'Vendors who love lock-in' obstruct autonomous networks, says TMF

Vendor-specific interfaces between management systems and network resources are impeding the development of self-healing networks, complains the TM Forum's George Glass.

Iain Morris, International Editor

June 18, 2024

5 Min Read
Stage at DTW in 2023
Before opening keynotes at last year's Ignite-branded TMF show in Copenhagen (Source: Iain Morris/Light Reading)

A bolt of lightning fries your local basestation, or perhaps a van crashes into the fiber cabinet at the end of your street. Such damage to equipment usually leaves people temporarily without a telecom service. In a future world of self-healing and largely autonomous networks, you would instantly be switched to an alternative connection while technicians or robots carry out repairs. But it will never happen unless the vendors of network products are prepared to budge.

It's the assessment of George Glass, a former chief systems architect at BT who – in his current role of chief technology officer for the TM Forum (TMF) – has spent more than four years sowing standardized interfaces across the field of telecom and ripping out any proprietary weeds he finds. When it comes to the connectors between the management software and the network, just about everything is still vendor-specific, he complains.

Telcos use the same five-tier system as the car industry to rate automation. Like a 1950s Ford with manual transmission, a Level 0 network is a button-pushing, pedal-pumping workout for its human driver. At Level 5, the driver can basically snooze with an eye half open. But to have the sort of "highly autonomous" Level 4 network that telcos are now trying to build, those management and operational interfaces into the network resources would have to be standardized, according to Glass.

"I suspect we will meet enormous resistance from the vendors who love the lock-in that is presented by 'if I build vendor A's network, then I need vendor A's network management and monitoring,'" said Glass. The situation is even worse if another vendor is introduced. "If I bring in vendor B, then I need not only vendor B's network management and operations but also a manager of manager and an operator of operators to sit over it."

SMO screen

His mission aligns with the objectives of groups such as the O-RAN Alliance, which has been working to standardize open interfaces for the radio access network (RAN). While there has been some progress on developing a new fronthaul interface, connecting radios to baseband equipment, several interfaces linking service management and orchestration (SMO) to other parts of the RAN have still not been opened, according to industry sources. That means an operator must buy RAN and SMO products from the same vendor.

But Glass says the industry cannot stop at the interfaces surrounding a single access technology if its goal is a Level 4 autonomous network. "If I'm standing in the middle of a field and the basestation falls over, why don't you just use satellite access?" he said. "The open access has to be able to switch you between RAN and satellite. It has to be able to switch you between RAN and fixed. I need that abstracted and it can't be vendor-specific because then I cannot manage the complexity and get the switching at the speed I need because you're talking about real-time reconfiguration of the network."

The TMF evidently needs vendors to play ball and Glass's remarks about "vendors who love the lock-in" hardly sounds positive. Yet telcos increasingly talk about operating multivendor networks, and those seem problematic for any supplier in the absence of open interfaces. "I have been approached by a number of the vendors saying we need to standardize the APIs [application programming interfaces] for the management of the core network or even standardize the APIs for the radio network because they span multiple vendors," said Glass.

"They've come to the TMF saying you guys are best placed to do it with your ODA principles and design patterns," he continued. "Could you apply that to the network? That's exactly what we're looking at doing." It is, he agrees, likely to be one of his biggest projects over the next few years.

ODA smells good to industry

That ODA reference, of course, is to the TMF's Open Digital Architecture, a kind of blueprint for the business and operational support systems used by telcos. After a shaky start, it appears to have secured widespread industry acceptance and to have helped the TMF remain relevant.

Attendance at its Digital Transformation World event – which takes place this week after last running in September 2023 – has soared in recent years since an unpopular-at-the-time shift from Nice in France to the Danish capital of Copenhagen. There is no evidence telecom executives are drawn to Denmark by any preference for Carlsberg and pickled herring over vin rouge and fromage, although they do seem to love their Lego analogies.

"If they've got an ODA-based architecture as opposed to their previous legacy architecture – which typically involved multiple stacks doing the same thing – it costs them about 30% of the price to build it," said Glass, mentioning reusable components but avoiding any reference to small plastic bricks.

ODA, perhaps appropriately enough, has had a spring clean to ensure it can accommodate artificial intelligence, a technology guest that telcos seem perhaps overly eager to have in their networks. The refresh, explains Glass, essentially embeds AI tools within the components of ODA and means they can do things like anomaly detection and reconfiguration in real time and without manual intervention. 

"An AI model can make the decision on behalf of the customer or service operations team to correct an anomaly or repair a network device or network element before it becomes service impacting," said Glass.

For the avoidance of confusion

Separate TMF updates being announced this year include work with other groups involved in standards, including the GSM Association and the Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF), to clarify who does what in the busy API world.

Through its Open Gateway initiative, the GSMA is promoting APIs developed under the Linux Foundation's Camara project as standardized links between a 5G network and the software applications that use it. The TMF's role there is on the adjacent service management APIs required to set up connections, activate charging mechanisms and so on. With the MEF, similarly, it is providing a kind of API "envelope," as Glass describes it, for the MEF "payload."

Of course, not everyone is as fixated on APIs as the TMF. At an event in London hosted by Japan's Rakuten last week, Paul Termjin, a senior partner with a systems integrator (and Rakuten partner) called Prodapt, described various other barriers to the emergence of fully autonomous networks, from lack of expertise to silos between IT and telco departments.

For anyone keen to see those networks arrive, he has a troubling forecast. "In my view, there will not be a self-healing or autonomous network" for at least ten years, he said.

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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