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MIT Technology Review

Network automation: Efficiency, resilience, and the pathway to 5G

The initiative serves a bigger imperative: enabling the business to understand and meet customer demand, and to scale quickly and flexibly as needed.

Network automationNetwork automation
Network automation

Telecommunications operators understand that automating network management and operations is a vital step in their networks’ modernization, and ultimately in the digital transformation of their businesses. The immediate imperative is technological: enabling network management that can efficiently address the demands being placed on it by the burgeoning growth of data, devices, and new technologies. This serves a bigger imperative: enabling the business to understand and meet customer demand for services, and to scale quickly and flexibly as needed.

Network automation: Efficiency, resilience, and the pathway to 5G

Automation is well underway at tier-one operators, but at many the implementation of such programs has been far from smooth. Difficult lessons have been learned. This report examines the status of network automation among large operators, their objectives, and the barriers they are overcoming.

The report is based on series of in-depth interviews conducted with chief technology officers and other senior network executives at telecom operators. The key findings are as follows:

Early automation aims are modest, but ambitions will grow. Expectations of opex reduction—for example, by eliminating the manual configuration of processes and reducing the time needed to fix errors—range between 30 percent and 50 percent. However, this is usually done over a three-year time frame. Earlier gains are unrealistic, given considerable upfront costs, including from virtual network function onboarding. Better capital efficiency is another short-term goal, while some operators see the greatest early benefit being improved network resilience.

The benefits to 5G could be made clearer. Not all operators highlight 5G in building the business case for automation. Operator executives interviewed for this report, however, agree that the network efficiency enabled by automation is integral to their ability to manage 5G complexity and deliver end-to-end 5G services to customers.

There is no one-size-fits-all automation pathway. Some operators start their automation journey with data center modernization efforts. Others focus on automating operational support systems. Wherever they start, operators logically target virtualized functions before deciding how to handle legacy systems.

People challenges are far tougher than the technology ones. Operators are making structural changes to capitalize on automation. These often involve merging or redistributing responsibilities across network and IT teams. However, retraining existing staff and trying to instill DevOps principles are by far the toughest challenges.

Although yet to be realized, hopes for open standards remain strong. Vendor integration issues have severely hampered some operators’ automation efforts. Open source development of standardized solutions is widely supported, but it needs more commitment from all stakeholders (especially vendors) to build critical momentum.