Network automation in Russia: the MTS experience

With its 140 million+ population, industrial base, and position at the centre of many international routes, Russia is a telecommunications market with enormous potential. But the large distances between population centres and infrastructure challenges means that service providers must strive for maximum efficiency to provide a reliable service and keep costs under control.

With this in mind, automating networks at all stages is a vital task for Russian ISPs, and this is a task that Vadim Volovik, head of the mobile backhaul and metro networks architecture team at Russian operator MTS, has spent many hours on recently. “We are thinking a lot about network automation at MTS right now,” Vadim told Layer123. “We are trying to understand how we can automate our business services first, for example automatic integration of base stations and automatic service delivery for customers. We collect a lot of data, so we want to think about our business services in order to better automate them.”

MTS has been actively working on automating network operations recently, as Vadim explained in a presentation entitled Network Automation in the ISP at the recent Layer123 360 Network Automation Congress. Growth in users of network systems was resulting in additional features being required, which in turn took MTS’ network engineers more and more time to add manually, resulting in network improvements shuddering to a halt. Additionally, with a large existing network of 5 vendors and over 30 network element types to automate, any changes to reference architecture involves changing many of the elements that sit below it, such as configuration templates, network data management and network drivers, so the automation strategy needed to be carefully planned. With this in mind, the company used ETSI reference architecture to develop a proprietary network automation platform containing both vendor systems and MTS in-house services, containing documentation centre, service engine, template management service to store and define data models for template management, network database, APIs, and performance management to enable a closed-loop system.

Along with making use of template libraries and automated reporting and auditing, this has enabled a closed-loop, zero-touch system to fix errors and add new network elements, helping to save capex and opex, reduce failures, and cut lead time for equipment integration – marking progress towards a true NaaS setup. (For more information on how MTS has designed and deployed its network automation, watch Vadim’s presentation here).

“It’s very important to increase the programming culture”

However, making this kind of network automation a reality requires cultural changes as well as technological ones, and this is a challenge not just in MTS but in Russian telecoms in general. One of these changes involves upskilling the network engineering workforce in terms of coding ability, which has become a priority at MTS recently. “Before, network engineers had no programming experience,” said Vadim. “But from last year, we at MTS decided to move towards network automation and network programmability, and I think it’s very important to increase programming culture. We are moving forward in that direction - I see that a lot of people are now learning Python or Java, and this helps to automate the networks in Russia.”

Another element of successful network automation is deciding on how much involvement specific vendors will have in the process – and according to Vadim, there are certain Russia-specific elements at play here too. “Some Russian operators are going in-house, and others are trying to build network automation using vendor systems. Both paths are increasing the network automation culture in Russia. I think the reasons why Russian ISPs want to automate networks themselves is the fluctuations and changes of the Russian rouble and a well-educated IT community. We have a situation now where it is more efficient (profitable) to choose Russian software or to create your own software than to use software from another country.”

What network automation can bring to Russia

As network operators around the world are discovering, creating a solid foundation of automating network processes can pay huge dividends when it comes to deploying customer-facing solutions that are built on the back of these newly automated networks. 5G is, of course, one of the main use cases, and MTS has managed to create several sites where 5G connectivity is available to the general public. 5G pilots are now live in high-traffic areas around Moscow, including Gorky and Zaryadye Parks, the Moscow City skyscraper cluster, the VEB Arena (home of football team CSKA Moscow), and the Skolkovo Innovation Centre outside of the city. Additionally, the improved network performance and base station optimisation is helping MTS roll out SD-WAN services as of 2020, helping to meet the demands of large Russian companies and industrial groups for more cost-effective, flexible and high-performance corporate networks.

 

Watch Vadim’s talk at the Layer123 Network Automation Congress, entitled “Network Automation in the ISP”, on demand here.