Network Automation, 5G and IoT: The Trifecta of Network Modernization

If you love technology as much as I do, you are probably giddy about what’s happening in the industrialized world right now. I remember writing my first blog post about the impending arrival of 5G back in 2015. Back then, most of us rolled our eyes in disbelief that a transformational network would come along that could completely change our lives. Little did we know that phrases like artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital transformation and network automation would soon be part of our daily vernacular.

It’s fun to look back at those old blog posts to see how much of what we wrote actually came true. Unfortunately, my prediction that robots would be doing my laundry by now hasn’t happened (yet). Many of us back then also predicted the mobile operator’s journey to network modernization would be long and arduous, and that has been right on the money.

MIT Technology Review Insights just released a new report that is packed with valuable lessons we can learn from large operators about their journey to network automation and modernization. (Full disclosure: The MIT Technology Review Insights report is sponsored by Ericsson, but it is editorially independent.)

This report takes a deep dive into:

  • The business case for automating network operations
  • Insight provided by large mobile operators about the obstacles and challenges they faced along the way
  • The benefits of network automation that can be achieved in a 3–4 year timeframe
  • Why network automation is critical to handle the increased consumer demands that will soon come with 5G

To compile this report, MIT Technology Review Insights interviewed executives at large telcom operators around the world. They asked them about their network automation journey. The lessons we can learn from their experiences are invaluable for any company embarking on their own network automation adventure.

Have you ever seen network automation in action?

When I was at MWC19 in Barcelona a few months ago, I saw several network automation demos in the Ericsson booth. I realize this is on a small scale compared to what operators are dealing with around the world…. but that doesn’t take away from my eye-opening experience.

There’s one in particular demo that stands out in my mind. It was a fascinating demonstration that showed how to automate, manage, and orchestrate networks in real time.

The automated AI dashboard was like network monitoring on steroids. It was a data-driven operational model where Ericsson inputs the customer’s business outcomes or needs (so it reports on a lot more than just network functionality).

All of the business outcomes are enabled by a set of core capabilities on the inside of the dashboard. It allows customers to go from reactive to proactive operations.

The AI functionality is always monitoring the network, and you can set it up so you receive remote alerts and notifications. The data set along with AI and machine learning automation work together to make the different types of data possible.

Now imagine what that type of network automation functionality could achieve on a large scale…

According to the MIT Technology Review Insights report,

“In an operator’s world, network automation refers to automating tasks like configuring servers, integrating web apps, scheduling maintenance, and adding or disconnecting services.”

Network automation is a critical step towards network modernization as we slowly transition into our 5G reality. With all the new 5G and IoT use cases, there are new requirements for latency and throughput.

Think about the demands on the mobile network if the prediction is true that every person in the industrialized world will have 10 connected IoT devices within the next five years.

These are the kinds of things we can expect:

  1. We’ll always get front row seats to every concert, World Cup and Super Bowl.
  2. You will own a lot more smart devices than you own now. (Look in any Gen Z’s backpack and you’ll see the number is already rising.)
  3. Your city is likely going to be much safer (and smarter).
  4. Mixed reality capabilities will completely reshape how we view our environment (and how we learn).
  5. A lot more people around the world will FINALLY have access to the internet.

All you have to do is take a five minute gander on the Twitter #IoT hashtag, and you’ll be convinced the world of IoT devices is experiencing exponential growth.

Your car and your phone will become BFFs. Your fridge will become the captain of kitchen operations, and you’ll never wonder if you should take an umbrella because it will let you know if it’s needed.

The number of IoT devices are expected to grow from 26.6 billion to 42.6 billion between 2019 and 2022 (source). Nearly all of the growth is predicted to come from new mobile devices being added to the internet.

In fact, according to the MIT Technology Review Insights report, mobile device data is expected to double during that same 3 year time period.

With all this fantastic growth, it makes sense that there’s a hubbub surrounding telcom operators. Big changes need to happen so our mobile networks can not only handle connecting more devices, but also to provide more data to each of those connected devices.

It’s enough to make your head spin, right? Imagine how the operators feel.

According to Ericsson’s Mobility Report, by 2024, projections indicate global average monthly smartphone data usage will top 21GB/month.

Scaling for growth at these rates is no easy task. Mobile operators will need to change the way their networks are developed, operated and managed in order to handle the huge increase in the number of devices and data being transferred.

Network Automation to the Rescue

To say that network automation comes with a lot of beneficial features is an understatement. It’s important for operators to embrace automation in order for them to be able to handle the increased load (and stay in business).

For large operators around the world, network automation is well underway. What can their journeys teach other operators who might be on the cusp of their own automation adventure? You might be surprised.

The Human Obstacle

If the past is any predictor of the future, the biggest obstacle to the changes operators need to make will be human beings. Many network admins are uncomfortable with change — especially big changes like the ones that will be required to handle such rapid growth.

It’s like when you ride in an autonomous car for the first time. It’s hard to give up that control. It’s hard to just let go and trust that it will be okay. I get it. I have no doubt that I’ll be the one hanging on for dear life.

However, if operators want to realize the full benefits of network automation, they have to learn to give up that control. It requires trust, even though that change is hard. I know… how could software possibly be trusted to handle the decisions that human beings have been making since the dawn of the first mobile network?

The trap is when you give into temptation and try to support your legacy systems with newer technologies. It’s hard to resist because it feels like a safety net. It seems counterintuitive, but as the MIT Technology Review Insights report points out, “Holding onto legacy equipment and silos during the process will only add complexity and cost.

Disruption of your network is inevitable to experience the full benefits of network automation.

Trust your tools. It requires a leap of faith. In order to experience the full benefits of automation, you’ve got to let go of your legacy equipment.

(Photo Credit: MIT Technology Review Insights)

Replacing traditional ideas and methods with modern ones is probably the hardest obstacle to overcome. This also applies to traditional troubleshooting and manual configurations. They are not practical with the network modernization model. New methods of troubleshooting, applying configurations, security updates, etc. will need to be introduced to handle the volume of devices and data coming in the very near future.

Benefits and Solutions

Let’s switch to the good news…

There’s a valuable chart in the report that breaks down the benefits to network automation, and the problems it solves.

It paints a useful picture that will help operators understand what they can look forward to with automation. The context around the benefits and solutions in this part of the report is incredibly helpful as well.

There’s no way I can give this justice in a blog post, so I hope you’ll consider downloading the full report for yourself.

Adding new specially trained staff and training existing employees will allow for new technologies to be used in network operations. Applying these new skillsets to the network operation model will give operators a leg up.

Network automation will allow operators to address issues like troubleshooting, manual configuration, security and other labor intensive tasks. These things can be handled much more efficiently by automated systems that allow for a network that “self-operates” — reducing manual tasks significantly.

Adding network automation will also greatly reduce human error by requiring more safeguards during network configuration changes, significantly reducing outages caused by human error.

Adopting a DevOps culture within organizations creates a more integrated team that works together better than ever before. Uniting development and operations together creates an environment that shortens development cycles and increases the frequency of deployments. This culture ultimately leads to more reliable and better tested products delivered to the market in a shorter amount of time.

Final Thoughts

Implementing strategies like specialized staff and training, network automation and DevOps are expensive and major changes for operators to consider — so why should they embrace them?

Because the payoff to operators is a more streamlined, secure, self-maintaining network that allows for faster delivery to market — resulting in a more profitable competitive network in the lucrative 5G landscape.

I hope you’ll take a moment to download the full network automation report, and take a more in-depth exploration into this topic. As always, thank you for reading my blog post!

Tech journalist, Apple ACN, Digital Transformation, IoT, 5G, AI and the future of tech.

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