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."
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