By Charlie Ashton
Back in 2012, telecom service providers worldwide launched a collaborative initiative to establish open standards for the virtualization of telecom networking functions, which came to be known as Network Functions Virtualization (NFV). Given the fierce competition in this market as well as anti-trust concerns, this was very much the equivalent of Donald Trump sitting down for a chat with Kim Jong Un, though the modest venue for the first NFV conference was Darmstadt, Germany rather than a slightly more luxurious island off Singapore.
With service providers facing fierce price pressure as well as exploding demand for network bandwidth, the initial goals for NFV were to leverage software, virtualization, commodity servers and open standards, in order to accelerate the deployment of new revenue-generating services while at the same time lowering network operational costs (OPEX).
While some of these business objectives have been achieved in the early deployments of NFV, over the past couple of years service providers have concluded that more drastic advances are needed in order to meet their long-term goals of delivering compelling end-user experiences from highly-efficient operations that are based on modern technologies pioneered by the Web 2.0 giants. “Zero-Touch Automation” (ZTA) is the focus now and this has reshaped the industry’s attention to the point where an industry event like the former “NFV World Congress” quickly morphed into “NFV and Zero-Touch Automation World Congress.” Conference organizers are experts at micro-targeting.
This post outlines some of the key concepts behind ZTA and explains some examples of the benefits it will deliver to both customers and service providers.
“Zero-touch deployment” and “zero-touch provisioning” are familiar terms used to describe the automation of IT and data center infrastructure. In the telecom industry, ZTA extends this concept of automation beyond the initial installation phase to cover the entire lifecycle of network operations including planning, delivering, onboarding, monitoring, updating and, ultimately, decommissioning of services. ZTA will move telecom networks from today’s automatic functions to fully-autonomous operations that bring significant top-line revenue improvements as well as sustainable reductions in operational costs.
For most service providers, today’s service planning process is mostly manual and therefore both error-prone and time-consuming. An enterprise customer may deal with a network consultant who works on the design, a service manager who creates the actual service order and of course a salesperson who manages the commercial transaction. With ZTA, the customer can directly specify their service requirements via an online dashboard, the design automatically drives the order entry process and an API integrates that order directly into the supply chain. A process that used to take weeks now proceeds at the pace desired by the customer and can be completed in minutes with a dramatically reduced risk of errors.
In many cases, new services ordered by the customer will require the delivery of new equipment. In a typical flow today, that equipment has to be procured from a warehouse and delivered to a technician, who required to configure it manually (and hopefully correctly) based on the service order generated during the planning process. Then the equipment is shipped to customer site for installation. Typically, that’s a weeks’-long process. With ZTA, the equipment is configured automatically by a controller, which accesses device information automatically, minimizing the risk of configuration errors and shorten the shipping lead time from weeks to days.
For most service providers today, the service onboarding process is manual. Once an appointment is scheduled at the customer site, a “truck roll” is required for a technician to go on-site, set up the new service and test it. ZTA streamlines the process: once the new equipment arrives and the customer plugs it in, it “phones home” to the controller that automatically verifies service activation, integrates the service into the billing system and validates on-going usage. From the customer’s perspective, this is a self-on-boarding process that takes only a few minutes, with no need to schedule a visit from a technician.
Despite some level of automation in today’s networks, monitoring remains imperfect. In many cases, an irate phone call from the customer is the first notification the service provider receives of a problem with that customer’s service and that’s the trigger for an involved debugging process to isolate the root cause and fix the problem, which could be at the customer site, in the WAN or in the service provider infrastructure. ZTA equips the network to collect and analyze telemetry data automatically and increasingly with the assistance of Artificial Intelligence (AI). This enables proactive monitoring of customers’ services and the automatic escalation of any failures that cannot be addressed automatically. Skilled technicians can focus on complex problems rather than routine “break-fix” tasks that are handled automatically.
In many ways, the current update process for customers’ services resembles the initial planning process. It typically involves multiple service provider personnel, working on manual changes to the network design, the service order and the documentation, as well as an on-site technician who ultimately implements the update. With ZTA, service updates are an on-demand process initiated by the customer via their self-service dashboard. Implemented as virtualized software applications, services can be freely added, deleted, upgraded and restored remotely, with billing changes implemented automatically and accurately.
With today’s systems, decommissioning services for a customer is a manual process that involves multiple service provider staff who need to create a service order, execute the transaction, update the billing system, actually tear-down service and potentially ensure the return of the equipment. With ZTA, service deletion is an on-demand process initiated by the customer via their self-service dashboard, with billing changes implemented automatically.
ZTA will lead to massive improvements in customer experience while service providers will benefit from improvements in operational efficiency and sustainable reductions in OPEX. They will also be better positioned to benefit from the skills of software-oriented millennial engineers and innovative third-party software vendors.
At Wind River, we’re delighted to be contributing to the realization of the ZTA concept and the transformation of telecom networks from automatic to autonomous. The Wind River Titanium Cloud portfolio of software platforms delivers a range of features and capabilities that streamline many aspects of ZTA.
If you’d like to know more about Titanium Cloud, please browse the information available online or contact Wind River to arrange a face-to-face discussion.