The road to zero touch

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 to clouds.

Self service

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 ETSI. 

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 services.

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 providers.” 

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 automation. 

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 business.” 

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