Affirmed: Lack of Automation Will Kill Innovation

Mobile core virtualization startup Affirmed believes that the lack of network automation in today's carrier networks is becoming a stifling impediment to the innovation needed for the incumbents to take on over-the-top players in an ever-more competitive environment.

Having launched its service automation platform in April 2016, Affirmed Networks Inc. has added features like automating "pre-5G" network slicing this year. The company has also worked on further 5G-like features such as a so-called decomposed -- or "decoupled" -- virtualized core. (See AT&T: Virtualized Mobile Core Key to 5G.)

We checked in with the company last week to take a further slice into the automation pie. Angela Whiteford, VP of marketing and product management, answered some questions:

Light Reading: Affirmed has previously said that that automation is the next major disruptive technology change. Can you explain how?

Angela Whiteford: Lack of automation is a cultural and structural barrier to innovation and driving top-line service revenue growth. Operators are facing intense competition from the OTT [over-the-top content providers], and customers are demanding higher service expectations. Operators need to find ways to innovate to provide new revenue-generating services that customers will purchase.

The current process of designing and rolling out a new service is a very manual one, and it can take months to deploy a simple gold, silver, bronze type service. Given that the burden is so high to roll out a new service, only the "highest runners" actually make it to market. Innovation is stifled, and revenue generation is significantly impacted.

Automation allows operators to rapidly create, deploy, measure performance, make modifications -- iterate on services -- and decommission (fail fast) services 80% to 90% faster than they currently do today. It also reduces the cost to create these services by 70% or more. This powers the innovation engine in operators and drives growth.

LR: So, what would you define as automation in the context of a mobile network core?

AW: Lifecycle management of services -- this could be existing operator services and new services. Or, service lifecycle management, which is the designing, deploying, assuring (measuring performance of the service), modifying (fine tuning of services) and decommissioning of services. These services are comprised of a complex mix of multiple functions -- these could be both legacy appliance-based functions or virtualized functions.

LR: You've previously described this as a process. How long does the process take?

AW: Affirmed has examples of a simple process of onboarding an MVNO [mobile virtual network operator] customer in two months or more without automation. Automating this process reduced the time down to less than one week and reduced the costs by 90%.

LR: How far do you think automation could extend into the mobile network? Could some RAN functionality even be virtualized and automated?

AW: Automation is already an important driver within the core network to support new services around enterprise offerings, innovative rating plans -- free music -- and IoT: thousands of enterprises and hundreds of thousands of devices. Virtualized Cloud RAN [vCRAN] brings another dimension to automation where more virtualized BBU [baseband unit] instances are deployed closer to the edge. Edge Computing is another emerging area where more VNFs [virtual network functions] will be deployed closer to the edge, further driving the demand for automation.

LR: If automation is a disruptive event for networks, can we see a timeframe for how long the switchover will take?

AW: There is no cliff event where they go from non-automated to automated. It will be a gradual transition. The biggest payoff is to automate the highly repetitive tasks first.

Nonetheless, Affirmed is hanging plenty on automation being a big play in mobile networks and beyond. Earlier this year, Affirmed CEO Hassan Ahmed told Light Reading that he wanted the startup to be a big part of what he anticipates will be a major wave of disruption as network processes become more automated. This wave could help wash Affirmed up on the shores of an initial public offering (IPO).

"You will see Affirmed as a public company at some point," Ahmed said.

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— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

DanJones 8/24/2017 | 2:41:40 PM
Re: Long haul Yeah, I've heard other estimates of 10 years, maybe double that.
mendyk 8/24/2017 | 10:02:37 AM
Long haul That last bit of the Q&A is important for everyone to understand -- "automation" involves a yuge number of processes that will take years to address. It's a piecemeal upgrade, which is going to frustrate the short attention spanners. But that's the reality of the situation.
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