Network automation creates new opportunities for systems integrators
Several communications service providers (CSPs) aim to reach Level 4 of automation for aspects of their network operations by 2025, including China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom, MTN, Orange and Telecom Argentina.
Further network automation is set to shift how telcos work with network suppliers, which in turn opens new doors for systems integrators.
“I think it’s a major opportunity for system integrators like us because this journey cannot be done purely by … network infrastructure players or operators,” according to Shamik Mishra, CTO Connectivity, Capgemini.
Level 4 is an important milestone because it represents the cusp of autonomous behavior, where systems can finally start to make independent decisions. These are “based on predictive analysis or active closed-loop management of service-driven and customer experience-driven networks,” according to TM Forum’s six-step maturity model towards autonomous networks.
Most CSPs aiming to achieve Level 4 by 2025, however, are not seeking to automate all aspects of their network.
“Level 4 automation needs to focus on certain aspects of the service and not try to make the entire estate automated.” Instead, “operators will have to prioritize and figure out which part of the estate deserves level 4 automation,” says Mishra. And as they do so, “customer experience should be paramount.”
Certainly CSPs seem to agree that customer experience is the top driver behind network automation, according to a survey for TM Forum’s recent report Digital Transformation Tracker 7: Cutting complexity with automation and AI. Joint-second on the list is the desire to reduce operational expenditure (see chart below).
“The critical change that has happened in the last … three or four years, is that if we can automate more and more operational aspects of the network functions that can drastically reduce the cost of operations,” says Mishra. Examples include onboarding, testing, observation, upgrading, maintaining and retiring network functions.
Telcos are also interested in harnessing automation to support new services, notably network slicing as they introduce 5G standalone (SA) networks. Again, a growing number of telcos are progressing through the swathe of complexity involved in implementing network slicing and rolling out trials, including in the case of T-Mobile in the US, which is testing a beta network slice for application developers.
One reason why network slicing is complex “is because there are too many standardized interfaces and too many different standards,” says Mishra. “And how to actually unify them was always a challenge.”
He adds: “The second part was that the dynamic nature of network slicing, if not implemented, may not fully realize the potential of network slicing. The enterprise … should get the resource literally anytime. And without that kind of model, it becomes very difficult to work.”
Collaboration is taking place within organizations such as TM Forum to support both automation and the development and testing of new use cases. Yet Mishra believes the industry could do more to exchange knowledge and expertise.
“As an industry we are not so good at knowledge-based transformation. Even though there are many bodies, the knowledge base transmission is still at its infancy,” claims Mishra. “If somebody has solved 20 problems to make something work, how can that knowledge get translated to other organizations?
“And that is where standards bodies or industrial bodies like TM Forum become so important, because they can actually aggregate knowledge-based transformation,” he adds.