Emerging technology: The zero-touch network

May 21st, 2018, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EngineerIT

While the concept of the zero-touch network has been around for several years, there is no clear definition of the term. One suggested definition is: “A network that, over time, automatically ensures high availability, reliability, and efficiency of its services delivery.” The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) describes a zero-touch network as a management system that leverages the principles of network functions virtualisation (NFV) and software defined networking (SDN).

The objective is to develop new, cloud-based network infrastructure and functions based on cloud-native principles to address zero-touch (fully automated) management and operation.

There is one good reason to make zero-touch networks happen – greater customer experience! Customer’s expectations are considerable higher today than they were ten years ago. Today, people expect user-friendly online access anywhere in the world. The number of online users, data volume, and the service data demand is increasing exponentially, putting pressure on both the global and local networks. There is also more willingness to pay for new services, which means that service providers can sell services that weren’t possible to deliver with the old technology, like streaming a high-quality film when sitting on a bus.

In order to answer to the increase of service demand and consumption, network operators need to find efficient and affordable ways to provide near-flawless service delivery. This means being able to scale availability almost instantly.

Opportunities and challenges

For network providers like Facebook, Google or Netflix, this means having platforms and functions available and working for all its users at any time. This is achieved by, for example, deploying clouds, and having efficient routing alternatives and orchestration systems. For companies like Uber or Airbnb, having a service available also means that the service is physically available. In the case of Uber, a zero-touch network could also enable having cars arrive automatically.

Mobile network service providers face a somewhat similar problem because they need to provide good connectivity services in a limited physical space. As many networks operators are turning more digital, the meaning of zero-touch networks comprises everything from SDN and cloud, to the automation of mobile networks.

The challenges introduced by the deployment of new network foundations such as NFV and new architectures such as 5G trigger the requirement to accelerate network transformation and radically change the way networks and services are managed and orchestrated. These new network architectures come with an extreme range of requirements, including massive capacity (perceived as infinite in practice), imperceptible latency, ultra-high reliability, personalised services with dramatic improvements in customer-experience, global web-scale reach, and support for massive machine-to-machine communication. Networks are being transformed into programmable, software-driven, service-based and holistically-managed infrastructures, utilising enablers and catalysts, such as NFV, SDN and edge computing.

New business models, including those enabled by technology breakthroughs such as network slicing which allows multiple virtual networks to be created on top of a common shared physical infrastructure, are being considered to support new markets

Industry collaboration for zero-touch networks

ETSI recently formed a Zero-touch Network and Service Management Industry Specification Group (ZSM ISG) which met for the first time in January this year. Over 40 organisations have joined the group, underlying the importance of this new activity for future network and service management. The first meeting provided the opportunity to discuss where to start, and initiate collaboration with other standards bodies, fora and open source communities. Klaus Martiny of Deutsche Telekom was elected as chairman of the ZSM ISG, while Nurit Sprecher of Nokia and Christian Toche of Huawei, were elected as vice-chairmen of the group.

One of the key achievements at this first meeting was the agreement on five working topics including the development of use cases, requirements, and reference architecture with an end-to-end view of a zero-touch system, as well as an analysis into areas such as automation techniques and the management of network slices.

The goal of the ZSM ISG is to provide an end-to-end solution to have all operational processes and tasks – delivery, deployment, configuration, assurance, and optimisation –executed automatically, ideally with 100% automation.

“While 5G and its building blocks are being developed, it’s time to offer an end-to-end view focusing on automated end-to-end network and service management”, said Klaus Martiny, ZSM ISG chairman. “We want to offer the market open and simple solutions. A continuous feedback from all stakeholders will lead to the first implementations of the specifications which will be tested through proofs-of-concepts, the outcome being fed back to improve existing specifications. A strong collaboration and cooperation with others standards bodies and open source projects is important for the ISG.”

Clearly industry is set to accelerate this emerging technology. The second meeting was held in Finland in March 2018, and the third meeting will be hosted by ZTE in Shenzhen in June 2018. The fact that the ZSM ISG experts come from different backgrounds (e.g. telcos, IT, enterprise) is a positive development, since the group strives to bring these worlds together, utilising the best that each can offer. However, this may create a slow start, as all the members need to speak a common language.

A new work item on the proof-of-concept (PoC) framework was approved during the second meeting. PoCs are multi-party projects that aim to demonstrate the viability of some of the ZSM concepts and capabilities. The results and lessons learned from the PoCs are expected to be channelled to the ISG ZSM specification work. The PoC framework defines the related process, roles and responsibilities as well as the acceptance criteria. Concrete topics for the PoCs (e.g. use cases, APIs, etc.) will evolve during the ISG lifetime. With the PoC framework, the ZSM work programme includes six work items, covering ZSM scenarios and requirements, ZSM architecture, end-to-end management and orchestration of network slicing, ZSM landscape, means of automation and the new PoC framework.

Participation in the Zero-touch Network and Service Management Industry Specification Group is open to all ETSI members as well as non-members’ organisations.

Contact ETSI, zsmsupport@etsi.org