“Brutal automation” is essential, say telcos, but they are split over open source

Virtualization, open source and common standards may help drive down the capex cost of mobile networks over time, putting the expected density of 5G at least in striking distance of commercial viability. But operators also need to slash operating costs if they are to invest in serious levels of densification and ubiquitous coverage – which will be needed to enable new premium revenue streams from some mission critical, enterprise and IoT applications. The key to an entirely new approach to operations will be full automation, according to some operators, which were very vocal at last week’s SDN/NFV World Congress in The Hague, Netherlands.

Deutsche Telekom said the industry would ultimately get to a network which could run with “no human involvement”, achieved via a process of “brutal automation” – a phrase which somehow became the rallying call of the whole conference. Combining the highly scalable processes of the webscale operators with mobile SON (self-optimizing networks) and a dose of AI (artificial intelligence) could result in what Nokia has called the self-driving telco, but in reality, the event was more focused on the many barriers that lie in the way, than on any real examples of full automation.

Arash Ashouriha, DT’s deputy CTO, who coined the “brutal automation” term, said a common industry approach would be essential. He told attendees: “At Deutsche Telekom we now have a vision of zero-touch network service management with no human involvement. Similar to the journey with NFV, we are now keen to drive this within an industry study group.”

As in any area of carrier networks, standards are needed to accelerate progress and ensure automated networks are scalable, repeatable and interoperable, and ETSI has already leapt to the challenge, forming a new group focused on zero-touch networks. DT is one of the operators involved, but as in virtualization and edge computing – two other important current ETSI projects – there will be alternative approaches emerging from the open source and IT communities.

In some cases these will be able to move more quickly than an ETSI group, although in the case of zero-touch, the aim is not to set technical standards but identify common architectural frameworks and significant use cases for automation. All the same, many conference delegates were sceptical that ETSI could move quickly enough, and were more interested in the new initiatives around automation and AI in the Facebook-inspired TIP (Telecom Infra Project).

André Beijen, head of network innovation at KPN, said: “The relationship with partners is fundamentally changing. This technology is redefining the total supply chain.”
Emmanuel Bidet, VP of convergent networks control at Orange, also emphasized the importance of open source initiatives such as TIP and OPNFV (Open Platform for NFV). He said: “This helps build interoperability solutions which are very important for a telco and it helps us accelerate our internal transformation.”

But Klaus Martiny, a senior program manager with DT (and vice chair of the ETSI NFV network operators’ council) insisted the new project would not be run like a normal ETSI ISG (industry specifications group). “This is not the classical ETSI approach,” he said. “We are talking about doing something different.”

He said the founding members have been collaborating on network and process automation for a few months and now want to get a larger group involved by forming the Zero Touch (ZT) ISG at ETSI. “This is not about founding a new standards body. This is to create a platform where we can communicate with the industry and the open source groups,” he said.

The initial members are:
China Mobile
Deutsche Telekom
NTT Docomo
Hewlett Packard Enterprise

Whoever is in the driving seat, standards and open frameworks are essential to instil operator confidence that solutions will be cost-effective, interoperable and will avoid technology islands. This time around, the MNOs will not stand for vendor lock-in, and there are actually alternatives to which they can turn if their traditional OEMs will not play nicely, including open source software and even hardware (see separate item on TIP below).

“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.”

This is a common view among major operators – they would feel safer to stick with familiar standards bodies and processes, providing true openness is assured, and there is a sense they may be dabbling with open source to kick their vendors into changing their ways, rather than as a long term strategy.

There are risks with the open source approach, in this field as everywhere else, the primary one being fragmentation. An operator can jump out of the lock-in frying pan and into the expensive fire of having to integrate and coordinate many solutions. “You cannot buy automation out of the box unless you stick with a subset of suppliers,” Mirko Voltolini, VP of technology and architecture for enterprise connectivity provider Colt, said, as quoted by LightReading. “We will end up with 200 different tools if we are not careful. There is a balance to strike between disaggregation and going with a single supplier.”

Neil McRae, chief architect at BT, expressed high levels of concern about the risks of open source. “I wonder how many suppliers will be around in five to 10 years because it feels to me like that market isn’t big enough … Open source is not delivering for us. There are too many agendas in that space that are getting in the way of doing business.”

BT has spoken out before about the high cost of implementing solutions even on well-established open source platforms with multiple vendors supporting them, such as OpenStack. Open platforms with their roots in the data center entail compromises for the telco, unless significant inhouse effort is made to optimize the solution for a carrier-grade network – which negates the cost advantages, so other business cases need to be made.

An open source backlash may be brewing, and indeed, Facebook TIP has already modified its stance on this. TIP insists it is not entirely open source, despite perceptions to the contrary. While Facebook is open sourcing its own contributions to the project, the option of licensing under RAND (reasonable and non-discriminatory) principles is open to any working group or member.

To emphasize that point, Facebook recently set up a new group under TIP’s auspices, specifically to support RAN licensing. Steve Jarrett, head of infrastructure partnerships for Facebook in EMEA, said: “There is a new group starting that will not have an open source licence because that is obviously very difficult for investors to invest in. The new group will have a RAND licence which is a lot more investable. So the timing is really good now for us to take advantage of your technology and share it with other TIP members.”

This would avoid deterring would-be contributors, but may also anger members which are committed to open source and believe it is the only way to speed up progress towards a new network cost base – for them, RAND is ill-defined, is mainly associated with old-style standards organizations like ETSI, and can result in time-wasting litigation.

There is often confusion between openness – as in interoperability between different vendors’ solutions, enabled by standard interfaces and APIs – and open source. But increasingly, carriers see the two as inter-dependent, and the way to accelerate progress towards commercial SDN and NFV (Network Functions Virtualization) solutions.

In a recent interview, Verizon’s director of SDN/NFV network architecture planning, Gagan Puranik, told RCRWireless: “We believe the pace of SDN and NFV development could be more aggressive. We are aggressively driving open source/open interface initiatives to enable large ecosystems to accelerate progress with focused project initiatives.” He added that the key to speeding up the process was “open standards and open source working closely, with a sense of urgency”.

In automation, this urgent need for openness and fast progress applies not just to the automation mechanisms themselves, but the surrounding processes and taxonomies. “You can’t automate complexity; it will take a lot of money and a lot of time. You need to standardize and rationalize,” Beijen told the conference. To mitigate this risk, KPN has been seeking to reduce the number of network technologies in its portfolio before embarking on large-scale automation. For instance, it wants to reduce its 42 domain name servers to one platform.

Other MNOs echoed the theme that virtualization was reliant on automation to be cost-effective, agile and future-proof, especially as operators added more and more moving parts to support densification, the multi-access edge, and massive IoT services.

Matt Beal, director of technology strategy and architecture at Vodafone, said automation was an important enabler of the company’s virtualization strategy and its Project Ocean network transformation initiative. Vodafone, like others, is targeting multiple benefits – to maximize the benefits of virtualization in terms of rapid service launches, agile response to market changes, cost flexibility, and “industrial scale” analytics. “But this is only if automation is end-to-end,” Beal cautioned.