27 April 2018
| Gareth Willmer
Dynamic networks are the name of the game for the carriers of today. Futuristic technologies are calling for futuristic networks, with the ability for full automation along with flexible provisioning, writes Gareth Willmer
Automation is seen as necessary for operating 5G, as well as
for the proliferation of the internet of things (IoT) and big
data. The call towards this zero-touch vision is heightened by
the onset of the so-called zettabyte era, characterised by
surging demand for bandwidth-hungry applications –
with annual global IP traffic set to hit 3.3ZB by 2021,
according to Cisco’s predictions.
The trend is reflected in carriers’ shift from
static backhaul and transport networks to flexible systems such
as software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions
virtualisation (NFV), allowing them to react to more elastic
capacity demands and to spin up new services rapidly.
Carriers are clear about the benefits that moves towards
zero touch will bring. This evolution is "critical" for driving
operational scale, removing costs, enabling more self-service
for the customer and, most importantly, improving the employee
and customer experience, says Travis Ewert, VP of
software-defined services and big data at CenturyLink. "It
allows us to differentiate by packaging all of these
'software-defined services’ in unique ways.
It’s a beautiful thing."
Not least in this equation is the need to address customer
demand. "Customers expect orders to be delivered in minutes,
not days," says David De Klerck, senior manager of Verizon
business networking and security solutions.
Operators have multiple strategies in place to make this
picture a future reality. At the Zero Touch & Carrier
Automation Congress in Madrid at the end of March, Juan Carlos
García López, global director of technology and
architecture at Telefónica, outlined the
carrier’s zero-touch vision.
This roadmap includes the use of AI in self-organising
networks and Telefónica’s expansion across
its markets of its UNICA drive towards virtualising network
functions – while a phase in the five years after 2020
will see a move towards so-called "extreme" automation ready
for massive 5G deployments.
Meanwhile, Telstra unveiled its Network of the Future
transformation programme last year, as part of a three-year
plan for up to A$3 billion of investment in digitisation and
networks of the future. This included the preparation of
networks for 5G, IoT and media cloud services.
Alongside that, its Telstra
Programmable Network portfolio offers the benefits of
self-service global network connectivity, APIs for integration
into customers’ systems and on-demand connectivity
There is a variety of drivers for these types of service,
says Jim Fagan, director of global platforms at Telstra
Enterprise. Among others, these include cost reductions through
factors such as a reduced need for on-site visits and fewer
outages, as well as having network technology to serve IT
customers that are getting increasingly accustomed to
self-service and on-demand services.
"If carriers aren’t leading this trend, we will
not be competitive against newer, smaller, focused providers,"
says Fagan. His vision of the industry’s future is
that it "should be able to tailor solutions to
customers’ needs, but built on standard, fully
automated building blocks".
But if we are to see a truly automated industry that
supports orchestration across networks, carriers cannot do
everything on their own. This is something that they are only
too aware of, with multiple efforts by industry players to get
things working in tandem.
A case in point was the three-month Zero Touch NSM project
last year, which saw Telefónica, Deutsche Telekom and
China Mobile working together with vendors and others to
identify new approaches to managing networks.
And carriers are working through industry associations and
standards bodies to make this large-scale, cross-network
automation a reality. "Communication service providers are
doing a lot by themselves, but an industry-wide joint approach
is needed," says Klaus Martiny of Deutsche Telekom, who is
chairman of the newly formed Zero touch network and service
management group (ZSM ISG) at European standards body
Reflecting these needs, this zero touch group was launched
last December with an initial remit to focus on 5G end-to-end
network and service management, such as for network slicing
– and, later, future network generations. It also aims
to aid cooperation and coordination between standardisation
bodies and open-source projects. ETSI can help deliver the
"radical change" needed in the industry through its position as
a well-known and accepted body, says Martiny.
A large amount of work is also going on in the MEF industry
association, with its 3.0 transformational global services
framework. Stan Hubbard, director of communications and
research at MEF, sums up the evolving picture: "We have
embarked on a journey to enable service providers to transition
from operating as independent islands of excellence to being
integral players in a worldwide business federation of
cloud-like networks that support dynamic services across
multiple providers," he says.
Hubbard adds that he views the road ahead as a multi-year
migration process that will involve a variety of factors, such
as the deployment of new technologies, alignment on standards,
and workforce training on new concepts.
Among its areas of work, the group is in the process of
standardising APIs for lifecycle service orchestration (LSO) to
enable the orchestration of dynamic services across multiple
providers and technology domains.
And steps are being made among carriers in this area. In
March, Verizon and Colt, both members of the MEF, together
demonstrated two-way inter-carrier SDN orchestration in a live
trial, with the ability to make near real-time bandwidth
changes in each other’s production networks.
"This is a component of full automation, because what we are
trying to do with this effort is not only fix the end-to-end
programmability or the end-to-end zero touch within a
particular carrier, it’s to solve the problem
across carriers," says Javier Benitez, a senior network
architect at Colt Technology Services. He says this was an area
Colt started working towards after it launched its Novitas
network programme in 2015, and the company has carried out
other inter-carrier trials.
Running across carriers
At Verizon, De Klerck says his company already provides zero
touch on overlay services, but emphasises the need to get
things running across carriers. "Our underlying network is
automated, but reality is that any customer network will
consist of multiple network segments from different providers,"
he says. "For a customer, it is only automated when the
end-to-end is automated, not just the Verizon part."
Full cross-carrier automation will take longer –
maybe five to 10 years – because of the need to
cooperate and standardise, he says. "As this will be an
evolution, we will live for some time to come with a mixed
environment, with various degrees of automation depending on
the capabilities of interconnecting carriers."
In the meantime, Verizon is moving towards further
automation in other areas. For one thing, says De Klerck, the
company has just unveiled bundles for its Virtual Network
Services. This is to address the fact that apart from
individual virtual services being automated, customers want
"service chains" to help with spinning up combinations of
Meanwhile, the changing world of virtualisation has called
for a cultural shift at carriers. "A big challenge for every
carrier is to break with silos of services," says Francisco
Santos, head of wholesale services at Telefónica
International Wholesale Services (TIWS). He says that
Telefónica has instilled a mindset of digitisation over
the past few years, so different divisions have become more
dynamic, agile and faster to launch products – with
people hired and trained for the new environment, and more
agile OSS and BSS systems being rolled out. "We are also
working on the ways that we intercommunicate with other
Eduardo Guardincerri, chief marketing officer at TIWS, says:
"At Telefónica, we are in the process of digitisation
and becoming a full digital company. We understand that we need
to have the required flexibility and agility to serve digital
customers." He says zero touch will happen step by step, with
some initiatives this year and others later.
At Colt, says Benitez, dedicated "on-demand" teams have been
formed and programmes have been put in place to upskill teams
for SDN, NFV and software architecture. But Benitez says that
while some big carriers have initiated ambitious transformation
programmes and upskill initiatives, some others are still in
the early stages, not only in terms of internal transformation,
but also in adopting SDN and NFV on the way towards zero-touch
The need to "touch all parts of the network" will, for a
start, pose a big challenge and mean there is a long journey
ahead, says Michael Howard, senior research director and
advisor at IHS Markit – but he says the existence of
the ZSM ISG is a positive development.
And it is certainly something that carriers are not going to
pull back from. "Zero-touch networking is the way forward and
will clearly change the way network and service management is
done," says De Klerck. He also emphasises the need to focus on
the benefits for the customer: "The complexity of the
underlying networks will be taken away from the customer, but
it will be important to provide the right tools and dashboards
so they can continue to monitor the impact on their core