Industry Voices—Raynovich: 5G puts automation pressure on CSPs, according to survey

Automate or die—that is the current view in the communications service provider (CSP) industry, according to a new survey of 113 CSPs conducted by Futuriom.

The arrival of 5G communications networks and advanced applications such as real-time data analytics and autonomous driving, among others, will tax CSP networks as never before. As CSPs enter the heart of the 5G rollout, they are finding they need to increase efforts to automate their network and emulate the scale, elasticity and responsiveness that has become common in cloud applications.

Automation is the only way

Our survey and interview work indicates that service providers are now accelerating their move to cloud-scale and cloud-native technologies in order to roll out 5G in an economical way.

There are several challenges that are driving these automation initiatives.

The first challenge: 5G will increase the number of devices supported by an order of magnitude (if not more). For example, just increase the number of connected cars by a double-digit percentage of the automobile market and you will have billions of new devices. Throw in IoT and manufacturing devices, and you start to see the picture. There is simply no way to orchestrate and automate connectivity to billions of new devices using legacy, manual techniques.

Challenge two: The introduction of 5G will present the opportunity to deliver new services. But these services can’t be rolled out at scale without significant automation. In addition, many of the next-generation services will by dynamic and require real-time network responses, which can’t possibly be accommodated by humans alone.

Another challenge: Service providers need to increase automation to reduce operational costs. Automation can be used to reduce operational expense by introducing real-time monitoring and automated fault detection and remediation.

Yet another challenge: Security, which must also be addressed by automation.

In our private survey of 113 network automation end users, 108, or 95%, of the respondents said they think that network automation will be crucial to successfully launching 5G networks.

Source: Network Automation Leadership Survey

5G: What’s the fuss?

Interest in 5G networks is broad-based, of course. Major operators, including CSPs and cloud providers, would like to roll out new applications supported by 5G’s large portfolio of features, which including adjustable spectrum, network slicing, support for Internet of Things (IoT), and low latency. The implementation of 5G is driving many changes to CSP infrastructure, including adoption of cloud-native technologies.

For example, when we asked CSPs which features were attractive, variations in spectrum ranges, subscriber and device diversity all received strong responses—with 75% (85 responses), 62% (62), and 60% (68) of the CSPs qualifying these as unique opportunities. (Multiple responses were allowed.)

Source: Network Automation Leadership Survey

What is the expected end-result of this? Futuriom sees a substantial shift in service provider networks from legacy models involving proprietary, vertically oriented systems to the open and scalable systems in the cloud ecosystem, which are driven by Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and programmability—as the largest cloud or “webscale” services have done.

The building blocks of automation in the cloud are interoperability, data telemetry, monitoring, APIs, scale-out architectures, and commercial off-the-shelf hardware (COTS). That’s finally starting to arrive in service provider networks, and 5G will drive them there faster than ever before.  If they don’t emulate the cloud model, they won’t scale in an economical way. Significant cost-reductions can be achieved by the use of disaggregated, white-box networking and cloud-native infrastructure solutions. They won’t meet the requirements of scale if they don’t move to the cloud model fast enough.

What does it mean for CSP suppliers? I would expect a lot more emphasis on software, rather than hardware. This trend is gathering steam—for example Ciena has been aggressively building out its software portfolio and recently acquired Centina, which helps with fault management. Juniper Networks recently teamed with IBN startup Apstra to fill in its automation and management functionality.

Some of the most interesting companies to watch in this space include specialists in cloud-scale operational models. For example, VMware and IBM’s Red Hat are building cloud platforms to help the telcos scale out their networks using automation and DevOps techniques from the cloud.

A new crop of CSP software vendors is targeting operations and integration—for example, DriveNets is providing a cloud-based networking system for operators and Itential is building API-friendly software tools to drive automation throughout the network. Next generation open networking software such as SONiC, Cumulus Networks (purchased by Nvidia), and Arrcus are also focused on building cloud-based distributed networks that can collect and route data from any cloud. This approach adds to the potential for automation.

RELATED: Raynovich—How service providers can avoid bungling the edge

CSPs will also continue to invest in real-time monitoring and telemetry, intent-based networking, and orchestration software. Some of the leaders here include Apstra, Ciena’s Blue Planet, Accedian, EXFO, and Nokia. There are even companies specifically focused on delivering analytics systems designed to drive automation in CSP networks, such as Guavus and EnterpriseWeb.

If service providers don’t innovate and automate fast enough, it’s likely that the cloud will do it for them. Major cloud providers such as Amazon and Microsoft, as well as datacenter-hosting providers like Equinix and Digital Realty, are building out network infrastructure at regional points of presence (POPs), enabling enterprise customers to plug into their cloud infrastructure at key peering points. They are looking increasingly like they could be major competitors to the traditional service providers.

The pressure is on for CSPs to up their cloud software automation game.

R. Scott Raynovich is the founder and chief analyst of Futuriom. For two decades, he has been covering a wide range of technology as an editor, analyst, and publisher. Most recently, he was VP of research at, which acquired his previous technology website, Rayno Report, in 2015. Prior to that, he was the editor in chief of Light Reading, where he worked for nine years. Raynovich has also served as investment editor at Red Herring, where he started the New York bureau and helped build the original website. He has won several industry awards, including an Editor & Publisher award for Best Business Blog, and his analysis has been featured by prominent media outlets including NPR, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and the San Jose Mercury News. He can be reached at [email protected]; follow him @rayno.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceTelecom staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceTelecom.