8 Things We Didn't Know About Telecom Automation Until Last Week

Last week I headed down to Dallas for Light Reading's inaugural Automation Everywhere conference, which was, to put it bluntly, a smash hit. I can't remember a more talkative and qualified audience. (More than 65% of attendees worked for CSPs and Tier 1 carriers.)

The overall message from the conference was "automate or die" -- with speakers agreeing that CSPs must embrace disruptive automation technology to survive. And attendees agreed that these are very early days in the cycle of automation adoption, with very few service providers taking more than baby steps. That said, overall our audience was optimistic about the scope for automation to increase cost efficiency and enable operators to better address new revenue opportunities in the enterprise market.

Engagement levels were high at Light Reading's Automation Everywhere conference in Dallas.
Engagement levels were high at Light Reading's Automation Everywhere conference in Dallas.

Here are the other key findings from the day:

  1. Snakes on a control plane!
    Speakers had succinct guidance for individual service provider employees looking to reskill themselves in order to tackle the automated world... "Learn Python!" was the battle cry from one. "Take it a step at a time -- changing culture, processes, and technology," said another. And, of course, "Don't panic!" in the face of the ever-shifting automation technology landscape.

  2. Consolidate to dominate
    A consistent trope was that telecom automation requires a blend of IT and networking knowledge and skills. The best way to cook up that blend is for CSPs to merge their IT and networking departments in order to effectively manage the convergence of those two domains, several speakers advised.

  3. Automate prescriptively, not blindly
    Moving too quickly to automation is a recipe for disaster. Service providers should avoid trying to "boil the ocean" by trying to automate all of their processes at once, pointed out the brilliant Kevin McBride, principal architect of SDN and NFV Technologies at CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL). A good starting point, he says, is to identify badly designed processes -- those are the ones that should not be automated. "Don't reinvent all of your legacy network -- embrace it," he recommended.

  4. Head in the cloud
    Beyond organizational shifts, CSPs must also embrace cultural change. Most are now looking at customers and other industries for automation best practice (especially shipping and logistics), and those that have embraced the cloud seem to be the most advanced. It was notable, for instance, that Telstra Corp. Ltd. (ASX: TLS; NZK: TLS)'s remarkable automation success story is driven by someone with a cloud background -- Jim Fagan, director of Global Platforms at Telstra, who gave the standout presentation of the day. See that presentation by clicking on this link.

  5. AI is where it's at
    While the Heavy Reading conference moderators tried to steer to discussion towards Intent-Based Networking and Closed-Loop Automation, our panelists and audience seemed irresistibly drawn to talking about AI as the solution to all their automation challenges.

  6. ONAP was MIA
    You'd think ONAP, the AT&T-backed platform for handling automation "stuff," would have been one of the key talking points of the day. And you would be wrong. It got exactly two mentions -- one of which was from an afternoon speaker commenting that ONAP hadn't been mentioned, which sort of cancelled out the one mention it got in the morning! This suggests that ONAP isn't nearly as big with most service providers as it is with the people backing it -- especially AT&T, and those open source funsters at the Linux Foundation.

  7. CSP sisters are doing it for themselves
    It was clear from the day's presentations, panels and the between-sesh networking that SPs are tackling automation themselves, including developing the actual automation code -- as opposed to waiting for the big communications vendors to do it for them. (Multiple speakers pointed out that existing vendors are failing to come up with commercially viable solutions -- a point that was made most eloquently during one of the Q&A sessions by a former employee of Ericsson -- ouch!) Of course, as yours truly also pointed out, there is a wave of new startups about to crash over the communications industry, looking to take a piece of this action away from the incumbents.

  8. NFV is slowing things down
    Attendees agreed that the lack of interoperable, standards-based NFV solutions will impact the rate at which automation can be enabled on service provider networks. As one well-dressed, witty speaker (OK, it was me) pointed out, there is a danger that we "build a glorious cathedral of automation on the weak foundations of NFV infrastructure."

It was clear that Light Reading's Automation Everywhere is the right event at the right time for CSPs looking to save money and generate new revenue through automated processes. Well, I have some good news: We will be analysing and debating this vital topic in London in November at Light Reading's Software Defined Operations & The Autonomous Network event. I strongly recommend taking part. With the help of some exceptional speakers, we grasped the automation tiger firmly by the tail in Dallas, and the London event, which runs for twice as long, will build on this success.

— Steve Saunders, Founder, Light Reading

COMMENTS Add Comment
larrysm015 11/30/2018 | 6:47:24 AM
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kumuer 4/17/2018 | 6:06:39 AM
network automation with ONAP how network automation can work together with ONAP architecture, this is a issue.
kumuer 4/15/2018 | 10:40:10 PM
NFV is slowing things down The value of NFV is till not widely recognized
patricknmoore 4/12/2018 | 11:02:02 AM
ONAP and automation I think, as a couple of folks have pointed out, that this does come down to a maturity level for ONAP and within the SPs involved. ONAP is not to a level yet that you download, install and start using it in a short amount of time. Likewise, many of the SPs are maturing themselves with regard to point of view of how to best automate with the plethora of tools available now and coming down the pike from vendors old and new.

I would bet ONAP is on every SPs list of potentials down the road, but it is not as exciting to talk about due to the maturity level. AI is hot, but it isn't like there is a ton out there right now that is usable either. Add to that the fact that people will lump into AI things that are not truly AI...I have a friend that is working in this area and he is quick to correct people that include machine leanring and the like in the AI bucket. Maybe he is an "AI snob"? That is another conversation altogether.

I do like hearing the comments about small steps, not jumping too far ahead, etc. Traditionally companies will jump into an automation project that should really be step 3 or 4 of an overall automation program, instead of planning out and executing on steps 1, 2, 3 and 4, thereby realizing much more success and return.

Taking baby steps, that tranistion into a brisk walk, that tranistion into running over time is the smarter way to automate, in my humble opionion. The misconcpetion is that it is faster to jump ahead in the automation lifecycle and "just figure it out". There is absolutely no reason to think that starting with small steps and going through that ramp up is mutually exclusive with velocity in getting automation implemented.
Carol Wilson 4/11/2018 | 1:47:28 PM
Re: Automation and Edge Computing Most of the major operators I've spoken with in recent weeks - AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Orange, Colt, BCE, Vodafone -- all talk about ONAP being important to their future, so that is surprising. 

I'm not sure I'd agree it's PR versus reality, but there may be a timing thing. The conversations I've had have been with the technical guys who are aren't terribly concerned with PR. Javier Benitez from Colt, for instance, says ONAP is absolutely important to them, but he thinks it needs years to mature. And Adam Dunstan from CenturyLink says ONAP is definitely interesting to them, but since they aren't using the tooling, they aren't likely to join any time soon. Instead, they'll use pieces of the software and contribute the changes the make to it.  

Those are real-world statements, not PR. 
Sterling Perrin 4/10/2018 | 12:39:07 PM
Re: Faith in the unknown Dennis,

Agree - I was struck by the AI finding as well. When I hear "AI" from providers/vendors, I translate that into more concrete terms like "closed loop automation" and "machine learning." I had not viewed AI as something different from these. 


mendyk 4/10/2018 | 11:22:47 AM
Faith in the unknown Steve -- The AI buzz falls into the usual pattern of placing early trust in a vague concept, doesn't it. Kind of like IoT -- a concept that is so general that it means everything and nothing.
Steve Saunders 4/10/2018 | 10:55:19 AM
Re: Automation and Edge Computing Re: ONAP. We were surprised too. It’s the difference between PR and reality, probably. If you look at how much support ONAP has at a press release and logo level you would think it’s success is absolutely assured. Then you get into the trenches and talk to real people struggling with virtualization and it’s just MIA in the conversation. There is a gap or logic bomb in there - and we’ve seen it before at other industry get togethers.
Gabriel Brown 4/10/2018 | 10:45:29 AM
Automation and Edge Computing Good piece. 

I'm a bit surprised about the ONAP mentions because it is definetly part of the discussion on service provider edge computing. Edge needs automation to be economically viable. Being in the discussion doesn't mean something gets used, obviously -- but it's in the mix.
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