ETSI ZSM: “End to end automation is a big deal”

As the ETSI ZSM Working Group delivers a workshop at the Layer123 Reunion Congress in Madrid, we caught up with ISG ZSM Vice Chair Nurit Sprecher to discuss the current situation with zero-touch automation and intent-based networking.


Nurit, what is the ETSI workshop covering at the Layer123 Reunion Congress?

To give some background, the accelerated worldwide deployment of 5G networks poses a significant challenge to the way networks and services are created, orchestrated and managed. Full end to end automation becomes crucial for delivery, dynamic adaptation and continuous assurance of highly diverse services - each coming with its own broad range of requirements - while still ensuring the economic sustainability.

In addition, we need to continuously demonstrate the performance, coverage and capacity of the network to satisfy the requirements of active services. With this in mind, in 2017 we set up the ETSI ZSM group in order to define a future-proof end to end operable framework and solutions, along with key automation technologies with the ultimate goal of enabling autonomous network automation steered by high level business policies and business intent. With this, autonomous networks can self-manage, self-organize, self-configure, self-heal and self-optimise without any human intervention beyond the initial transmission of the intent or the policy.

We also present the ETSI ZSM results and how they contribute to the industry automation journey. This includes the key automation technologies that we recommend organizations across the industry adapt and align with, because we need to ensure end to end automation is achieved and that different organizations are contributing to the different parts of this. All this needs to align to ensure that we go about optimisation from a holistic perspective.

Finally, we have provided some updates about ongoing work, proof of concepts to demonstrate the viability of the technology, and an outlook of where we want to go and what we believe we need to work on.


One of the ETSI workshop streams is dedicated to security. Do you think there is an increased threat brought about by zero-touch? How to organisations manage the trade-offs between security and self-operating networks?

When organisations move towards automation, they need to increase the level of trust and focus on one of the most critical things, which is security. Zero touch and automation is essential to unlock the business potential of 5G and beyond, but automation is not just about technologies. It also requires mindset change, and the past can be a major barrier to adoption and ‘trusting the machine’.

Starting to build this trust really requires a continuous learning process. As small automation processes are deployed and operate safely, human trust will increase and the requirements for supervision or intervention will reduce. Additionally, native security with an adaptive, secured framework, access control, trustworthiness, and data protection can help to establish confidence. These help the processes to deliver the intended business outcomes.

On the subject of security threats, I believe the threat facing the ZTA environment is extensive, mostly due to the openness of the existing framework, with services that are extensible, composed and can expand across multiple domains. But in addition, ZSM services can be produced and consumed by new players coming from diverse industries. It's not just about telco, it can be government, different industry sectors or whatever. And they all need to support different levels of trust according to their own deployment, execution environment, security policies and regulations. This requires us to have a flexible and adaptive security control.

Enabling adaptive closed loop automation which leverages emerging technologies like AI, Data Lake, cloud native applications and all the underlying technologies introduces new vulnerabilities to attacks. This presents additional security requirements, for example how to trust and protect AI from highly sophisticated, creative and malicious attacks. Think about it - the AI is learning, so if there is a hole in security, this would be accelerated, right? So we need to really protect these new emerging technologies.

At ETSI, we conducted a study to understand these threats. We performed a systematic analysis using modern techniques and produced some mechanisms to handle the threats, along with recommendations for organisations.


Speaking about cultural and mindset shifts, can standardisation influence the culture of an organisation?

No, but we can have an impact by showing that we address different aspects that we discuss with industry players – not just within ETSI but at conferences like Layer123 Reunion. It’s a good opportunity to discuss culture and the journey towards automation. So while we cannot standardize culture, we can provide considerations to be taken and some aspects that need to be looked into. We are also trying to get input from all these changes that are happening in the industry in order to learn from them.

How do you see the outlook for zero-touch and network automation over the next year?

It’s a journey, right? Rather than talking about one year, I think it will be an incremental approach, even just to gain a level of trust. Also, technology evolution is changing, and it will take time to get to something more intuitive, so I believe that it will take some time until we get to fully zero-touch.

What I can say is that we have built the framework, defined end to end solutions, service automation, network slicing, and so on, as well as working on key automation technology, for example closed loop automation. There are lots of questions - how to govern it, how to interact, delegate and escalate between closed loops, and so on. Currently there is a tsunami of data - how can we apply some intelligence to show what data is needed? It’s critical that the industry aligns on this, and we're aiming to facilitate this alignment and ensure that all these automated processes can be delivered end to end in a secured way.

End to end automation is a big deal – I believe it represents the journey of the industry over the next year. I believe that the use of AI/ML will evolve incrementally as we learn from deployment, and that this will be fed into specification work. I believe that intent-based automation will be a key element to provide zero touch and to simplify automation by hiding all the complexity of the federated telco, and that we will see more and more support for NaaS. That's why we want to encourage more and more POCs to do standards better.

From the ETSI ZSM perspective, we plan to work on the next level of detail to enable interoperable solutions and ensure that all these future operational processes and tasks can be executed automatically and in a coherent way. We will consider various deployment options and emerging business models to understand the meaning of what we are doing. We'll identifying new compelling use cases like digital twins, networks of networks, and NaaS – as well as discovering what are the missing parts that require additional work and considering the implications of emerging technologies and automation and how we can leverage them.

And finally, we will continue to maintain the overall mindshare of architectural integrity, emphasising collaboration across the industry and continuing coordinated showcasing of solutions – both to demonstrate the viability of the technology and to channel the results back into specification work.