Seizing the shorter-term benefits of SDN and NFV through network automation

Ciena is a world leader in packet-optical transport networks. With its Blue Planet intelligent automation platform, Ciena has become an important player in software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV).  Its solutions have been deployed by more than 20 operators globally for network and service orchestration. Blue Planet software and services enable communications service providers (CSPs) to transform their networks by providing a powerful combination of multi-domain orchestration, SDN control, and advanced analytics, giving CSPs simplified, data-driven network control and a path toward the increasingly autonomous networks of the future.

In this interview, Blue Planet VP and General Manager Nirav Modi explains how Blue Planet is helping CSPs seize the shorter-term benefits of SDN and NFV through network automation. He also talks about some of the challenges CSPs are facing when it comes to leveraging new technologies and capabilities.

TM Forum: It seems that with Blue Planet, your focus is shifting away from some of the medium- and long-term benefits that SDN and NFV can deliver, and towards some of the shorter-term benefits that can be achieved through network automation.

Ciena: I would say it is less of a shift, as the medium- and long-term benefits are still there. However, there are some short-term benefits of network automation that shouldn’t be overlooked. We have seen — through real-world deployments — that automation gives power back to the CSPs to answer the dynamic drivers put on their networks.

If we look at where networks have been, they used to be like highways, transferring from point A to point B, and you were good to go. Fast forward to today, and connectivity requirements have changed. It’s becoming increasingly more dynamic. Flows are from A to B to C to D, all at different rates and times. Additionally, networks are talking to massive data centers and are evolving to become a ubiquitous fabric. This gives us the chance to reconsider how we think about the network. It needs to move from being static to being fluid, and the only way to give it that agility is by introducing automation.

Looking at this from the C-suite perspective, the benefits of automation translate to creating new services and an increasingly on-demand network that generates revenue opportunities faster. This is really more focused on the enterprise and concepts such as SD-WAN, which gives the end-user more control over service functionality.

TM Forum: Is automation new?

Ciena: It isn’t that automation is new; for example, if you look at lead-to-cash and service fulfillment, automation has been going on for 25 years. What’s changed is that the richness of what you have to automate is much more complex and, thus, the role of automation has become much more important. There are plenty of technologies to automate standard network capabilities. Now, with the introduction of network controllers, your ability to automate is increased. You can automatically create networking you didn’t have before by dynamically provisioning a virtual machine (VM).

TM Forum: Are CSPs ready for a complete overhaul of their operations support systems (OSS) and, more broadly, new architectures and requirements to redesign the order-to-cash process?

Ciena: Many CSPs struggle with this because their organisational silos make it difficult for them to embrace new solutions. I can give you the example of one of our North American customers, a company that was rolling out a new Ethernet service. We asked them to provide all the manual steps taken from lead to cash. Not a single person knew all the steps. We had to talk to five or six different individuals across different parts of the organisation. It must have taken 90 days for us to totally map this out, and only half that time was spent with people who had the answers.

Ciena: There are also the challenges of asking CSP teams to change the way they think and work, as each team has a different charter. You will have network teams ready to try, but these solutions aren’t always directly aligned with a hardware purchase. Thus, the procurement team asks, “where is the hardware?” while the IT team is saying, “you can’t tell us how to manage the network!”

These IT and network teams have the years of experience critical to making an automation project work. We have found that when the strategy is driven from the top, the teams are more willing to jump out of their comfort zone and leverage a DevOps culture that works. The reality is, it is still a big leap for most CSPs.

TM Forum: So, we’re really looking at the challenge of bringing together two functions (IT and Network) with different cultures and different skills?

Ciena: Yes, we are. The ‘pets versus cattle’ metaphor is relevant here. The network team want to treat their network like pets and give them lots of care and attention, whereas the IT team want to treat the network like cattle—the animals are still important, but you aren’t giving them names. In the future, if we want the network to be more scalable, we need to think of it more like cattle and less like pets.

But you need to have the skills to do this. The only way to get to a programmable network is with network automation. And this has to be through open APIs or interfaces that expose ‘buttons and dials.’ Because today, in many cases, it’s only the IT people who know how to write code.

TM Forum: Is procurement changing to more of a proof-of-concept type approach?

Ciena: It’s a slow evolution. Proof-of-concepts take time. And half the time the operators aren’t even aware of what it actually means. As I mentioned earlier, we are trying to help them shift to more of a DevOps culture to see how it works, but some have problems just understanding what DevOps means. This means some of our proofs of concept (POCs) are about education; for example, just showing them what openness looks like and helping them to understand what’s out there. We usually find that they love the technology we show them, but then they have problems understanding precisely how to apply it to a project or a problem.

TM Forum: What role do analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) play in Blue Planet capabilities, and ultimately in automation?

Ciena: Analytics and AI play a key role in helping with the operation, upkeep, and maintenance of services. For example, with the recent addition of an analytics engine and machine learning to our Blue Planet software suite, we are able to harvest telemetry from the network to make predictions about the health of services, closing the feedback loop. We can answer questions such as “Is this pluggable about to reach the end of its life?” or concerns along the lines of, “this line card is four years old and needs replacing,” or “this port will go down in six months.” Essentially, it helps us predict the health of the network and is a key milestone for CSPs to see the path to autonomous networks.

TM Forum: How do you feel your approach differs from other technology suppliers?

Ciena: For us, it is fundamentally about openness and what we have been discussing today—using our experience to help CSPs find the short-term benefits available to building a path to the medium- and long-term benefits. From a software, multi-domain perspective, lots of companies claim to do this, but it’s all based around their kit. Their solution works so long as they are the first vendor. When you look at Blue Planet, most of our wins are independent of Ciena products; in fact, most times, we are not managing Ciena kit at all.

Our technology is built with DIY in mind. Our view is that you have to put in an automation layer first. Essentially, we hand the keys over to the customer and allow them to use the development kit. We will offer training, but you have the keys.

We do have customers who ask us to automate their network for them, want a best-of-breed approach, and don’t want to be the ‘superglue.’ When this is the case, we have an ecosystem of partners and a services team to offer a turn-key solution. We see this a lot in Latin America and in India.

The bottom line is that, with our history of being an early leader and innovator within SDN and NFV, we know the key to automation is being agile from day one, because what you think you are automating today will change tomorrow.


    About The Author

    Chief Analyst

    Mark Newman is an analyst with 25 years of experience delivering insights on the future of the telecoms sector to senior level executives and audiences. Mark’s recent research has focussed on telecoms operator business models, digital transformation, service provider diversification, and the intersection between Internet and telecoms. He delivers analysis, presentations, strategy sessions and workshops to global audiences, helping them to plan for the changes that technology and disruptive new business models that will fundamentally transform their businesses. Mark was Chief Research Officer at Informa Telecoms & Media and Ovum before leaving to set up his own research firm, ConnectivityX, in 2016. He joined the TM Forum as Chief Analyst in February 2017.

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