Network automation – operators map their route to the future
Network automation certainly poses challenges, but operators are more than keen to face up to them and reap the rewards. That at least was the message I got at our recent breakfast meeting with four major operators at the Telecom Management Forum in Nice.
The meeting threw up agreement and disagreement in near equal measure.
It’s clear that most people can agree on the three main drivers for automation – the rapid deployment of enterprise connectivity services; to enhance the customer experience; and to meet the demands of the Internet of Things.
This last aspect is a game changer, particularly for costs. As one operator said, he simply cannot charge a dollar for a connection to an internet-enabled device. With billions of things connected to the Internet by 2020, that type of economics simply doesn’t make sense.
I think it is also agreed by most that there is a real trend towards automating operations, despite some differences in enthusiasm and the speed at which people think we should progress. Some are doubtful while others want to go full speed ahead to achieve an ambitious goal of a global, fully automated network staffed by just a few people.
So, what are the challenges? Well, they are not necessarily technology-related.
First, one of the biggest operators concerns was the need for a cultural change. While most board-level executives are convinced, getting the engineering staff on-board is more problematic. Operators are increasingly realizing that they can no longer afford to have highly skilled people performing simple monitoring tasks – operations engineers therefore need to move from a manual methodology to an automated one that will free them up from tedious tasks and allow them to use their skills and creativity much more effectively.
Another potential mindset change highlighted is the acceptance of knowledge sharing. It was recognized that in a sharing economy, it made sense to share knowledge of network automation processes, as long as it doesn’t affect their competitive differentiation.
Operators also pointed out that we should start from a customer service view and take network operations with us – essentially moving from a Network Operations Center model to a Service Operation Center.
“We’re optimistic, but help us reduce automation spend”
Also, will there be a common automation framework for all technologies or will operators be faced with a multitude of different standards? Operators were quite clear during the meeting that this move towards automation would be a major investment – how can we reduce this spend?
Perhaps a common framework could span organizational boundaries or be part of some open source platform. Does the current automation built for 3G/4G have to be repeated for 5G or will vendors provide it free of charge?
One very encouraging aspect was that all the operators were on board with the need for VNF and the cloud. However, some felt there is a danger in going too fast on NFV automation – operators will need to decide how far to pursue legacy automation and where they should make their investments.
I came away from the gathering with a sense that operators are thinking deeply about what they want to achieve with automation. They were keen to stress that with a real push for automation, you can move quickly from a large NOC to a small SOC that focuses on services rather than network boxes. And overall, there’s a real sense of optimism about the potential that automation holds to transform their network operations.
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