What are the main benefits of autonomous telco networks?
Greater automation surrounding service fulfilment and assurance, through “closed loop” mechanisms designed to minimize the need for manual human intervention, is clearly a key plus side when it comes to reducing carriers’ operational expenditure and speeding up time-to-revenue.
But Dr Haiping Che, chief digital transformation officer at Huawei, draws attention to a much bigger picture.
In his recent presentations at Mobile World Congress Shanghai and FutureNet World – as well as in conversation with Light Reading – Dr Che is keen not to limit comparison of network automation to autonomous driving cars, which has become a common analogy.
Instead, Dr Che talks effusively about service “production” and “output.” A more accurate description of autonomous networks, he argues, is to see them as an example of best practice in Industry 4.0 manufacturing.
By adopting smarter, Industry 4.0-type flexible-production ways of running their networks, carriers can not only raise their own production levels through greater agility in service creation and provisioning, but they can also help accelerate digital transformation (and boost productivity) in different vertical industries, including smart cities, manufacturing, and autonomous vehicles.
“I think autonomous networks for communication service products is actually equivalent to Industry 4.0 manufacturing for physical products,” asserts Dr Che. “They have common business logic, structures and frameworks.”
He goes as far as to argue that “the foundation of social progress is closer collaboration between our entire industry, the telecom industry, and other vertical industries.”
New ways of working
In an era of “smart connectivity,” which can harness clever algorithms based on artificial intelligence and machine learning, Dr Che believes autonomous networks will help carriers develop new revenue streams through an on-demand production of “network-as a service” and “network-as a platform” products.
Network as-a-service capabilities in an autonomous environment – as described in a recent whitepaper from the TM Forum – will provide “a one stop, real-time, on demand, automated, end-to-end full lifecycle of network/ICT services.” Network as a platform products are designed to “enable ecosystem collaboration between verticals and network/ICT service providers.”
The goal for autonomous networks, explains the whitepaper, is to “support a set of innovative business models and network services” for vertical industries, “as well as the digital life of consumers through fully automated and intelligent business, ICT and network operations.”
It is a vision that Dr Che fully embraces, which is hardly surprising given that Huawei, in collaboration with BT, China Mobile, Orange, and Telstra, provided initial TM Forum input into what autonomous networks might look like. Together they began an industry push to move away from pre-defined and solidified processes to more flexible ones suited for an on-demand era.
Carriers’ transition to Industry 4.0-type ways of doing things, which means becoming much more service-orientated, requires a re-architecting of networks and organizational change. Dr Che describes it as a radical shift in how the telecoms supply side is structured, moving from a large-scale, standardized, hierarchical, and rigid production mode – typical of the original “weak-connectivity” era, he says – to a “flat, collaborative, and agile production management system.”
With the supply side transformed, explains Dr Che, carriers will be able to implement an “on-demand flexible production mode”, enabling them to provide as “network as a service” and “network-as a platform” offerings, as well as more intelligent computing and intelligent edge service products.
Let’s move together in the same direction
Huawei is keen to work with different industry organizations, various equipment suppliers, system integrators, and software suppliers to turn the autonomous networks vision into reality. One supplier working alone, no matter how big, will not be able to affect industry-wide change.
Dr Che is particularly keen that the supplier ecosystem should “upgrade as soon as possible” the functionality of NE (network element) equipment to intelligent autonomous domains in different network technologies – such as wireless, network core, fiber, IP, and data center networks – driven by “intent-based” APIs.
It is an approach which Huawei is exploring in depth with carrier partners. Autonomous networks not only promise to radically reduce operational expenditure but also to improve customer experiences and ramp up “production” that Dr Che speaks about.
Networks today are built on a plethora of NEs, yet to run the NE an operator must first configure lots of parameters to activate its function. All this requires heavy lifting if using conventional O&M methods, which are labor intensive. Moreover, there is no guarantee at the end of this process that services will be delivered and maintained as expected. With billions more devices expected to be connected to the network as Internet of Things continues to ramp up, carrier O&M is only to get harder (and more inefficient).
Autonomous Networks architecture, however, allows carriers to structure their NEs into intelligent autonomous domains in which intent-based APIs “tell” what kind of service is required in terms of quality and latency. The network then auto-executes those instructions. By using artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example, carriers can move towards “closed loops” where the network looks after itself in terms of service design, rollout, provision, assurance, and optimisation. No longer will NEs have to be “hand-cranked” to do their job. “[Equipment suppliers] can introduce resource-layer operational knowledge through carrier’s E2E network operation platform [to NE equipment] and create these intelligent autonomous domains,” asserts Dr Che.
With a “smarter” network architecture in place, Dr Che suggests carriers will have the opportunity to at least rival customer experiences offered by hyper-scalers.
He talks enthusiastically of “zero-X,” a concept developed by Huawei in collaboration with TM Forum and other partners. Zero-X refers to zero-wait, zero touch and zero trouble capabilities that are needed to support a diverse set of vertical use-case requirements.
It is another example of Dr Che’s Industry 4.0 comparison, where both carriers and enterprise customer can derive mutual benefit from autonomous networks – in this instance, “seamless experiences” and “improved operational efficiencies” to the end user, where end-to-end lifecycle complexity is hidden behind the scenes and experience assurance is in inbuilt.
“We hope to work closely with industry partners and our carrier customers to promote the development of the autonomous networks industry faster, better and more steadily, and facilitate the digital transformation of various industries,” says Dr Che.
This content is sponsored by Huawei.