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The critical role of network automation in an edge cloud world

Sasa Nijemcevic

Network automation will be essential to dynamically coordinate multi-cloud edge environments of the future when it comes to data centre interconnection. Sasa Nijemcevic, vice president and general manager for network automation software at Nokia, talks about the market’s evolution, opportunities and challenges in this area.

Why is network automation important for data centre interconnection? 

It’s important because data centres form the basis for the cloud, and their interconnection enables the delivery of cloud services, especially with the evolution towards 5G and cloud-native applications that are popping up and moving closer to subscribers at the edge. This creates a more complex environment, with distributed cloud services delivered from many more data centres, and short-lived cloud applications and workloads that move around.

Because of all that, network automation becomes critical, with a need for rapid provisioning of networking resources to link data centres in a much more agile and efficient way. Automation is key to making interconnection more dynamic, responding to customer needs transparently and quickly, and interconnecting data centres using multiple network infrastructures.

Where are we with all this at present? 

It’s still fairly early days. The fundamental challenge in the industry is that today, data centre connectivity is generally done through reasonably reliable, resilient, secure networks enabled by IP and optical layers, but with little to no integration between them – and typically, those layers are overengineered separately for traffic demands.

In my experience, they are often managed by different teams using different tools and communicating via email to ensure the two layers work together: that’s a big challenge, including an organisational one.

At Nokia, we provide tools to manage, control and automate those multi-layer networks. I think as the architectures and technology evolve, we’ll progress through this automation journey.

What are the potential issues if you don’t confront the need for automation effectively? 

One is associated with operational efficiency, which will be exponentially lower if organisations don’t invest in network automation.

There’s also responsiveness to customer demand. Users want dynamic access to applications, wherever they live – in a private, public or hybrid cloud – and for however long they live. That means the underlying network must quickly respond in an automated fashion.

Other aspects are the need for rapid provisioning of networking resources and improved network lifecycle management – for example, when capacity needs to be added or infrastructure needs to be upgraded.

Last but not least, I think people often underestimate the importance of automated network and service assurance, with better quality of service enabled by reducing human errors and mean time to repair.

What types of strategies will help in future to ensure effective network automation? 

Large numbers of distributed edge data centres will need to be interconnected with central data centres. In addition, there’s the need to introduce a more dynamic understanding of traffic loads and network optimisation both within the IP and optical layers, but also across layers.

In the last five or so years, there’s been a significant shift towards intent-based networking, which allows providers to focus on business objectives instead of the technical details and how to get there. If you look at our portfolio of automation tools, we’re embracing this across the board to make life simpler for our customers.

This approach enables the definition of the desired state of the network to be done by people who understand the network. Operations teams do not need to know the complexity of those definitions, only the parameters they need.

What other technology transitions are you seeing? 

There’s a further movement towards infrastructure-as-code, and a more IT-driven and NetOps type of environment. Every aspect of the network is eventually going to be coded and programmable, making it easily consumable by the applications it supports. We launched our Adaptive Cloud Networking and Nokia Edge Network Controller earlier this year to help make cloud networks consumable, agile and automated in such an environment.

Vendors such as Nokia have also been adding 400G ZR and ZR+ optics to their routers, allowing what’s known as “coherent routing” to enable closer integration and coordination between IP and optical transport layers. This is a major architectural transition in the way transport networks are built.

In this coherent-routing environment, IP, optical and multi-layer, cross-domain automation use cases are also becoming more important to support operational efficiency.

What is Nokia currently doing with customers in automation, and can you outline some of the use cases? 

Via our Network Services Platform [NSP], we look at use cases that address a specific business problem or opportunity and have a clear outcome for customers.

Those categories can be things like network lifecycle management and service fulfilment. Other use cases deal with network optimisation through path placement, whereby better understanding of traffic leads to better efficiency, higher availability and lower latency in the network.

Then there’s network and service assurance, as well as analytics and report generation, from resource consumption to understanding trends in the network. In addition, there’s a whole set of IP and optical multi-layer possibilities, such as path-diversity analysis.

Coordinated maintenance and troubleshooting are also use cases, whereby if there’s anything happening in one layer, it’s about knowing what might be impacted in the other layer.

What are the main business benefits of automation, and can you quantify some of the advantages? 

I would say the two fundamental benefits are increased operational efficiency and better responsiveness to customer demand.

A recent Analysys Mason study that modelled the potential benefits of IP network automation based on talking to operators showed some very positive results. The report calculated, for example, an overall possible cost reduction of 65% through this approach (see “Benefits of network automation”).

How easy is it for operators to start deploying network automation? 

It depends on a few things. First of all, it depends on the skills of the operator. Some organisations have more engineering talent able to do all this. In those cases, they may decide to do many things on their own, though we can help them by providing sophisticated tools, and automation platforms like our NSP product and consultancy services.

I would argue, though, that many customers don’t have those skills or realise after a while that it takes too much effort and time, and come to us for help.

We try to package services in a way where we say: “This is the business outcome you would like to see – we can achieve that by using these tools and customising them to your needs by using these professional services.” As we go through this more and more, we become more efficient in delivery.

One big challenge is that to be successful in network automation, when you think about the skill set needed, engineers have to be good programmers and developers, they need to know how to write software and test it, and so on. In today’s world, they also need to be familiar with cloud environments and have the IT skills for all these new tools, from YANG modelling to Kubernetes orchestration.

Finding engineers with all those skills is hard. However, we at Nokia have a lot of people who do this and are growing this business – so we have mechanisms to train those engineers.

How do you see this going over the next three to five years, and how will network automation be used to aid data centre interconnection into the future? 

I think automation is a given and that future cloud-native applications brought by 5G and the metaverse won’t be delivered with the expected quality of experience if networks continue to be managed manually.

As network architectures move towards more small, distributed edge clouds, there will be a need for more automation locally. In addition, networks will leverage IT platforms, tooling and environments such as Kubernetes, with better ties between network and IT-department automation to manage the entire edge cloud infrastructure.

As a company, we have a broad range of tools for automation across the different domains – and I think the next three to five years will see heavy adoption of those.


Benefits of network automation 

Customers with which Nokia works cite the need for network automation for data centre interconnection:

“Today’s static multi-layer networks are costly and need to be more integrated and dynamic. Our platform offers customers robust, resilient and flexible connectivity between key Middle East locations. Our goal is to automate this multi-layered interconnection fabric to allow customers to connect dynamically to networks, points of presence, data centre infrastructure and subsea systems” – Mahesh Jaishankar, CEO at ARC Solutions.

“Automation of our GBI Smart Network has enabled us to continue to be the bridge between the East and West through the Middle East, and provide the network scalability and resilience that our customers require” – Cengiz Oztelcan, CEO at Gulf Bridge International.

Meanwhile, a study by Analysys Mason from last year involved interviews with operators using Nokia’s Network Services Platform (NSP) or an equivalent automation system. From this, the analyst firm modelled the potential benefits of network automation, with some of the savings estimated as shown in the graph – including a 65% reduction in overall costs.

Nokia automation graph.jpg

Source: Operator benefits from the automation of IP networks, Analysys Mason


Learn more about Nokia network automation for data centre interconnection in an edge cloud world. 

This article forms part of the special supplement Data Centre Interconnection. Click on the link to access the full supplement.

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