The first steps towards zero-touch networks
There is a growing interest in the topic ‘zero-touch networks’. In 2016, Google revealed some of their work on the topic, ETSI established the group Zero Touch network and Service Management in 2017, and in the mid-end of March 2018, Layer123 hosted what was the first Zero Touch and Carrier Automation congress in Madrid. Despite this, many questions are still up in the air. What is a zero-touch network? Why does it matter? And how do we make it happen? Some of these questions were discussed during the congress. Here are our thoughts and some important findings.
What is a zero-touch network?
‘Zero-touch networks’ has been around for many years, but there is no clear definition of the term. We understand zero-touch networks as “A network that over time automatically ensures high availability, reliability, and efficiency of its services delivery for its users”.
For network providers like Facebook, Google or Netflix, this means having platforms and functions available and working for all its users at any time. This is achieved by for example deploying clouds, having efficient routing alternatives and orchestration systems. For companies like Uber or Airbnb having a service available also means that the service is physically available. In the case of Uber, a zero-touch network could also include having cars turning up automatically.
Mobile network service providers face somewhat a similar problem because they need to provide good connectivity services in a limited physical space. As many networks operators are turning more digital, the meaning of zero-touch networks comprises of everything from software defined networks (SDN) and clouds, to automation of mobile networks like self-organizing networks (SON).
Why does it matter?
There is one reason to make zero-touch networks happen – customer experience. The customer’s expectations are exponentially higher than just 10 years ago. They expect good online access anywhere in the world and have great user experiences. The number of online users, the data volume, and the service data demand is expected to increase. It puts pressure on both the global and local networks. However, also the willingness to pay for new service is high. Service providers can sell services that weren’t even possible to deliver with the old technology, like streaming a high-quality film when sitting on a bus.
In order to answer to the increase of service demand and consumption, network operators need to find efficient and affordable ways to provide close to flawless service delivery. This means being able to scale availability almost instantly.
How to make it happen?
Our experience is that deploying zero-touch networks is challenging, but not impossible. In Finland, Elisa began automating its network back in 2009 and has had successful experience deploying automation in its Finnish and Estonian networks – on the path towards zero-touch networks.
Focus on the customer experience:
Deploying an end-to-end zero-touch network will be costly and resource demanding. Therefore, it is important that the end-user see the benefits of the actions through increased availability, reliability or efficiency of the services. At the Zero Touch Congress, we presented how Elisa provided more mobile data throughput to its customers by deploying load balancing algorithms in its network. This is use case showed immediate benefits for Elisa subscribers and reduced the number of mobile data related complaints with 50%.
Change the processes:
Zero-touch has a lot in common with automation, and automation is not always an easy topic to suggest. But automating is not necessarily about firing employees. It’s first and foremost about providing a better service for the customer. This can only be done by changing the underlying processes in the organization. At Elisa, successful process change was achieved due to three reasons.
Firstly, management not only supports the adoption of automation but encouraged by deploying strong financial objectives that were translated into KPI values down in the organization. Secondly, work processes were changed. Engineers that had the jobs that would be automated got training to create automation for the network. They were also the people with the most knowledge of the network. Lastly, novel teams of programmers, network engineers, and business personnel were brought together to identify the needed automation use-cases and build the automation.
Automate, one step at the time:
Bringing zero-touch automation to the entire network will take a large number of resources and time to deploy thoroughly. Mentioned at the Zero Touch Congress was the need to test and fail quickly. This is something we at Elisa Automate encourage. Whether you benefit from deploying zero-touch orchestration, zero-touch provisioning, self-organizing networks(SON) or Software Defined Networks(SDN), the need to be agile and gain the benefits first is more important than the end-to-end ability. Elisa has let each department find solutions they think best solves the automation of their processes. After years of automation, there are now different solutions that help the engineers automate the old processes in the best possible way.
There is not yet a vision for how a completely zero-touch network will look like. However, in today’s environment with exponential usage, network operators are forced to act on automation to deliver excellent services to their customers.