Service Providers have been implementing strategies for the automation of network infrastructures for a long time, to optimize operations and management. A trend of technological and process evolution that also significantly affects the programming and evolution of infrastructures.
Automation is a keyword that, starting from the initial meaning of “software programs that govern the functionality of the machines”, is progressively characterizing different application areas. In some of these, such as Industry, the word Automation emblematically expresses the technological evolution that has changed the world of production and allowed an improvement in productivity, products and processes. For several years now, Automation has also been establishing itself in the world of telecommunication networks both as a primary feature of some technological evolutions and as a support tool for increasing efficiency and operational effectiveness by automating manual activities.
Automation in a telecommunications network
There are different declinations of Automation within the network organization and network domains of a telco operator and we can divide them into two macro-families. The first is Automation as a fundamental part of some technological evolution trends (Telco Cloud, SDN / NFV, Edge Computing, Cloud Computing, etc.). The reference frameworks of this trend provide for programmable interactions between the various functional components that constitute it. The other macro-family is process automation in which, conversely, the software component is used to model and automate operational processes.
The common feature of the different declinations is the ability to make much more rapid, repeatable, standardized and error-proof operations that would not have these characteristics if carried out manually.
Automation as a virtualization factor
With reference to the first macro-family mentioned, automation becomes a key factor in the virtualization or “cloudification” of network functions (Network Function Virtualization). The underlying principle is the ability to separate the functional software component (application) from the hardware that hosts it, even in cases where this has been optimized to improve the performance of the application itself. By exploiting a series of abstraction software levels (hypervisor, virtual machine, etc.) it is possible to use generic hardware resources to host any type of application (virtualization). These hardware resources can then be standardized, distributed more flexibly within the network or made available in specific locations such as Data Centers.
The new applications, Virtual Network Function (VNF), or those partially modified in cloud native logic, can make the most of these new architectures. For these architectures, mechanisms are used that allow you to install applications on such virtualized hardware, configure them and monitor their progress. All this is made possible by a series of automatisms present within the standard architectures (ie ETSI Managemente And Network Orchestration) such as the orchestrators (ie NFV-Orchestrator) that govern the entire process and different managers specialized for functions (VNF Manager, Virtual Infrastructure Manager, Element Manager System).
The entire life cycle of the Virtual Network Functions is automated, starting from the so-called day 0 configuration up to subsequent daily operations (eg: firmware / software update). The assigned software components will automatically manage the remaining life cycle of the network function (eg: onboarding, scaling, modifying, dismissing, …), analyzing in real time parameters such as commitment of physical resources, values of managed traffic, number of users, etc. Naturally, also the networking configurations (VLAN) necessary to make the various applications communicate with each other are orchestrated by a specific manager (SDN controller), which transforms the indications of the templates into configurations.
Among the network functions that are most often involved in the virtualization process there are load balancing, firewall, Domain Name Systems, core IP Multimedia Subsystem etc. Of course, a series of evaluations and analysis are required before starting the virtualization process of a particular function. However, the advantages are immediately evident in terms of speed in service implementation, flexibility in instantiating functions in the point of the network that is more appropriate (see Edge Computing), in making dimensional changes and drastically reducing implementation times (only a few minutes instead of days).
By extending this logic to any type of application, it is possible to obtain the various forms and the greatest benefits related to Cloud Computing.
Automation for the evolution of IP networks
A further variation of the programmability of operations and automation is that applied to the IP network, which represents the fundamental data transport backbone for each operator. In this context, the Software Defined Networking paradigm is applied which is based on the logical separation of the level in which IP flows are processed and routed (distributed user planes) from the level in which the rules to treat such flows are defined (control plane centralized). In concrete terms, this implies that the key elements of an IP network, the routers and the switches, will have a service configuration that is implemented, managed and modified by a centralized logic, that is resident in an SDN controller.
This type of automation involves an initial effort for the modeling of the basic configurations and associated services, according to specific languages (eg YANG) that are characteristic of the adopted frameworks. This effort is widely rewarded by the speed with which it is possible to update configurations, services, software release upgrades, etc. on a large number of network devices. In addition, for some services that require ad hoc and coordinated interventions on a small group of equipment, it is possible to take advantage of orchestration logics, or workflow managers, that manage the implementation of the appropriate sequence of changes that are necessary.
The benefits of the automation of operations
The advantages of the automation of networks operations are evident since it allows to: drastically reduce the times for the deployment of new network nodes (network creation) and for the delivery of new services (service creation); minimize configuration errors; guarantee synchronous alignment between configurations actually present in the devices and what is reported in the Inventory platforms; get real-time status of the resources (eg interfaces for new connections) available on the switch / router; get in a single point a full view of the configurations. In other words, the advantage is getting a more complete and reliable state of the IP network free from configuration errors.
In evolutionary terms, these logics are moving towards a dynamic model capable of acting reactively, and automatically, upon the occurrence of various network events that can be detected thanks to the continuous processing of data and measurements coming from the network itself.
Towards process automation
The increasing use of automation software for the execution and management of tasks is in fact a reality in the macro-family of process automation. In fact, in the domain of network management activities, typically carried out by Operations in the organizations of telecommunications operators, numerous processes are carried out, each consisting of a series of actions carried out mostly according to a specific sequence. For example, opening a Trouble Ticket due to the occurrence of a problem can follow a repeated series of steps: from the detection of the device name, to the first rough checks of the device itself, its being put out of service, the classification of the problem up to the attribution of the Ticket to an operator or to a system that will have to process it.
Another example are the testing activities that follow a fault resolution intervention on an device, system or circuit, which must pass the testing process before being put back into service. The test also follows a sequence of logical steps carried out manually with actions performed in succession on different systems, in which it is perhaps necessary from time to time to authenticate, extract information to be used on another system in the next step, and so on.
A further example is the management of the maturity of the security certificates on different servers, you need to have the inventory of servers, monitor their status and especially to perform specific operation at the approach of the expiration date, to renew and install the new certificate on the servers. The examples mentioned represent ideal candidates for the transition from manual to automatic execution.
The repetitiveness and sequentiality of the processes favor automation
The preconditions for implementing this type of automation are to identify processes that have characteristics of repetition and sequentiality in the foreseen actions, to be sure that each of these can be encoded and that the systems involved in the various actions are preferably accessible through programmable API interfaces.
Italtel has already created several solutions for process automation. A sequence of actions (workflows), each of which involves interaction with different systems to verify or retrieve data, which were previously performed manually, are now managed by an automaton. The automaton can be easily configured to manage different types of workloads (testing previously repaired IP circuits, monitoring IP sections and managing thresholds, etc.). In the implemented case, for example, automaton can make decisions autonomously, thanks to the processing of data and measurements.
Many are the advantages of an automated approach: reductions in execution times; certainty of the execution of the process (this is not always guaranteed in the case of manual execution); availability of the status of the execution of a process and historical data of the executions; drastic reduction of errors in the execution of operations and greater standardization (this is not always guaranteed when different human operators perform the operations). Finally yet importantly, automation relieves human resources from repetitive activities, and allows them to dedicate to activities with greater added value.