph. The process would have to be repeated over and over to compare the data over time. Not only was the scope limited, but he adds, “It might take days to finalize a result.”
Because of that, Cosmote never had access to a quick snapshot of its financial health. “I wasn’t able to see how the business was going,” Nikos says.
A clear connection
Nikos realized he needed a tool that would allow him to visualize the business in an easier and more efficient way, enabling him to make real-time recommendations that could help drive Cosmote’s bottom line. With this tool, his goal was to be able to answer simple questions such as: “Is my billing system healthy?” “Do we have enough money?” “Do we need to charge two euros per minute instead of one?”
In his search for a solution, Nikos recalls, “I found some Grafana-like products, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I saw.” What made Grafana Enterprise the ideal choice was the Oracle plugin. Cosmote was already using an Oracle database, so the plugin made it possible to visualize its billing data immediately. “It was no longer necessary to wait until the end of the month,” Nikos explains. With real-time information, he adds, he and other internal users would also be able to “catch issues that might cause problems in the future.”
But the focus wasn’t only on what might happen. He also wanted to be able to spot issues like potential fraud in real time. If Cosmote knows a lot of calls or SMS messages should be happening (or if an app is hosting an event), the billing team can monitor peaks in traffic for signs of trouble. If the traffic isn’t as big as expected, it’s a sign that something may be wrong. That type of data, Nikos says, “is easier to see on a Grafana graph instead of in an Excel table online.” Having visual proof of past events or revenue — rather than having to check the current status of a service — also allows Cosmote to make new decisions earlier and more easily. “A picture is worth 1,000 words,” he adds.
Calling all dashboards
Thanks to Grafana, Cosmote — and specifically Nikos’ 10-person team — now has a centralized view of the company’s billing system, with SMS and email notifications alerting them to any signs of trouble. One thing Nikos especially likes about having Grafana is that he doesn’t need to sit in front of his monitor 24/7 to know what’s happening with the business.
“I’ve established my dashboard, I know the rules, and then everything is automatic,” he says. “That’s it. Finito. I’ve made my life easier.”
In this dashboard, Nikos and his team can look at traffic and rejected events (such as calls that weren’t completed) over several days. The data helps them know how much they can anticipate paying another telecom network for connecting calls.
Instead of running through, say, 4,165 records — and that’s just for one partner in one day — Nikos and his team can just look at the percentage of rejected traffic and ensure it’s below that company’s SLA threshold, which covers required response times to both external partners and internal customers alike. To avoid paying penalties if the agreements aren’t met, Cosmote likes to be proactive. “Grafana helps us see what’s going so we can make quick decisions,” he says. To check on what’s happening with other telecom partners, all they need to do is use a dropdown menu to switch the data in the graphs.
“This is something that I was not able to see before. It was like I was in a cave, and this is my light. It’s such a big difference."
Nikos Mexas, Senior Analyst - Wholesale Billing Engineer, Cosmote
Another useful dashboard shows how Cosmote’s system is running in real time. It tracks call records as well as revenue and expenses.
“With one dashboard, I’m able to see that my system is healthy, everything is up and running . . . and then we can go out for a beer."
Nikos Mexas, Senior Analyst - Wholesale Billing Engineer, Cosmote
Here, the company can look at the revenue generated by a content partner (a company that does not have its own mobile network and relies on Cosmote to connect its calls and send texts to its customers).
Before using Grafana, Cosmote only saw the revenue data at the end of the month. Now, it has clear insight into its revenue intake — and any potential SLA penalties — and can figure out in real time what, if anything, it needs to change in order to continue to hit its numbers.
This means that when it comes to cost center analysis and revenue forecasting, Cosmote can be more proactive than reactive. Plus, having the data has improved the company’s relationships with its partners, because Cosmote can have conversations while events are happening, addressing them as they happen, and not afterward, when things can quickly turn into blame games where no one benefits.
When Cosmote set out to implement Grafana, its initial focus was cost center analysis. But the company has learned that choosing a system that’s so composable means it can be used for a variety of applications that are beneficial across the business.
Cosmote’s billing team is no longer the only department using Grafana. Today, five high-level business and IT teams (including Billing Systems, Revenue Assurance, and Infrastructure) use the tool, with at least 35 people looking at dashboards. And rather than having to walk through an Excel graph with upper management, Nikos can easily provide them with PDF reports and screenshots of real-time data whenever they need it.
With Grafana, Cosmote has even moved beyond its everyday financial and system monitoring tasks. During the coronavirus pandemic, as Greece and its neighboring countries rolled out their Covid-19 vaccination campaigns, SMS messages from the government were sent out on Cosmote’s mobile network. Cosmote was able to track in real time how many people were informed, then publish the dashboard to show how vaccinations were progressing for their customers. “You might not know the exact number of people that have been vaccinated, but you’re able to see how many people have been informed about vaccinations,” Nikos says.
Overall, Grafana has been a game-changer when it comes to helping drive Cosmote’s revenue, increase business, and give visibility to people around the company. “Grafana is a perfect tool for these purposes,” Nikos says.