28 June 2018
NTT Com’s Michael Wheeler has seen two decades of improvements through network automation – since long before anyone heard of SDN or NFV. He tells Alan Burkitt-Gray of the benefits
Automation has been central to NTT
Communications’ strategy since long before it was
part of NTT. "It’s one of the core secret sauces
that’s behind much of our business success," says
The automation story started, he recalls, in the Verio days
back in the late 1990s, when its engineers wanted to reduce
cost and create efficiencies, and they didn’t want
to hang around for all the manual tests that then had to be
NTT, the Japanese telecoms giant, completed its purchase of
Verio in August 2000, for a price of $5.5 billion. Wheeler
joined Verio in 1997 and has been with the group as it
transitioned to NTT Communications ever since, apart from a
two-year interval in 2000-02.
Now, for the past nine years and 21 years after joining
Verio, Wheeler is officially global IP network EVP at NTT
Communications – still, fundamentally, Verio as it
was. And many of the people who pushed ahead with the
company’s automation project back then are still
there, he says.
"It was 1997 when we first did it, thanks to the global
engineering team," he says. "They are still part of the
development team. They were more than software engineers: they
were part of running the network. That was the original
And why? Then, as now, "customers get a more stable, more
predictive environment", he says. They wanted "standard
programmatic management of the network", an automatic way to
configure the network. This was, he points out, long before
anyone had thought of, or even dreamed up the terms for,
software- defined networks (SDNs) or network functions
virtualisation (NFV). But the arguments applied now were the
arguments that the Verio engineers applied back in 1997. "From
an operational perspective automation is a critical component
of how to run a network effectively," he says.
And there was a little impatience in their rationale.
Engineers need to make frequent changes to the networks, and
when they do that they spend a lot of time checking and
double-checking. Engineers were "tired of waiting", says
Wheeler, but really they wanted to drive up efficiency and
reduce time. "They were asking: 'How can we do this
differently?’," he recalls.
But Verio was ahead of its time. "There were no standards
then," says Wheeler. "We weren’t pigeon-holed. We
wanted to reduce cost and create efficiencies."
And that work has continued from the Verio days right
through to NTT Communications today, he says.
"We’ve taken the mindset from then and we have
learned some things since then," he says. "It’s a
cultural thing as much as an operational thing. There are
different tools available now."
And NTT Com has been able to build on this work by providing
tools for customers for use in the configuration and management
of their own network. It’s not self-provisioning,
he says, but it’s a vital part of the service.
"When you have a business that’s on our scale,
it’s definitely continued to be a big part of our
offer," says Wheeler.
Outside NTT Com, which provides IP network services, other
parts of the NTT group have "similar mindsets", he says.
Software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) specialist Virtela
has automation of systems in the private network business, he
notes. NTT announced its acquisition of Virtela in 2013 for a
reported $525 million.
And NTT Com’s approach has helped to focus the
minds of equipment providers Cisco and Juniper Networks, says
Wheeler. "We’ve been very transparent with our
ideas," he says. "Both of them have shown a willingness to
share information. It’s been helpful for them and
for their broad set of customers. It’s helped them
to work out what’s important and why."
Cisco, he says, was "very aware of how we wanted to interact
with the software", he says. "We don’t dictate our
approach but we do it at a programmatic level." Others have
built their own automation technology, he says, but "the
concept, the philosophy has become part of the industry. Every
company ends up implementing it in different ways."
And the advantages? He’s clear. "The benefit
for the customer is the stability and reliability of the
network." This is particularly the case when changes are made
to the configuration. "When you implement changes across the
network, the level of error is very low, it’s
dramatically reduced," says Wheeler.
Changes are common, of course, and this is where automation
is really "more impactful for customers", he notes. "You are
able to do things about customer migrations and movements. For
example, when we are doing a major migration of a router
platform, we might get 200 customers on a router." With
automation, "we’re able to reduce the maintenance
time to a couple of hours".
By automating the preliminary work, errors can be checked
for, and the configuration can be right. "That’s
the physical part of the transition. Automation means
maintenance windows are shorter and more reliable. You preload
all of those changes."
How often are changes needed? "With a network our size,
hardware and software changes regularly," says Wheeler. Changes
happen two or three weeks of every month. A network
doesn’t stay in a static state." Customers see a
fair amount of the impact of automation, and the
It’s been an industry-wide change, but Wheeler
is firmly of the belief that NTT Com has been "a positive
contributor" to the industry’s transformation.
"We’ve had of lot of discussions with
competitors," he says. "People have taken the idea and adapted
to the reality. We’re contributing in a very
What have been the topics of these discussions? Wheeler
replies: "Our conversations have been about routing security
and IPv6. We’ve been big evangelists of IPv6 for
10 years. We’ve created a positive attitude to the
need for better network security."
But he turns back to the economic and operational benefit of
automation. "The other big benefit of automation is cost.
Compare the number of people running our network with the other
four or five leading networks globally," he says. "We have a
smaller number of people. If you take a cost and business
perspective, others are larger with respect to staff numbers.
For us, it means an agile, flatter organisation."
It’s "hard to quantify", he says, conceding
that some of NTT Com’s rivals are "great, but
compare the head count." Numbers? "For our entire operational
people, fewer than 130-150 globally. It’s a pretty
small organisation. For the IP network we’re
smaller than Level 3 or Telia," he claims. "The benefit is that
it allows us to be cost effective."
He admits it’s hard to prove, especially as on
the IP side NTT has not bought any company since the Verio deal
18 years ago. "Most of our acquisitions have been on colocation
and services." He contrasts the position with other companies
– Level 3, which bought Global Crossing and then
itself got bought by CenturyLink; or Zayo, where acquisition is
"the whole strategy", he says.
"In all honesty if we did an acquisition of an IP network
then the automation would allow it to be a lot more efficient,"
And he says other carriers accept that "what we are doing
makes a lot of sense", warning that it’s important
to differentiate between NTT Com’s full automation
and many others’ partial automation. "They are two
different things," he says.
Where’s it going? Automation isn’t
complete yet. "There are still a number of ways for automation
to continue to expand," he says. "There are benefits we
haven’t got yet. We still want to make
In particular, he says: "We are going to continue to enhance
the core control." The company wants migration tools, tools to
allow migration of points of presence and tools to allow route
"We are creating more and more tools. We are creating better
and better capability for customers to use our network in an
automated way. These toolkits will be available because of
automation. It means customers won’t need an
engineer to look at the network." This is important when a
network moves to new hardware. "It reduces the time needed to
ensure it’s working correctly." And that is what
you want from a network.