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Want to Know Where Automation for Transport Networks Stands in 2023? Look No Further!

portrait of Teresa Monteiro

October 12, 2023
By Teresa Monteiro
Director of Solutions, Software and Automation

Last year, Infinera teamed up with Heavy Reading and other network suppliers to develop an operator survey on “Open, Automated & Programmable Transport Networks.” The 2022 results and the discussions that the survey triggered were so insightful that we joined Heavy Reading’s Sterling Perrin again this year for a new take on the same topic. The 2023 survey results have just been published.

In this blog, I will highlight some key takeaways from the latest survey, including:

  • Automation is seen today as great tool to deliver better customer experience
  • The complexity of integrating automation solutions is still a concern – but there is a path forward
  • There is much interest in “cloudifying” transport network automation, but operators are proceeding with caution

What benefits can transport network automation bring?

Long gone are the days when network automation was seen purely as a means to achieve reductions in OpEx (reducing manual operations) and CapEx (improving resource utilization). While OpEx and CapEx savings continue to be recognized as valuable benefits of automating the transport network, they are no longer perceived as its primary drivers. Automation is now seen as a versatile instrument to improve competitiveness, enable market share growth, and accelerate revenue capture.

What are the primary drivers for automating your transport network?Figure 1: What are the primary drivers for automating your transport network?

The survey results of Figure 1 show that the reduction in operational errors, the increase in network reliability, and the ability to deliver higher-quality services, all contributing to an elevated end-customer experience, are important drivers for the adoption of network automation. So is the ability to quickly fulfill new demands, contributing not only to improved customer satisfaction but also to revenue velocity.

It is interesting to notice that among the survey’s limited pool of optical experts (11 respondents), the picture differs a little, and tied at the top with “Increased reliability” appears “Infrastructure usage optimization” – perhaps a consequence of the relative scarcity of optical resources and the cost and complexity of deploying new fibers and optical systems.

What’s holding operators back, and how can they move forward?

Despite the benefits of network automation solutions and their relative maturity, the market has not seen the level of deployment one might expect. One of the main reasons holding operators back is the potential complexity of integrating automation solutions into their   operational environments.

The effort required to successfully put together a robust, hitless automation ecosystem that remains functional as software maintenance and upgrades are introduced is a valid concern. A certain level of perseverance is still required from operators that want to automate their networks – particularly in multiple-vendor environments.

What are the primary barriers to automating your transport networks?Figure 2: What are the primary barriers to automating your transport networks?

This is where industry initiatives on automation can play a significant role.

In past blogs, I have mentioned how the work developed, for example, by Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and TIP’s Open Optical & Packet Transport (OOPT) MUST subgroup are contributing to simplifying the integration of automation solutions in the open optical networking space. With a very pragmatic approach to automation, TIP OOPT MUST has defined architectural blueprints, prioritized use cases and requirements, and awarded badges to compliant products to ensure the various pieces of open optical automation solutions can be used together. TIP’s OOPT group is aware of the top barrier to transport network automation highlighted in Figure 2, and it is now stretching its focus beyond paperwork and lab testing and working to define processes and best practices to facilitate network integration, certification, and deployment.

It is also worth stressing how integration services, offered by the automation vendors that have vast experience in bringing automation projects to life, can help operators integrate automation tools no matter the environment.

Another interesting finding in the automation barriers survey question is that the lack of open APIs, once a top concern among operators, is no longer a top hurdle, in particular for optical experts. In the optical domain, APIs based on ONF Transport-API data models with the RESTCONF protocol (at the automation solution’s northbound interface [NBI]) and on OpenConfig data models with the NETCONF and gNMI protocols (at the southbound interface [SBI]) have proven to be mature enough to support many priority automation use cases.

What’s special about IPoDWDM operations, and how can automation help?

One networking technology that can certainly benefit from automation is that of IP over DWDM (IPoDWDM), where coherent optical pluggables are directly deployed in Layer 2/Layer 3 devices.

In another recent blog, I have discussed the operational challenges of IPoDWDM, and how different management approaches have been proposed to overcome these unique challenges, ranging from initiatives by OIF and TIP’s OOPT MANTRA subgroup to the those of the Open XR Forum.

What features need to be automated to scale coherent optical pluggables’ deployment in any host (routers and servers [i.e., IPoDWDM])?Figure 3: What features need to be automated to scale coherent optical pluggables’ deployment in any host (routers and servers [i.e., IPoDWDM])?

The survey results on this topic, in Figure 5, show that operators are looking for IPoDWDM automation solutions that offer seamless end-to-end service provisioning in these converged architectures.

Furthermore, operators will often deploy optical pluggables in a variety of hosts across a network – routers and switches from multiple vendors and models. These hosts will typically support optical pluggables in slightly different ways from one another, with variants at the device’s NBI, and/or in the way each host internally communicates to the modules, often with proprietary extensions to the Common Management Interface Specification (CMIS). Consistent management across diverse host platforms is of course important; for the optical experts, it is also important that embedded optical engines and pluggable optical engines are managed in a consistent way. An open network needs to be operated in a uniform manner, no matter what type of optical engines are deployed or where they sit.

Additionally, when an optical pluggable is installed in a IP device, the clear demarcation between the IP and the optical domains is lost. This scenario is hard to reconcile with the operational practices established in many service providers, where the IP and the optical domains are managed by separate organizations using separate tools. The survey shows that optical experts recognize the importance of choosing a management solution that aligns IPoDWDM operations with existing operational practices, such as the dual-management architecture specified by the Open XR Forum, which includes host-independent management support.

Are we moving to the cloud?

This year’s survey also queried operators on how they intend to use the cloud for transport network automation.

The value and benefits of cloud computing are clear to all – from ease of deployment and maintenance, to service scalability and dynamic resource allocation, to data backup and disaster recovery. So it is only natural to want to move network management and control solutions to the cloud. That said, most operators proceed with caution: many have only recently moved from deploying automation on dedicated servers to using virtual machines on servers, and are just starting to consider containerized deployments and “cloud-like” environments.

How will your organization use cloud-based transport network automation applications?Figure 4: How will your organization use cloud-based transport network automation applications?

The findings of this survey question, in Figure 4, match well with the conversations I have been having with customers over the past few months. Cloud-related requirements are becoming more and more common in tenders, and we have supported several concrete network automation cloud deployment cases on the operators’ own private clouds. There is cautious interest in solutions hosted in our own vendor private cloud, but we are still far from wide public cloud adoption for automating the lower layers of the network.

In this blog, I could only summarize a few of the more interesting results of the Heavy Reading survey, so I strongly encourage you to read the complete results in the white paper. In addition, I also invite you to listen to the replay of a recent Light Reading webinar where I had a wonderful opportunity to discuss these findings with other industry players.