Complexity Could Derail Automation, Say Telcos

THE HAGUE -- SDN NFV World Congress -- Several telcos have warned that complexity in the network environment could pose a threat to automation, driving up its cost and even preventing them from developing so-called "zero-touch" systems.

The warnings came at this week's SDN NFV World Congress in The Hague, where automation has emerged as the next big target for operators investing in software and virtualization technologies.

They follow the establishment on Monday of a new industry specifications group within European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) that will be focused on automation and the development of "zero-touch" networks -- or networks that can be managed with minimal human intervention. (See Automation Gets Its Own ETSI Group.)

Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) this week made the automation of its networks a strategic priority, urging the industry to get behind the new ETSI initiative. But other telcos have expressed concern that automation could be difficult or impossible with a multitude of different platforms and technology suppliers. (See DT: Brutal Automation Is Only Way to Succeed.)

They include Dutch incumbent KPN, which today said that too much complexity could make automation a hugely expensive task.

"If you want to automate you can't automate complexity," said Andre Beijen, KPN's head of network innovation. "That would take a lot of money and time."

In an effort to overcome that challenge, KPN Telecom NV (NYSE: KPN) has been trying to reduce the number of network technologies in its portfolio before it starts to automate its systems. "We have 42 DNSs [domain name servers] in the company," said Beijen. "Can we rationalize to one platform? If you have 42 then automation is difficult."

The operator has also taken an uncompromising stance when dealing with vendors and says it will no longer work with suppliers that do not strictly adhere to new standards. "We're advocating a no-compromise policy on standardization to prevent vendor lock-in," said Beijen. "We're using ETSI but are open to other standards as long as suppliers stick to them."

While just as keen to avoid being tied to products from one vendor, executives from BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) and Colt Technology Services Group Ltd today flagged concern that complexity could increase if they end up working with too many suppliers.

"You cannot buy automation out of the box unless you stick with a subset of suppliers," said Mirko Voltolini, the vice president of technology and architecture for Colt, which provides connectivity services for enterprise customers.

Voltolini says there is now a risk that operators are left wrestling with the same complexity they already face with their operational support systems, which are typically regarded as a "legacy" barrier to digital transformation.

"We will end up with 200 different tools if we are not careful," he said. "There is a balance to strike between disaggregation and going with a single supplier."

For more NFV-related coverage and insights, check out our dedicated NFV content channel here on Light Reading.

Those views were echoed by Neil McRae, the chief architect of UK telecom incumbent BT. "I'm nervous that we overcomplicate this area," he said. "I wonder how many suppliers will be around in five to ten years because it feels to me like that market isn't big enough."

On a more positive note, McRae said that enterprise customers had stopped demanding bespoke solutions and were themselves keen to operate in less complex environments.

"That is positive for automation and zero touch because with complexity you can't automate," he said. "Customers want to step back from complexity."

Nevertheless, McRae remains worried about the current proliferation of open source initiatives in the telecom industry, describing these as a hindrance rather than any kind of help.

"Open source is not delivering for us," he said. "There are too many agendas in that space that are getting in the way of doing business."

— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading

kq4ym 10/20/2017 | 8:01:47 AM
Re: Kind of sad, really And finding "balance to strike between disaggregation and going with a single supplier," may be the most difficultof the tasks ahead on the way to automation. Every organization is going to have it's unique requirements, availability of capital and expertise to juggle along the way.
markodaley 10/11/2017 | 2:28:58 PM
Automation is an enabler for Innovation I agree that Automation is critical for Network Operator success. But it is really businesses that need to access and consumer communications in faster and more creative ways that are going to benefit. Developers in particular are finding new and interesting ways to utilise communications automation and programmability, with Operator success coming from enabling customers to move faster and deploy services around the world without networking limiting their agility.

And increasingly now, it's about being able to expose our own service functions to our customers and partners in a simple and automated manner which is driving innovation and creativity.

If Operators only focus on Automation for their own benefit without thinking about building on-demand network services they are missing a trick. Automation is about creating friction-free services for customers not just your own internal processes.

 Networking with 'brutal' Automation presented through portals and API's will drive innovation instead of limiting it.   

 Mark Daley, Epsilon
SumeetSingh 10/11/2017 | 12:24:42 PM
Simplifying the complexity

The rise of cloud-based services are indeed adding more complexity on the back-end, but that just means automation will be more critical to the success of these services. As such, we shouldn't overlook the tools that are available to simplify how automation is integrated into the network. We're seeing an uptick in organizations such as ETSI that are now focused on turning to APIs and standards-based protocols that reduce automation integration and interoperability headaches with third-party applications and back-office systems. Yes, the whole process requires up-front costs and time investments, but when properly integrated into the appropriate management software, automation can enhance the quality, speed and accuracy for a truly intent-based networking approach.


I recently wrote an article on Light Reading that explores this topic, and highlights how automation will pave the way for future services that offers more context. http://www.lightreading.com/automation/wrestling-with-the-challenges-of-automation/a/d-id/737002

Duh! 10/10/2017 | 1:04:02 PM
Factoring the problem There's the legacy network. And the future network.

Complexity is a characteristic of the legacy network. It was built piecewise, a bunch of boxes, and maybe some dedicated copper or fiber, to support individual services. No overall architecture, few usable synergies. It was built by often mutually hostile organizational silos. Old interfaces/service elements/features never went away, and systems accreted on top of older systems. Vendors bundled boxes with proprietary element managers. What we now call orchestration existed in slideware and in standards committees that never really got traction. Part of that SNMP was not rich enough, either in its data modelling or its primitive functions. As a result, everything fell back to CLI. And automation meant CLI scripts.

On top of all the clerical processes created by legacy network management, there were also lots of manual processes, some of them involving truck rolls. Most of them also involved rearranging jumpers on frames and in cabinets. Others involved manual test and measurement. Some of the clerical processes involved coordinating these manual processes. No wonder why operators complain about complexity.

The future network is an opportunity to step back and simplify. SDN, NFV, open APIs, microservices architectures, and orchestration eliminate clerical tasks. Converged, bushy, homogenous, all-fiber, passive access networks and migration of services onto GPON and NG-PON2 reduce manual tasks to new installations and (rare) repairs.

The problem is the industry tendency to try to make the old stuff fit into the same framework as the new stuff. It's only going to work if operators draw a bright line between "legacy" and "strategic", don't let them tangle, and sunset the legacy stuff. That's a business discussion that the operators' executive management and boards need to have.

-- Dan Grossman
mendyk 10/10/2017 | 10:43:07 AM
Kind of sad, really "Automation is so hard." "It's really expensive." "And it's really ... just hard." "So let's not do it." If this is indicative of the mindset of telecom leadership, then maybe the displacement of human decision-making by machines is well overdue.
Sign In