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AI/Automation

Carrier networks must integrate and automate to chase innovation

Much discussion surrounding DevOps, continuous integration/continuous development (CI/CD) and Agile software development in carrier networks revolves around customer-facing and revenue-generating elements: applications, services and the customer experience.

These elements help service providers to continuously adapt their engagements with customers based on context, predict customers' behavior and recommend the best actions to take to drive the optimal experience.

However, the flip side of the carrier environment – network operations and cost containment – offers a compelling argument for CI/CD attention as well. This is an argument highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the abrupt disruptions in the network it has triggered.

Shifts in traffic and connectivity requirements

By the beginning of May 2020, AT&T was reporting a 75% increase in gaming traffic, a daily average call volume twice that of the annual high-water mark – Mother's Day – and a 33% increase in call duration.

A Gallup Panel tracked the percentage of employed adults in the US who, due to COVID-19, hastily decamped from business offices to home offices. The percentage rose quickly from 31% in mid-March to 62% by mid-April, moving traffic and connectivity requirements from urban centers to suburban home offices and rural vacation homes.


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The pandemic has affected the carriers by testing their ability to support the new patterns of gaming and video conference traffic from residential areas in the middle of the day.

It has also stressed their own employee resources as some of their regional offices unexpectedly became de facto zero-touch, lights-out data centers. This is a harbinger of things to come as carriers start their rollouts of 5G.

5G will have four times the subscribers at the five-year mark (in 2024) than 4G had at the same point in its deployment. Omdia's global surveys show carriers will increase their number of base stations, on average, by a factor of four in the next five years.

At the same time, 3 billion more devices will connect to the network, dominated by machine-to-machine connections. This is not an environment that service providers can manage and maintain, much less innovate in, without a commitment to CI/CD and automation.

Trained network operations personnel – which are scarce today – will be stretched to breaking point as the network grows by every metric. The network data centers will be zero-touch either by design or, as with COVID-19, by happenstance.

Automation and CD are the key components of DevOps. All features, where possible, are automated, from testing and code distribution to communication and network resources, thereby eliminating human error and vastly simplifying and speeding up ongoing management and scaling.

Benefits of automation: Rakuten Mobile Network

A recent example of the benefits of automation is the Rakuten Mobile Network, which launched in April of this year with 4,000 sites. A large amount of Rakuten Mobile's software development work has been focused on automation capabilities. To achieve the operational efficiencies the carrier requires, the majority of its sites must be able to operate in a zero-touch, lights-out environment.

Rakuten Mobile employed a DevOps methodology for the current 4G network, along with the creation of software tools enabling developers to manage operational workflows. These tools are critical for site automation.

Now Rakuten Mobile plans to take the same approach to 5G. According to the carrier, the level of virtualization it has achieved, working with partners such as Netcracker, F5 and Robin.io, means its cost to deploy 5G is less than that for traditional telecom operators, with up to a 40% reduction in capex and up to a 30% reduction in opex.

The resulting automated solution can instantiate a cell site in under nine minutes after physical installation is complete.

A complex task

Incumbent telcos and their partners have a more complex task facing them. They must automate network operations along multiple axes: discovery across multiple domains, traffic optimization at multiple layers of the network architecture, provisioning of both optical and IP layers of the networks and orchestration of a multi-vendor environment.

COVID-19 has moved the clock forward on the adoption of telecommuting and on the widespread use of video conferencing tools.

It will also accelerate the automation of carrier edge and regional locations, moving "zero-touch" and "lights-out" off the list of long-term plans and on to the list of near-term requirements.

This blog is sponsored by Netcracker.

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— Jennifer P. Clark, Principal Analyst, Cloud Infrastructure and Edge Computing Heavy Reading

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