If the 5G-era network is to be more than a superfast radio upgrade, operators also have to rethink the whole architecture that surrounds it. On its own, the new RAN will not deliver the fully flexible, programmable, resource-efficient and automated network that advanced MNOs have in their sights. One of the casualties, along with a lot of jobs in manual planning and optimization, will be the traditional OSS/BSS.
Current OSS/BSS platforms will not be fit for purpose for a fully virtualized and automated world, and the TM Forum has been putting a series of frameworks in place over recent years, to try to ensure that the new approaches are based on open, interoperable foundations. Its latest contribution is the Open Digital Architecture (ODA) program, which it unveiled last week at its meeting in Lisbon, Portugal.
This claims to offer the framework to replace the traditional OSS/BSS, providing an architectural roadmap with broad industry endorsement, which will help operators move toward software-defined, automated networks and digital platforms, while minimizing the risk of technology dead ends.
The Forum’s CEO Nik Willetts said: “The telecoms industry is at a crossroads. There is a window of opportunity to move beyond connectivity and embrace new opportunities for growth. To succeed the industry must radically simplify and automate core business operations to deliver the agility and efficiency needed to compete in today’s market.”
The organization worked with a group of global operators and their vendors and integrators to develop the ODA as the basis of a common operations and IT blueprint for telcos. The aim was to tap into best practices from the cloud industry, where issues of scalability, openness and cost efficiency started to be addressed long before the telecoms sector saw the need to follow suit.
These lessons are being applied to telecoms and combined with TM Forum’s existing frameworks and projects, which address areas such as zero-touch orchestration and O&M (operations and management); digital ecosystem management; advanced analytics and artificial intelligence for network optimization, and other aspects of the 5G-class OSS/BSS. The Forum already offers more than 50 open APIs (application programming interfaces) to support these frameworks.
With the ODA, Willetts says the group is pushing forward towards a platform that can work with an operational environment that changes constantly, and also involves a very large and complex range of moving parts. It will also work with telcos’ fledgling moves towards DevOps processes and the need to enable constant cycles of rapid creation of new services.
He claimed: “The ODA is a starting pistol being fired by many hands joined together. It embraces a bold vision for completely zero-touch business operations – with no human intervention end-to-end – using the latest technologies including AI.”
The Forum’s Open APIs are in use by over 600 companies worldwide, says the group, and add up to a broad architecture blueprint.
George Glass, chief systems architect at BT, which contributed to the ODA, said it offers a “pragmatic transformation roadmap” which will help operators move to open digital ecosystems, while “unlocking capabilities within our existing infrastructure. It will also allow us to exploit the opportunities created via newer technologies that enable us to deliver efficient and reliable services into the new digital economy.”
The theme of continuing to squeeze more out of existing systems, while allowing these to work alongside new virtualized architectures, is a common one in TM Forum’s work, and a preoccupation for many operators. Milind Bhagwat, an enterprise architect at BT, recently said: “Operators today are faced with the massive challenge of managing hybrid infrastructure composed of virtual and physical components. And we all know, automation is the key that unlocks the benefits of network virtualization.”
Willetts echoed the sentiment, saying: “One important thing to discount is the idea that we’re going to wake up next week and suddenly we’re going to have a virtualized architecture. It’s going to be a hybrid world for some time to come.”
This was the thinking behind last year’s launch of the Forum’s ‘Implementation and Deployment Blueprints for Hybrid Environments’, which aimed to provide telcos with a consensus-driven, unified approach to automate end-to-end service provisioning and management. It includes open APIs, information models, best practices and deployment guides, all surrounding the core open interface.
The blueprint is part of TM Forum’s well-established ZOOM (Zero-touch Orchestration, Operations and Management) project. Automation – but automation made intelligent with a range of tools including AI – is an important aspect of the operators’ insistence that 5G must support significantly lower cost of ownership than previous generations, while also allowing services to be designed, launched and wound down very swiftly.
This is just part of the Forum’s mission, to convince operators that the impact of virtualization on their business and network performance will be greatly reduced if the OSS/BSS is not also completely reworked. Willetts added: “We have to keep reminding ourselves that virtualization isn’t the goal. It’s the agility it brings that’s the goal.”
With the same end in sight, TM Forum aims to be the United Nations of some of the battling open source and standards organizations which are defining virtualization and SDN platforms. Just over a year ago, it announced plans to create a hybrid network management platform to bring together different open source efforts in the area of management and orchestration (MANO) for virtualized carrier networks. This resulted in a Catalyst project last year (Catalyst projects are a TM Forum method of bringing network operators and others together to create real world solutions).
In its initial meeting, the Forum managed to get several important players in open source telco networks – OPNFV, OSM, OpenDaylight, ONOS – to attend, along with operators like AT&T and China Mobile. The Forum believes there is a real potential to provide a common glue for all the various efforts – whether these are within the Linux Foundation, ETSI, or other umbrellas – under a common network management model.
This would be part of ZOOM, which has three main areas of activity:
• DevOps Transformation Framework – a process to move from traditional to agile systems and network operations.
• Management blueprints such as the ‘Implementation and Deployment Blueprints for Hybrid Environments’ and ‘Blueprint for End-to-End Management’, which define the essential requirements for management of physical and virtualized services, across multiple provider environments, and identify best practices.
The NFV Operations and Procurement Readiness Guide, which identifies the technical, business, organizational and cultural changes which are needed to source agile services in a hybrid physical/virtual environment. This guide aims to help service providers reduce cost as well as support service agility.
TM Forum always argues it has a good track record in bringing together different software players, following its experience with the Open API program. It has also been working on management of virtualized networks for longer than most – in late 2014 it announced a suite of 20 best practices and proposed standards for managing NFV systems and services, with input from major vendors as well as several operators (AT&T, Sprint, NTT, Orange, Turkcell) and many enterprises.
Willetts said: “NFV creates the opportunity to revolutionize how we create, deliver and manage services, but, in order to succeed, they will need to overhaul their operations and business support systems, as well as how they think about operations. ZOOM brings together many of the industry’s leading innovators to create best practices and frameworks to guide this transformation, complementing the work of standards bodies such as ETSI.”