opinion


From Strowger’s Switch to NFV and 5G: Automating the Network

automation

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece James Crawshaw, senior analyst with industry research firm Heavy Reading, presents his thoughts on the opportunities for automation in the telecom industry.

For me, the three key themes coming from this year’s SDN NFV World congress (9-13 October, The Hague) were automation, automation and automation. The basic concept of automation – the replacement of human activities with mechanized processes – is, of course, well established.

The telecom industry has been automating itself since Almon Strowger launched the first commercially successful electromechanical telephone exchange switch in 1892. However, competitive forces both within the telecom industry, driven by regulation, and from outside, driven by OTT, means telecom operators must continue to seek out new opportunities to automate their networks and operations.

There are no easy shortcuts to building an autonomous network. Many vendors would like their customers to believe that the path to full autonomy is simply a matter of installing their latest software. Reality is more complex, and few CSPs are likely to buy into the vendor fiction.

BSS and OSS automation has been a long-running quagmire for telecom operators. Many have spent the last decades wrestling with ways to integrate multiple B/OSS systems inherited through acquisitions or new technology rollouts (e.g. 2G, 3G, 4G mobile). Unfortunately, many of the big-bang style transformation programs have gone massively over budget, taken far longer to complete than initially planned and ultimately delivered less impressive results than hoped for. Nonetheless, investments in OSS/BSS automation are worthwhile as not only can they reduce the operating costs directly related to existing OSS/BSS activities (representing around 15% of a telco’s total operating expense), they can indirectly help to reduce the operating costs associated with the network itself (around 30% of total opex).

The move to the cloud is the key enabler of next-gen network automation. In traditional networks services are tied to the infrastructure – specialized hardware appliances. In the cloud model, services can be deployed via virtualized network functions, and easily changed without having to reconfigure the underlying hardware. This requires automation within the cloud platform itself as carried out by orchestration systems.

As service providers move toward virtualized networks, the entire network must operate as a closed-loop control system where the feedback mechanism is service performance. Automating service quality management and assurance starts to be a real requirement supported by a common data analytics, policy and machine intelligence layer.

Indeed, machine learning has a role to play in automating network management. Creation of Python scripts for automating network operations is now handled by human engineers; automating the script creation process through machine learning has the potential to cut development time significantly.

Some operators are already starting to reap the benefits of new automation initiatives. AT&T reports that its ECOMP (Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy) platform (open sourced to the ONAP project within the Linux Foundation) has shown that service deployment time can shrink from weeks to minutes using an automated platform. Efficiency gains of orders of magnitude – with corresponding cost reductions – should be more than enough to convince other CSPs that the ultimate payoff for automation will be well worth the protracted initial pain of development.

But rather than focus on virtualization and automation as solely a cost and efficiency strategy, operators need to understand that automated networks are an essential requirement to service the growing automation (software, robotics, drones, IoT, etc.) of their industrial, enterprise, healthcare and government customers.

5G presents a compelling opportunity for mobile operators to increase automation. Although always disruptive, and often expensive, a shift in mobile network generations always brings an opportunity to improve operational efficiencies. Unlike previous, technology-led mobile generations, 5G is being defined as a services-led solution. As such, 5G is likely to become an integral part of mobile operators’ automation strategies.

 

James CrawshawJames leads Heavy Reading’s CSP IT & Automation research service. He examines the breadth of systems and software used by communications service providers in customer, business, service and infrastructure management. James’s areas of focus include BSS (CRM, monetization, order management), OSS (orchestration, intent-based policy, closed-loop service assurance) as well as horizontal applications such as robotic process automation and artificial intelligence. He is particularly interested in the operational challenges posed by SDN and NFV and how operators can boost their agility by adopting new IT practices and systems while running existing IT infrastructure more cost-effectively.

James will be presenting at Light Reading’s “OSS in the Era of SDN and NFV” event, now in its fourth year, which will take place in London on the 1st November. The following day he will be hosting a half day workshop, also in London, on “Automation & the New Carrier Network”.

  • OSS in the Era of SDN & NFV

  • 2020 Vision Executive Summit

  • NFV and Carrier SDN


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