What’s your understanding of network lifecycle automation and its potential benefits?
Would you say it’s about “reducing the time to market for delivering new 5G network services”?
Does it allow “repetitive processes to be controlled and managed automatically” or “simplify operations and reduce costs”?
Perhaps you think it “aligns automated tasks and functions”.
Or, if you were feeling flamboyant, maybe you’d add that it “tosses out network disruption from your system”.
These are just a handful of actual responses from senior telecoms industry strategy decision-makers to the question: “In your own words, how would you describe your organization’s understanding of network lifecycle automation?”
Part of a wider survey on network lifecycle automation – or NLA – the answers showed considerable overlap, indicating an appetite for how this technology could help with planning, deploying and operating 5G and legacy networks.
A number of prominent keywords emerged, enabling us to produce this bar chart of theme frequency among the 104 respondents’ answers, with better productivity topping the table:
So, what is network lifecycle automation? In this blog post, we’ll:
- First deal with why demand for NLA has risen in recent years;
- Look at what NLA actually is, how it could be used, and the benefits it could bring as the telecoms industry transitions to 5G;
- Outline some likely use cases; and
- Draw out a few key stats from our survey along the way, on which we’ll provide some background at the end of the article.
Responding to an underlying need
Radio access networks for mobile telecommunications have lifecycles. Having had a good innings, 1G is long dead. 2G and 3G are on their last legs, at least as standalone technology. And while rumours of 4G’s death are greatly exaggerated, it’s starting to make way for – or, more accurately, support – 5G.
None of this will be new to you. And we’re all aware of the many things that must be done both to build and maintain a network, and to run it in tandem with an upgrade while you transition fully to the latter: as your busy engineers will attest, much of it comes down to repetitive, routine, manual work.
Here’s where it gets interesting. With 2G and 3G, these processes were manageable, given the relatively low number of base stations and masts needed to support such networks.
But building, maintaining and enhancing sophisticated 4G/LTE networks in this period before we’re all ready for 5G is seeing manual operations increase OPEX and reduce CAPEX.
And what of 5G itself? Well, its frequency range and technological evolutions bring a new trade-off into the mix: lower latency and increased data speed for video streaming, game-playing and the like in return for reduced coverage per mast. With so many new sites to run, the days of relying on manual tasks that can and should be automated are numbered; this error-prone way of working is simply no longer sustainable at scale.
These two drivers – supporting recent legacy networks and gearing up for a smooth transition to 5G – have brought NLA into sharp focus. Add the problems of Covid-19 into the mix and it’s clear that change is needed.
In a nutshell, 5G has presented operators with a seemingly unsolvable conundrum: how to focus on deploying and investing in the future – network slicing, ultra-low latency, industry 4.0 – while continually improving operations for 4G, the technology on which their customers still depend.
That’s where automation could help. Automation will allow operators to break out of the chicken and egg quandary by automating manual tasks associated with daily 3G and 4G operations, so they can focus on deploying the future, faster.
Indeed, when we asked survey respondents what their organizations’ top infrastructure and network priorities over the next two years were, we can see a shift towards automation, AI, machine learning and gearing up for 5G:
What’s clear is that senior industry figures appreciate the problems that non-automated tools bring to managing their network lifecycles smoothly and profitably. And they understand the benefits that an end-to-end network lifecycle automation solution from one vendor would deliver, such as increased productivity and reduced costs.
But so far, only 14% of respondents are using anything that could be described as an end-to-end from a single vendor:
And this is before we look at which elements are actually automated. When end-to-end tools that offer automation tools emerge on to the market, they’ll come as a welcome relief.
Let’s preview what they might be able to offer.
What network lifecycle automation is and what it could bring to the industry
Put simply, successful network lifecycle automation solutions will lower the costs of operating legacy networks while reducing time to market for 5G.
Appealing to operators who are currently challenged by the expensive delays created by siloed teams, data and solutions, they will automate the workflows and operations between the various phases of the end-to-end network lifecycle, leveraging the strategic efficiencies of AI, ML and interoperability in a cloud-native environment.
If well designed, they’ll reduce complexity and improve productivity, which will minimize outages and speed up innovation.
If this is all a bit abstract, a good way to approach the topic is to look at the lifecycle of a network – or of a single mast and base station, if you like – and consider how each conceptual phase can be improved by automation. Some act as constraints; during some you generate revenue. But automation improves them all.
There’s huge value in using automation to help get your planning and deployment done well and done fast. The operations phase can and should be even more heavily automated, and this frees up engineers’ time to focus on complex tasks where additional value lies.
Let’s take a look.
‘Plan’ and ‘deploy’ stages
Clearly you have to go through these steps to build a network but they’re constraints, so the faster you can execute them, the sooner the network can be operational. Tools equipped with automation and best-in-class algorithms will enable faster time-to-market for rollouts such as 5G.
‘Operate’ and ‘Evolve’ stages
These are the opposite, because during these phases, the network is generating revenue. So the longer it lasts, the better your ROI. Automated network management tools should increase your network quality, reduce incident response time, and maximize user experience with a smaller OPEX.
Likely use cases
Though it’s is a far from definitive, this list of use cases gives us a flavour of some of the ways that operators looking to automate their systems might hope to benefit from transitioning to such a way of working:
Strategic RAN network planning
During the network lifecycle, strategic decisions significantly impact on infrastructure investments and ROI. NLA tools will allow users to analyse numerous technical and commercial ‘what if’ to address a variety of planning questions and make the right decisions on each specific situation, faster.
Addressing the entire network infrastructure, NLA methodology leaves the complexity of design, deployment and operation of mobile networks in the past, meaning service providers can focus on mobile service monetization, faster return-on-investment and SLA guarantees.
With vendor-independent and technology-agnostic simplification, standardization and scalability of mobile network configuration across the entire radio, transport, core and IT infrastructure, operators will be able to offer a high homogeneity of service quality and availability across regions, counties and continents for guaranteed connectivity everywhere.
To deal with this complexity, mobile operators and vendors will tap into automation to manage the daily troubleshooting of legacy network layers and free up their most skilled engineers to focus on the new challenges of 5G.
With a single SLA-focused network management solution offering unified responsibility for radio, x-haul, core, cloud and applications assurance, such flexibility means communicating with business partners on high-level or detailed performances of delivered services is simplified.
The view from the telecoms industry
As we can see, network lifecycle automation looks set to offer a huge competitive edge to carriers as 5G is rolled out. But how are companies preparing?
The stats we quote above emerged from a survey we commissioned of Forrester Consulting, who surveyed 104 senior wireless strategy decision-makers from large companies around the world to investigate their understanding of the many conceptual and technological facets of NLA, and how they plan to adopt it.
Respondents’ industries were split like this:
- Telecommunications services: 31%
- Technology and/or technology services: 28%
- Wireless carriers: 24%
- Internet services providers (ISP): 17%
You’ve seen some snippet of the results already. The rest of the in-depth survey also makes for compelling and, in some cases, surprising reading. We’ll publish it in full in due course.
UPDATED March 2021: you can now read the full survey results here.