With network operators are under increased pressure to maximise efficiency and scale up to meet the ever-growing bandwidth demands, Virginie Hollebecque, Vice President and Managing Director for Western Europe and Middle East at Ciena, tells us how the autonomous network enables cost savings and increases in efficiency.
With the imminent arrival of high-speed 5G networks, the advent of the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data analytics, network operators in the Middle East are under increased pressure to maximise efficiency and scale up to meet the ever-growing bandwidth demands.
The gathering momentum behind Software Defined Networks (SDN), Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) and individual Virtual Network Functions (VNF) is helping mobile network operators move out of rigid proprietary environments. The resulting automation of network-related processes enables cost savings and increases in efficiency.
The autonomous network is a trend that has been building for some time. They run with nominal human intervention and can configure, monitor and maintain themselves independently. This is ideal from a cost saving perspective but is less useful from an innovation standpoint.
To enable innovation, networks must also be adaptive. An adaptive network enables service providers to evolve their current infrastructures into a communications loop that relays information from network elements, instrumentation, users and applications to a software layer for review, analysis and action – rather than bogging down the network itself.
The adaptive network includes three inter-related layers: Programmable infrastructure, analytics and intelligence, and software control and automation.
The programmable infrastructure layer features the network’s physical and virtual elements, in addition to the associated data. This layer can interpret that data enabling the network to make autonomous decisions – which could be anything from routing traffic around a malfunctioning circuit or investigating and correcting an issue with latency or lower-than-expected capacity on a specific link.
This programmable infrastructure requires a flexible grid; a reconfigurable photonic layer to give the ability to reroute channels of variable spectral occupancy across any path, and across any optical spectrum in the network; and telemetry from the IP layer correlated with routing data.
In addition, a programmable infrastructure needs tunable coherent transponders to efficiently map a flexible number of client signals to the variable line capacity. In turn, that requires a centralised purpose-built Optical Transport Network (OTN) or packet switching architecture.
Analytics and intelligence
As providers face an explosion of data and demand across their networks, the implications may seem complex. But these challenges also have their benefits, as they grant providers access to a growing wealth of information that, if harnessed effectively, can help them make better decisions to optimise their network performance and deliver a better customer experience.
Having easy access to all the information needed to accurately plan and optimise network resources can help providers meet both current and future demand, enabling them to anticipate potential network and service disruptions before they even happen, and even allow them to dynamically adjust network bandwidth requirements based on their customers’ needs. These may seem like impossible tasks, but as networks evolve, such data-driven decision-making will become the table stakes of network providers’ survival.
When considering analytics, it should be borne in mind that not all data is equal. Some of it will be categorised as Big Data that indicates trends that the network learns and adjusts for over time. Big Data can inform the network on how to adjust in the long term, which traffic patterns to look out for, and which parts of the network could be vulnerable.
Then there’s small data – things that are happening at a rapid pace. It could be a flicker on a circuit or an immediate request from a customer. Such events require a speedy response from the network, and those moves will be made by the analytics. But once the decisions have been made, a human operator or pre-defined policies could step in and approve or change things as necessary. In a truly autonomous network, there would be no operator influence at this point.
Software control and automation
The operations environment for network providers is growing increasingly complex. While advancements like NFV and SDN enable on-demand services, existing network management and Operational Support Systems (OSSs) lack the scale and flexibility to meet the requirements of these more dynamic network technologies. Simple automation techniques like custom scripting are often used to reduce repetitive manual tasks, but providers must look for more robust automation capabilities to reduce operational complexity and improve efficiency at scale.
Effective automation of network tasks, such as loading access controllers and provisioning routers, or automated calculation and configuration of MPLS TE tunnels to optimise traffic and relieve congestion, can eliminate those errors and keep the network running at peak performance.
The ability for automation to work across multiple vendors is critical. Some technologies are good at working with one set of devices from a single vendor, but few networks are built on a single vendor’s gear. Networks have to interoperate, using APIs, to function efficiently and move data efficiently and swiftly from point to point.
Realising the complete functionality of this framework will take time; it will be an evolution of the providers’ current network environment. And getting there will be a journey. Each provider will have a different starting point, depending upon their current network infrastructure, market dynamics and business objectives.
Technology principles that underpin an adaptive network
Evolving toward an adaptive network should not be undertaken without a full understanding of the technology principles that underpin this type of network evolution. Vendors need to prove they are committed to ensuring the operation and customer experience of the adaptive network by providing solutions based on openness, security and scalability.
Openness is critical in the adaptive network to allow network providers choices in the products and technologies they can deploy to enable their network evolution. Providers that embrace openness will be able to select the technology solutions that best meet their needs in terms of operational fit, performance, power consumption and telemetry, resulting in dramatically lower costs, increased agility, simpler scalability, and a network architecture that is highly flexible, to take advantage of future innovations that may not be apparent today.
Security is paramount in the adaptive network to ensure it can remain responsive, flexible and adaptive to changing market dynamics. Network providers must consider the following security requirements as they evolve their networks:
- Ability to secure and protect the exponential growth in data traffic over the network.
- Increased levels of automation and fewer manual processes require greater security measures to detect and mitigate security breaches.
- More open, best-of-breed environments must be governed by security protocols to ensure the protection of data across heterogeneous networks.
Scalability in the adaptive network is required, as mobile device proliferation, streaming video, cloud computing, IoT and the evolution to 5G will all put massive pressure on network capacity. Meeting the demand will require network capacity increases in orders of magnitude, as well as the need to respond to unpredictability in traffic patterns.
The adaptive network must scale from both capacity and operational perspectives—transporting maximum capacity using minimal equipment to get the most efficiency from fibre assets, and using software-based control to offer the ability to automate processes and adjust bandwidth in real time to meet changing customer and traffic requirements.
A focus on services
The ever-increasing expectations of users – and the technology breakthroughs that continue to feed them – have created an unprecedented level of pressure and complexity for today’s network providers. Some strategic approaches suggest that complexity is the enemy and that a fully automated network is the answer.
With the adaptive network framework in place the network operator can focus on providing services and service levels that differentiate against less agile rivals. The evolution of the adaptive network is only just beginning though. With some market commentators already talking about 6G, it is easy to see that the network evolution will run and run.