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Mobile Communications February 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Automation for Network Operations

Why is this topic significant?

Efforts to automate labor-intensive aspects of network operations could contain or reduce demands for labor in communications industries.

Description

Network engineers configure and validate equipment, connections, and cybersecurity. They diagnose and remediate network faults, and they translate edicts to deploy new and modified services into software and actionable events. Engineers commonly configure one box at a time or automate frequently performed tasks by crafting custom software, using a general-purpose scripting tool such as Python. In recent years, engineers have increased use of automation tools such as Ansible and have adopted diverse automation-friendly software-defined networking (SDN) technologies, which help organizations monitor, manage, and orchestrate collections of equipment from a distance.

SDN controllers tended to emerge first for enterprise operations, supplied by data-networking leaders and start-ups, including Big Switch Networks, Brocade (recently acquired by Broadcom), Cisco, HP, Juniper Networks, and Plexxi. As service providers replace proprietary black boxes with generic white boxes, additional SDN technologies have also emerged from telecom-industry stalwarts Ciena, Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia and from new players, including Anuta Networks, Apstra, Glue Networks, and Sedona Systems. Several (mostly large) companies have teamed up to form a working group to develop automation specifications for consideration by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. How the incumbents will fare as industries increase use of quasi-commodity technologies for carrier-class services remains uncertain. But those technologies generally help create conditions for systems to become more observable, controllable, interconnected, and automated.

Network operations could also see increased use of methods that emerge from research in artificial intelligence (AI). For now, use of machine learning for network automation remains more of a vision than a reality. But rudimentary AI methods (combinations of knowledge-based systems, semantic technologies, and federated software bots) underlie new automation solutions from Apstra, Cisco, Juniper Networks, Sedona Systems, and Veriflow. These suppliers promise to deliver intent-based networking (IBN). Supposedly, IBN systems will automatically translate business rules into orchestrated changes in the configurations of many devices. Cisco Systems applied for a relevant patent in 2006. Since then, organizations that have conducted advanced research in IBN include ABB, Carnegie Mellon University, IBM, Kyoto University, and the University of Florence.

Implications

Opportunities to program computers to automate network operations are clearly on the increase, as switching centers increasingly resemble data centers and as information-technology solutions displace telecommunications-equipment specialties. Efforts to realize these opportunities could let services grow leaner and larger at the same time. Service providers still need people to run networks, and they still need wide-area-networking equipment that is exotic to information-technology professionals. Nevertheless, conditions are ripe for services to have increased reliance on the principles of control-systems engineering, rudimentary artificial-intelligence methods, and machine learning. Expect reduced roles for command-line interfaces and other artifacts of a previous technical age.

Impacts/Disruptions

Juniper Networks' slogan—the "self-driving network"—and similar statements from other sources seem to be mostly expressions of marketing hype. But as networks grow in scale and scope, needs for efficiency will drive management practices to become more automation friendly. However, managers' directives are commonly open to interpretation and misunderstandings by staff. If managers are to reduce needs for engineers, they will need to increase their technical skills to understand big-data summaries within SDN dashboards. They may also need to respond by expressing resulting business imperatives and policies in a thoroughly consistent way, possibly using a structured, formal language.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Mobile-communications services, managed network-operations services, cybersecurity response and consulting services, advanced research

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

One-Touch Make-Ready Deployments

Why is this topic significant?

Utility poles may be important for mounting small 5G cells and fiber for mobile backhaul, but disputes about rights-of-way pose challenges.

Description

Often, when communications services deploy new infrastructure, multiple parties each rearrange their own cables and equipment on utility poles and in underground conduits. They do not rearrange one another's property—at least, not intentionally. Parallel infrastructures, crossings, and other shared use of a right-of-way can serve multiple organizations—an electric utility, a metropolitan fiber service, a telephone company, and more. Coordination of tasks among competing or disinterested parties can be challenging and disorganized efforts can impede new deployments. In the United States, owners of much infrastructure and property—including AT&T and Comcast—are in rough accord with organized labor to preserve property rights, conservative safety practices, and the status quo.

Other players believe qualified workers can fulfill emerging "climb-once" and "dig-once" safety standards and that communities commonly limit property rights for compelling reasons. Organizations favoring rights to rearrange items on utility poles and in conduits include the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Google, Verizon, small competitors, and municipalities that operate their own networks or partner with others to do so. Unlike AT&T, Verizon apparently sees one-touch make-ready (OTMR) rules as important for upcoming 4G improvements and 5G deployments.

For arcane reasons, a court struck down the city of Nashville, Tennessee's OTMR law during January 2018; yet during August 2017, another court upheld a comparable law in Louisville, Kentucky—about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Nashville. Because the FCC has limited power, lawmakers of both major US parties recently introduced proposed national legislation that would expedite OTMR deployments. Outcomes and their timing are most uncertain.

Implications

Disputes among businesses, municipalities, regulators, and lawmakers affect whether services can deploy infrastructure, especially fiber for fixed services, and potentially for mobile backhaul, utility-pole-mounted 5G base stations, edge computers on pedestals or small shelters, and more. The disputes create conditions for odd alliances and rivalries. Competitors AT&T and Comcast each mounted similar (and unsuccessful) lawsuits to repeal Nashville's OTMR law. Conversely, Google and Verizon are on the same side in the struggle to secure OTMR rights; meanwhile, they are in a bitter dispute about network neutrality.

Impacts/Disruptions

Many communities struggle with needs to keep up with demand growth. Investment is a limiting factor. But an investor can find that a needed right-of-way is unavailable at any price. Today's disagreements about rights-of-way repeat aspects of similar struggles in telecommunications, railroads, real estate, municipal boundaries, and other domains. Lessons from the development of early railroads indicate that outcomes depend on chaotic interactions among market makers, government stakeholders, and public responses.

Current chaotic activity regarding access to utility poles and underground conduits will affect the direction of the mobile communications industry as a whole, and national or regional outcomes could be important for determining specific winners and losers. Despite the unpredictable nature of the struggle, its complexities, and its month-to-month twists and turns, organizations that see mobile communications as a critical enabling technology have need to monitor how other players establish or deny rights-of-way in support of 5G services, connected and driverless cars, the Internet of Things, and large-scale cyberphysical systems, especially connected, modernized public works.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Mobile communications services, managed network-management services, engineering consultants, construction contractors, public works

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: