Digital Twins: A New Tool in the Network Management Arsenal
James Crawshaw, Senior Analyst – Service Provider IT and Automation, Heavy Reading
In the Austin Powers movies, Dr Evil creates a miniature clone (Mini-Me), identical in every way but one-eighth his size. In a case of life imitating art, digital twins are now becoming widespread tools in various industries "to optimize the operation and maintenance of physical assets, systems and manufacturing processes." A digital twin can be used for monitoring, diagnostics and prognostics. Typical applications include aircraft engines, wind turbines, locomotives and buildings.
According to Professor Tim Broyd, former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, "By involving many more design, manufacturing, and asset management parties to collaborate at a much earlier stage than usual, the use of digital twins has cut the cost of delivering capital built assets by around 20% over the last five years."
Arguably, the digital twin concept has been applied to telecom networks for years in the form of monitoring software commonly found in a network operations center. However, there is perhaps scope for network emulation and sandbox modelling to be taken to a higher level by applying the digital twin concept.
According to Craig Badrick, CEO of Turn-key Technologies, "Digital twinning provides corporate IT teams with a low-risk, high-reward environment where they can experiment with novel solutions. In addition to facilitating better network design, a digital twin of a network gives an IT team the ability to run simulations for any event imaginable -- a rapid influx of network connections, a specific kind of cybersecurity breach, etc. -- and adjust its actual network configuration as needed."
Ganesan Arulanandham, consulting partner at Wipro Ltd. (NYSE: WIT), waxes lyrical about the merits of digital twinning. "DT is the melting pot of many of the latest technologies including big data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML), immersive experiences, the cloud, sensors, open standard APIs and 5G technologies, all of which are available to take telecommunications into the much-desired digital future. DT could help providers intelligently design their services and networks and with its proactive monitoring and predictive maintenance functionalities it could potentially put an end to customer complaints."
Arulanandham sees several applications for the digital twin concept in telecom, including the following:
According to Andrew Burrell, head of marketing for ultra-broadband and analytics services at Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), "When it comes to network planning and optimization, a digital twin goes far beyond current software tools. Unlike traditional techniques, it incorporates everything that affects the network including data about where and how people are using it, as well as trends gathered from social media. Everything can be used to feed into these simulations -- the physical environment, usage at different locations, mapping, buildings, vegetation lifecycles, historical weather conditions and the location of street furniture."
Although enthusiastic about the promise of digital twins in networking, Badrick notes "not only is mature digital twinning technology still several years away, but once it becomes commonplace, it will still take a fair share of networking expertise to deploy it effectively."
There is also scope for the digital twin concept to be applied at a higher level in the organization, enabling performance of the business to be monitored and providing analytics for greater operational intelligence.
Gartner Inc. defines a digital twin of an organization (DTO) as "a dynamic software model of any organization that relies on operational and/or other data to understand how an organization operationalizes its business model, connects with its current state, responds to changes, deploys resources and delivers expected customer value." Gartner notes that a DTO is not a replacement for business intelligence or ERP. Nor is it even a technology or a product. Instead a DTO is about organization, business operation skills, methodologies, metrics and governance. Leadership, culture and people are critical success factors.
Unlike Mini-Me, digital twins are for good, not evil. I expect them to be a bigger part of the discussion around network and service management going forward.
— James Crawshaw, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading