Virtualization and software-defined networks have been the industry’s pre-occupation for almost a decade. It’s all part of a journey toward the deployment of 5G, which will be our next focus for the coming decade. Along the way, one of the key dimensions of the transition will be automation. Network automation has the potential to not only improve productivity and accelerate service delivery, but it is an imperative to reduce operational costs and eliminate manual errors, making networks more profitable and reliable.
Networks now play a very central role in our digital world. In the future, they will connect a nearly unimaginable number of devices and sensors that are in the process of infiltrating our lives, bringing efficiency, convenience and saving us time. The many and diverse applications and services we now anticipate will require high bandwidth, low latency and mission-critical reliability from networks.
Cloud-based networks will be expected to react to demand almost instantly. It is hard to imagine that manual processes will be up to the job. From self-driving vehicles to tele-surgery, there will be very low tolerance for manual mistakes, configuration issues or long troubleshooting processes. Automation will be the only way to achieve the micro-second response times and rock-solid reliability required.
Networks are sensitive beasts that require a lot of careful and experienced attention, which may lead to the question – how much of the network will be automatable? What is certain, however, is that telecom operators will not be able to meet these growing demands economically without automating much of it. Not only do they have to automate to keep costs down, in some situations, automation will actually yield better results than our current ways of managing networks.
Beyond technology and economics, one of the key ingredients in making this transition to automation relates to workforce management and trust. Workforce issues are almost always the first point of resistance. First, there is the ever-present concern about job security. The second concern for often overburdened operations teams is time needed for implementation — despite the tremendous benefits it will bring. Third, there is the issue of trust. Letting go of operational processes that teams have managed for years is difficult. For many, it feels like closing their eyes and taking their hands off the steering wheel.
On the job front, the insatiable demand for network resources means there will always be more than enough work just to grow networks fast enough. At the same time, automation will shift the burden of work from network operations to customer-centric service development. In this way, the automated network will become a platform for enabling greater job creativity by putting more emphasis on making customers happy, as opposed to reacting to their complaints.
Winning trust and convincing operational teams to make the effort to automate is all about taking small steps. Look for low-hanging fruit: operational tasks that are boring, mundane and simple to automate. Of course, this will require some shift in skills, but they can make for quick wins, no one misses doing the work, and it creates time to tackle bigger automation projects.
In order to build trust in automated processes, make them transparent. Don’t create black boxes. Create feedback and dashboards so that network engineers can see what is happening at all times. Carefully monitor automated processes in the network, highlight key correlations and find effective ways to visualize them. Build workflows that reserve key decisions to human operators who can check and validate actions before proceeding. Visibility and control are key. It should also always be possible to pause a process and roll it back quickly if something does go wrong.
Quick wins? Equipment configuration, service delivery, network/service assurance and traffic optimization are the four leading areas for network automation.
Already well underway, the automation of equipment configuration and updates is one of those low hanging fruits that can create time for more complex automation projects. Zero-touch provisioning using event-based automation for self-discovery and configuration only takes minutes after the devices have been cabled. Human configuration errors, which are one of the biggest reasons for failures, are eliminated. The costs for installation and commissioning are negligible and the time to rollout the service is much shorter.
Manual network and service provisioning is another obvious candidate to replace; again, this is an area where errors are frequently made, and it takes hours and, sometimes, days to carry out. With network abstraction, service delivery is handled with a point and a click. The optimum network paths are chosen automatically using network and performance awareness, and can adapt as load conditions shift and change.
Network and service assurance is one of the more complex, and also most promising, areas of automation. With machine learning, thousands of events can be reduced into a few typical situations and correlated with past events to figure out the root cause and automatically fix it. It is not just about saving time, but about changing the paradigm.
Previously, network and service assurance were reactive and involved difficult and time-consuming investigation and troubleshooting. Deviations can now be anticipated and decisions can be made to reconfigure the network and avoid any traffic interruption, without human intervention. The final goal of automated, closed-loop assurance is to proactively solve network issues before the customer can experience problems.
One way to avoid network problems before customers are aware is automated traffic engineering. It can optimize traffic flows and ensure SLAs are maintained in near real-time as flows are dynamically steered around and away from performance bottlenecks.
These are some of the most obvious examples of network automation, but there are many more, some of them extremely ambitious. The point is to start with quick and easy wins and bring your organization along with you. Getting rid of time-consuming repetitive tasks will free them up to work on more difficult projects. Workforce transformation has to be handled carefully and operators and vendors need to ensure that automation software is well designed to build trust.
The pressure isn’t going to go away. Virtualization and SDN are creating the kind of network platform that begs to be automated. Let’s get on with it!