The importance of automating network operations: 'It's not enough to focus on window dressing'

When it comes to network automation, customer-facing, front-end innovations have taken the focus of service providers. This is understandable, given the new connectivity demands and competition in the area. But delivering next-generation service is not possible without streamlining the operations process that lies behind it - in a recent poll of 50 CSPs, the largest group of respondents believe that automating service operations is critical to driving growth. In many operators, although much investment has been made in creating cloud-based networks, areas such as fulfilment processes, billing management and internal IT systems still operate according to manual, siloed processes. This is not a suitable foundation for the flexibility of service that innovations such as 5G require – and if the back end is not put into order, entire operations may well crumble.

With this in mind, network and service automation specialists Amdocs talked to Layer123 about the drivers of network automation and digitalization, the challenges services providers face, and how they can be overcome.

 

L123: What do you believe is driving service providers towards more comprehensive automation of operations?

Amdocs: There is a certain irony in the fact that the network services used by consumers and enterprises to support their own digital lifestyles and business transformation are themselves sold, ordered, processed and assured in a high-touch, mostly manual, manner.

While service providers have mainly focused on digitalizing the front-end customer sales and care experience, in order to better meet the new demands of our connected society, service providers must now look to fully automate and digitalize their service operations and assurance processes end-to-end. Done right, digital transformation requires much more than simply having an appealing customer facing self-service interface.

We believe that comprehensive digital-to-network automation is critical to the success of full digital transformation success that will enable service providers to deliver superior customer experiences whilst also driving operational efficiencies and scaling new services more effectively.

Can you pinpoint some of the new market drivers behind the move to digitalization?

The response to COVID-19 has heightened customer demand and expectations when it comes to digital services. This is especially true for businesses’ rapidly expanding need for flexible bandwidth allocation and enterprise-grade services to accommodate large-scale remote working or online events.

Another driver for digitalization is the accelerating competition between traditional telco networks and cloud providers. Cloud players are increasingly offering similar services to telcos, and they are fully digitalized and automated by default. When it takes a cloud provider seconds to provision a new service, CSPs cannot get away with taking weeks or months to do the same. Customers will simply vote with their feet.

However, the most compelling argument for end-to-end digitalization comes from 5G. This is due to the complexity and flexibility of services that these new mobile networks will enable. Network slicing, on-demand services, edge solutions, IoT and low-latency applications – to name just a few – represent substantial new business opportunities for CSPs to tap into. But they require real-time responsiveness on the part of the network and business and operations support systems to deliver the desired customer experience.

Vestiges of non-digitalized or manual business support systems and processes will simply not be able to cope. It’s a risk that service providers cannot take. Moreover, if you’ve invested heavily in building a virtualized, cloud-based network – as much of the telco industry has done over the past decade – automating network operations is key to realizing significant savings and maximizing return on the sizeable network investment. If you still have a lot of cumbersome manual processes in the mix, you won’t be able to automate your operations comprehensively and realize the significant savings that can be derived from automation.

For all these reasons, it’s no longer enough to focus on digital ‘window-dressing’. The customer engagement interface can only ever be the tip of the iceberg. It cannot operate without digital-to-network automation covering service management, orchestration, or charging that integrates with the front-end.

What challenges are service providers facing as they journey towards increased automation?

The current service and network operations systems were designed for the static and monolithic networks of previous generations and are no longer fit for purpose in today’s and tomorrow’s more dynamic, open, and cloud-based network environment. Specifically, the current operations systems pose challenges to the success of CSPs’ digital transformation initiatives in three aspects:

  • The closed, siloed IT systems (e.g. as multiple inventories for different domains or lines of business) make it hard to control and run operational processes efficiently
  • The complex, fragmented fulfilment process, comprising a multitude of unintegrated touch points with manual steps along the way, may lead to inaccuracies and order fallouts, hence customer dissatisfaction
  • The disconnect between fulfilment and assurance systems and processes hinders the ability to implement closed-loop operations, leading to reactive problem-solving approaches only.

To gauge more accurate views on these issues from the hands-on practitioners, Amdocs recently polled executives from 50 of the world’s tier-0 and tier-1 CSPs to understand how they see the role service operations play in enabling growth. The largest group, 42% of all the respondents, believed that modernizing service operations with automation is critical to reducing service delivery inaccuracies and order fallout, and improving customer experience, a key driver for growth. Meanwhile, 36% of respondents specifically highlighted the importance of improving the experience of enterprise customers. One-third (32%) of those responding to the survey also saw in automation a key to rapidly innovate, launch, and scale new services, which is critical to generating growth.

According to the Amdocs survey, the top challenge, identified by 72% of the respondents, was the lack of real-time contextual information for orchestration and assurance. This was closely followed by closed and monolithic systems, selected by over 70% of the respondents. Over half of all the respondents also saw a big challenge in the complexity of service management driven by the proliferation of multiple technologies and domains.

How is Amdocs helping service providers to address these challenges and to successfully introduce automation of operations?

Amdocs has evolved its proven OSS capabilities into Amdocs NEO, a unified service and network automation platform designed to manage and orchestrate hybrid networks, combining traditional service management functionality with cloud and NFV orchestration and automation capabilities. NEO is a cloud-native, microservices offering which embraces a modular, open, standards-based approach in providing service and network automation capabilities. And, we have incorporated policy and AI and machine learning driven operations capabilities into the platform to support the move towards more autonomous operations. Putting all these worlds into one fully cloud-based, microservices platform is not obvious and there aren’t many independent providers in this ecosystem to cover cross-domain, multi-vendor networks. We’re totally open and it doesn’t matter if you’re operating a hybrid network of multiple vendors, we’ll enable your business with end-to-end service management and automation capabilities.

The major advantages of Amdocs NEO include: its business-driven service design, integrated with commerce catalogue for end-to-end service and offer definitions; its capability to manage contextual cross-domain orchestration, integrated with charging for flow-through monetization; the real-time, active, and federated inventory, seamlessly connected to relevant source systems for an accurate view of all network resources and services across all domains; and last but not least, the closed-loop assurance, leveraging rich data sources and using design-time policies and AI/ML to support uninterrupted service experiences.

What sets NEO apart is the ease of integration with the CSP’s BSS layer, thanks to its modular design. Another key differentiator and value add to CSPs is NEO’s open and standards-based interfaces and cloud-native application, fitting seamlessly into networks supplied by different vendors and those cloud and on-premises hybrid networks.

Digitalization must be deployed end-to-end, from ordering through design, fulfillment, operations and assurance to billing and charging. Meeting customer expectations, staying competitive, and tapping into new revenue streams will depend on it.

Can you give us any examples of Amdocs NEO’s success in the market?

The solution has won many happy customers and has been proven at scale. Recent successes include delivering a strategic project of ordering and inventory transformation for a wireless communications leader in EMEA in support of the customer’s digital transformation program.  And, better automated, scalable service activation across all the strategic lines of business at a media and communications leader in EMEA is another example of NEO’s impact.

In North America, NEO has been selected to provide the service design component of the service orchestration system for a wireless communications leader’s virtualized and cloud-based network. Another North America-based media and communications leader has recently contracted Amdocs to provide comprehensive service orchestration and inventory capabilities.

NEO recently won Amdocs the prestigious Frost & Sullivan 2021 Global New Product Innovation Award. As Frost & Sullivan’s Senior Industry Director Vikrant Gandhi puts it, “NEO provides a pragmatic and seamless path for CSPs moving from physical to hybrid to open cloud networks. With CSPs continuing to shift to multi-vendor environments and adopt open, flexible approaches to building next-generation networks, NEO could prove to be a valuable tool in supporting their network transformation initiatives.”

Learn more about Amdocs NEO here.

 

Amdocs took part in the recent Layer123: 360 Network Automation Congress, which covered the technical, organisational and commercial aspects of network automation and how network operators can use it to transform their services in the front and back ends. Watch all the sessions on demand here.