Obstacles to Zero-touch Automation

By: Mark Cummings, Ph.D.

On September 9 and 10, Deutsche Telekom (DT) brought together a number of forward-thinking people in the telco industry to discuss automated orchestration at the Zero Touch Conference in Bonn, Germany. The conference demonstrated that the basic automation requirements and technical terminology are now well understood.

The conference demonstrated that many Communication Service Providers’ (CSP) senior management is not ready to take the concrete steps to automation. The reluctance is centered around these three areas of confidence:

  • Compelling business case
  • Smart investments in technology
  • Viable supplier ecosystem

Conference participants seemed to agree that there is not yet the commitment by CSP management required to make the changes necessary to automate. One indication of the hesitancy to adopt is that, although there were close to 200 registrants, there were only three CSPs represented by speakers on the program: Telefonica, Orange, and DT. Dr. Abdurazak Mudesir of DT said that, in talking to other CSP’s, he determined that they all seem to be waiting for someone else to be the first mover. His conclusion was that “CSPs needed more courage.”

Compelling Business Case

Some attendees suggested that an existential threat was necessary to get management to take action. They see such an existential threat in emerging technology and potential competitors. To support this case, they pointed to efforts by the large web companies to move into telecom.  Many cited Rakuten’s new network in Japan as just such a threat. Others pointed to the increasing complexity of 5G, and cloudification requiring automation. Caroline Chappell from Analysys Mason noted that “Network slicing requires automated coordination.” 

From the presentations, it appears that forward-thinking people in Advanced Technology and Standards in both CSPs and vendors have been successful in getting support. But as Klaus Martini from DT—the Chair of ZSM and a host for the conference—said, “Just talk is no longer an option.”  All seemed to agree that to move beyond these advanced technology and standards efforts will take senior management support inside the CSPs. To be effective, this management support must recognize the need for significant change. Getting that support will require stating and demonstrating a compelling business case.

Technology Aspects of the Business Case

It is going to be difficult to get a commitment to another monolithic initiative technology initiative, if a recent monolithic initiative didn’t deliver its promised benefits. For example, consider a $1 billion monolithic NFV initiative (three new data centers and 600 to 900 people over several years). From senior management’s perspective, ONAP appears to be just such another very expensive monolithic initiative. As Alex Vul pointed out, “An open source group starting with 7 million lines of code that people feel that they have to defend is not a good way to start.”

Caroline Chappell pointed out that, “Open source works best when it focuses on modules that everyone needs rather than monolithic solutions.” She also speculates that, “compared to the enterprise market, the CSP market is financially large enough to support monolithic solutions.”

Another area of concern involves the accelerating rate of technical change. The presenter from Affirmed commented that his company had spent most of its resources on developing VNFs (Virtualized Network Function, such as ETSI NFV ISG) and now nobody wanted VNFs; instead they were talking about CNFs (Cloudified Network Functions, sometimes also called Cloud Native Functions).  Similar comments were made about moving from Open Stack to Kubernetes. These discussions highlight the fact that today’s leading-edge new technology is tomorrow’s legacy.


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