The Autonomous Network Is the Endgame for Telecom

The telecom industry has spent decades wandering in a technology desert. The trek isn't over by any stretch -- but at least the destination is now clearly marked.

Journey's end is a place we are calling The Autonomous Network. Right now, it's pretty much a mythical gleaming city on a hill. But the road to that city is now under construction, and it's just a matter of time before this truly massive project is completed. That time will be marked in years, which means there's a lot of hard work ahead.

Figuring out the endgame is not so much an "aha!" moment as a "duh!" moment. It starts with the latest industry buzzword: automation. Automation isn't actually a new concept at all -- it's been a part of just about every communications innovation since the advent of the rotary phone. But we are now at the point where all the bits and pieces of automation will start coming together to form one great superstructure.

The immediate goal of automation is to create "autonomous processes" -- in which the network does what it needs to do without human intervention. That's been an aspiration of telecom architects and solution providers for literally decades.

But now, the vast array of related technology ingredients that are essential to make automation possible -- virtualization, AI, machine learning, telemetry, robotics, analytics, et al -- are all reaching various degrees of maturity (though, just like people, some are a lot more grown up than others). And as these discrete elements of automation come together, the path to The Autonomous Network is taking shape. Carriers are now contemplating building networks that could run themselves for days or even weeks at a time, without any human interaction whatsoever.

When we talk about The Autonomous Network in this context, we are talking about communications processes in their entirety -- not just the connections but also the services, applications, underlying processes and everything else that is part of the giant virtual machine that powers the global economy.

For carriers and CSPs still grappling with the problem of getting NFV to work, the thought of tackling automation, with all of its science-fiction-like components, probably looks like a job too far. Making sure they can reap the benefits of automation (staff reductions; better performance; greater reliability) without falling into the same traps that have plagued NFV and other great leaps forward (vendor lock-ins, over-complicated open source non-standards, hard-to-prove business cases) requires our industry to take a long hard look at the mistakes that continue to make virtualization such a painful experience for carriers, and to learn from them.

It's complicated
Let's get one thing clear up front: Automation is really f***ing complicated. In fact, the word "automation" is a generic catch-all for all the separate elements that need to be in place to get to The Autonomous Network, and each step in the process will be more complicated than the previous one. Step 1 is the automation of specific management functions (generally sitting in the carriers' existing, clunky IT infrastructure). Step 2 is the automation of the updates of those processes, so they don't have to be handled manually (automating the automation, basically). Beyond that, service providers will want to make the scripts more intelligent by adding AI and machine learning to not only automate the processes but to improve their efficiency, "automagically," over time.

For carriers, most of whom are still operating in super manual mode, using thousands of human admins and operators, this stuff is pretty much pie in the sky right now.

Next page: Who you gonna call?

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mendyk 9/7/2017 | 10:37:35 AM
Re: Componentry? Yes -- we must be kind to the copy editors, even when they try to confuse us.
Steve Saunders 9/7/2017 | 10:19:01 AM
Re: Componentry? Mendyk - "NFV componentry" ... a copy editor's conceipt, i suspect! 
Steve Saunders 9/7/2017 | 10:18:07 AM
Re: On Automation... SeniorMa28474 - great analysis and thanks for sharing it! 
Steve Saunders 9/7/2017 | 10:16:23 AM
Re: Technology isn't the endgame Market12124 - LOL!

It will be a dog's life in more ways than one!
Steve Saunders 9/7/2017 | 10:15:24 AM
Re: Testify! IS-dg... thanks

What is Xeno's Paradox? 

I agree that economics (speficially, the savings that accrue from massive savings in staff costs) are the driver 

Marketin12124 9/7/2017 | 5:42:31 AM
Technology isn't the endgame This was a great article summarising the state of the NFV/SDN tech bubble, and pointing out the obvious, that many of us have forgotten.  All of these technologies are ultimately designed to offer services more cheaply, more effectively, in a tailored manner with fewer people. 

Automation of the network is the end-game, as fact that is probably very uncomfortable for the people running networks, network operations centers and fulfilment processes today.  The good news is that the task is insanely complicated, and is going to take years to realize.

In the future our communications networks will be run by 1 network engineer and a dog.  The job of the network engineer is to feed the dog.  The job of the dog will be to bite the network engineer if he tries to touch any buttons!
mendyk 9/1/2017 | 4:43:53 PM
Componentry? This isn't a comment on the report, which is a clear and important call to arms. But the blurb for this report -- NFV componentry? What the frick is that supposed to mean?
SeniorMa28474 8/31/2017 | 4:56:00 PM
On Automation... Automation is very domain and task specific.

Bringing up a branch router is not the same as defining a strategy for application priorization. Constant manual, one-by-one, repetitive configuration of network elements clearly shoudln't stay a best practice going forward. But overall architectural and operational overview, and optimization of best practices... that part is harder to automate, and better networks shall result.

I remember several years ago a Principal Engineer presented that the entire electrical grid in California is delivered and supervised by just a handful of people... and why should networking be so different?

That said, today's networks are still sub-optimal in many aspects of operation. Routing protocols could and should be augmented with AI for much needed resource use optimization and performance improvements. Same with network security. The current approach to NFV may very well be fundamentally architecturally flawed (FB and GOOG go for very different service delivery models these days).

So... there's still a lot of room for innovation ahead, IMHO. Whether it'll be driven by the same established players is a totally different question.

But Automation is not everything. A catchphrase I use in presentations is "Of course, we start by automating the trivial. Then we simplify the complex. And then we have time to innovate."
IS-dg 8/31/2017 | 3:59:52 PM
Testify! "That's been an aspiration of telecom architects and solution providers for literally decades."

I worked on it at Bell Labs so long ago that our related patents have expired. Given that, I feel qualified to make a few comments...

1) It does not require all or even most of the advanced technologies you mentioned. We prototyped on real network equipment in 1990. Our goal was "a local telephone network that required human action only if something physically had to happen... like joining two wires." We had a high degree of autonomy even then - I demo'ed it myself to Arno.

2) Technology therefore is not the driver. Rather, the driver is economics. I did not understand this in 1990 - I left Bell Labs and engineering to go to business school to learn it.

3) The economics are better now than in 1990, so we are closer to nirvana. But it's Xeno's Paradox with a multi-year halflife.


Watch the economics. We'll get there, but it's still a long ways off.

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