Automation gets a lot of attention these days – and for good reason. Operators see automation technologies as crucial to helping them scale capacity and deliver greater agility while keeping networking costs down. But although they acknowledge automation's promise, operators can be tight-lipped about how they are actually using it and what their future plans entail.
North American multiple-system operator (MSO) Cox Communications' automation story stands out in part because the operator is very candid not only about its plans, but also about sharing detailed metrics illustrating the benefits.
Cox's dedicated Network Automation and Services team
After addressing automation for several years in a siloed and ad hoc fashion, in 2020 the company formed a dedicated Network Automation and Services team led by executive director Matt Hayes. It announced a mandate to work closely with all engineering groups to develop and implement networkwide automation. The team built the company's automation strategy based on three pillars:
- "Demystify" automation tooling by identifying which tools to build around and structure support around those toolsets. One model for self-serve automation and another model that would be more tightly integrated with operations/business support systems (OSS/BSS) for more sophisticated automation.
- Build foundational capabilities for network and process automation across the engineering and operations organization with an emphasis on reusing capabilities as much as possible across groups and domains.
- Drive value across the business by connecting network insights and analytics to network automation.
At the heart of the strategy is the Cisco Network Services Orchestrator (NSO) and Cisco Business Process Automation (BPA), Cox's integrated network automation and orchestration platform. Significantly, the solution also integrates on the backend into Cox's OSS and BSS to create fully automated processes that go well beyond mimicking human interaction with network devices. The hooks into OSS/BSS enable the automation to auto-update ticketing systems, populate inventory management systems and pull next available IP assignments. NSO removes much of the overhead administrative burden on network operations staff. It uses standard YANG models to abstract configuration data across a multi-vendor and cross-domain network. This data model abstraction is a critical foundation component to moving away from command line interface (CLI) – from human APIs toward machine APIs.
Cox's early automation wins
Even at this early stage, the operator has built clear automation use cases that are already producing benefits in commercial deployments. One of the early automation wins is remote PHY activation in the access network.
Remote PHY involves moving the physical layer function from the centralized cable modem termination system (CMTS) headend to a network edge location much closer to the end customers, with the benefit of delivering higher bandwidth to customers. Concurrently adding mid-split service doubles upstream capacity for customers. With a strategy to install and turn up 60,000-100,000 remote PHY nodes over the next five years, Cox realized that automation would be essential.
Thus, the Cox team integrated the network automation platform (i.e., Cisco NSO and BPA) with its OSS on the backend and with its technician mobile activation app on the frontend for fully automated activation. The process saves two hours for each remote PHY device (RPD) activation, and Cox anticipates additional savings of two hours and five minutes for each mid-split activation. Translating time to money, Cox expects to save an estimated $3.35 million over the next three years for this use case alone.
But as Cox's Hayes explains, automation benefits extend well beyond the hard dollar figures. These include improved data integrity/standardization, improved Cox employee experience by eliminating remedial administrative tasks, improved process efficiency and an ability to quickly scale up network capacity as demand dictates.
While RPD and mid-split activation represent a compelling greenfield use case, the Cox automation strategy extends to brownfield use cases as well. One example is a configuration management and security compliance use case across 38,000 devices in its Metro Ethernet network that is also being implemented today.
Moving forward, Cox intends to take early win automation processes – such as remote PHY or Metro Ethernet – and adapt them broadly across many other domains. While broadening the scope, Cox will also move deeper. It will increase benefits through AI and analytics and eventually add closed-loop processes for machine-to-machine interactions, where valuable. For Cox, and the communications industry as a whole, network automation is just beginning.
Looking for additional information?
For more information about Cox's network automation story, readers can access the following resources:
— Sterling Perrin, Senior Principal Analyst – Optical Networking & Transport, Heavy Reading
This blog is sponsored by Cisco Systems.