Autonomous networks are CSPs 'North Star' but getting there is a challenge

DTW: IGNITE, COPENHAGEN – CTOs of some of the biggest telcos in the world sent a strong message to vendors at TM Forum's DTW event today: Telcos are done with network silos and vendors that can't help them manage their networks horizontally.

But what does that mean in real-world speak? We asked AT&T SVP and Network CTO Yigal Elbaz. He told Fierce his peers likely meant that they're looking for vendors to build technology that can be managed holistically as part of a horizontal layer in the technology stack rather than overseen as individual verticals. 

So, for example, rather than having to manage each vendor's radio access network (RAN) equipment separately, operators like AT&T are pushing toward a reality in which they can manage all RAN vendors from the same management layer. 

The autonomous network blame game

Oddly enough, this sounds an awful lot like what Fierce Network's founder Steve Saunders has been banging on about for the last six months.

"The world’s biggest vendors are locked in a race to combine cloud, observability, automation, AI and security into a new networking model that will precipitate the next great global revolution in the communications industry," he wrote in January this year.

Some of the biggest vendors in the mix and most are already on board with this "Smart Cloud" approach, including Blue Planet (of Ciena fame), Cisco, Ericsson, HPE, Huawei, IBM Microsoft, Nokia, Red Hat and VMware (now Broadcom). All are building toward this goal. Read Steve's column to get the rundown. 

But back to DTW.

Survival of the smartest

CSPs have long built their networks using the aforementioned vertical structure where every vendor exists in its own silo. And over time, walls have been built up between these silos, according to Vodafone CTO Scott Petty. But this way of operating has "created all of that complexity."

“We have to build horizontal layers,” Petty said on stage at the event. "Every vendor that plays in this world has to adjust to that model. If you’re vertically integrated, you’re not going to survive.”

Petty’s comments could perhaps be dismissed if he was the only one taking that stance. But Telstra Group Executive for Product and Technology Kim Krogh Andersen agreed.

“We all now have very clear perspective,” Andersen said. “We don’t want vertical integrated stacks. That is gone. We want composable architecture, we want openness so we can pick and choose.”

AT&T CTO Jeremy Legg noted that this trend away from vertical to horizontal integration is part of a broader shift the entire industry is facing which requires telcos and their vendors alike to evolve into “professional software development shops.”

Deutsche Telekom CTO Abdu Mudesir added that the shift in thinking means the relationship between vendors and telcos will need to change too. No longer will telcos simply be able to hand vendors a list of requirements and expect delivery. Instead, the pair have to become collaborative partners, he said.

Autonomous networks? Not yet.

Indeed, relationships are key as operators look to deploy autonomous networks, but it’s not exactly clear how soon that will be happening.

Though TM Forum CEO Nik Willets said during a keynote address that equipping operators with the tools to deploy autonomous networks is one of the group’s key objectives right now, CSP CTOs themselves seemed less convinced that autonomous operations could be right around the corner.

“I haven’t met an autonomous network yet,” Legg said. “We’re a ways away from autonomous networks. But there are points within networks that are being made autonomous.”

As Legg pointed out, it's important to note the difference between fully autonomous networks and networks that feature automation where possible, even if it's somewhat sporadic. And CSPs are making good progress on the latter.  

Fierce Network Research's survey of 130 CSP executives showed that CSPs are already well underway with AI and automation. In fact, nearly three quarters of our survey respondents are already in the process of integrating AI and automation while more than half say they have already fully or partially integrated AI and automation into their tech stacks. (See chart below and download the research here.)

AI and Automation report chart


About that 'North Star'

While DT's Mudesir said “autonomous networks is the North Star," and a goal that everyone in the industry is reaching toward, he added it’s not just something operators jump into deploying. However, there are steps they can take in the right direction. These may include cleaning up their legacy networks to help reduce complexity, which is something CSPs have been talking about for years.

Petty added that for the most part operators and vendors are aligned in their view of what problems are facing the industry and what the goals are – scale, profitability, openness, automation.

The problem is they’re not aligned on how to achieve their goals. He pointed to vendor hesitation around open RAN as an example.

“We need to find ways we all win together,” he concluded.

Check out this link for coverage from DTW this week.