What is a zero-touch network?: Hype vs. reality

The zero-touch network is a cloud that takes care of itself using automation, AI, and ML. But does it deliver?

5G delivers transformational technology because it works in the cloud. Cloud-native operations make Communication Service Providers (CSPs) more beholden than ever to automation to help manage operational cost and maximize efficiency. Whether it’s in the Radio Area Network (RAN) or in 5G core network operations, effective automation is at the core of how the cloud works.

Zero-Touch Provisioning (ZTP) enables corporate IT to deploy network devices without human intervention, and without introducing human error. Paired with Mobile Device Management (MDM), ZTP has been transformative in IT. 

The same principle rules the zero-touch network: let the cloud take care of itself. Working as cloud-native advanced Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) processes, automation predicts potential issues, works around them, and addresses problems when they occur. 

Zero-touch network & Service Management (ZSM)

One of the formative efforts to help CSPs make the most of zero-touch networks is the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI)’s Zero-touch network and Service Management (ZSM) group. The ETSI ZSM was created in December 2017, focused on defining 5G end-to-end network and service management architectures. The group studies architectures to support zero-touch networks, and publishes specifications and guidelines. 

“The ETSI ZSM group was formed with the goal to accelerate the definition of the end-to-end service management architecture, spanning both legacy and virtualized network infrastructure, to enable automatic execution of operational processes and tasks,” said ETSI.

The results of the ETSI ZSM are on display in the Operational Support System (OSS) of the Open RAN RIC. The RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) bifurcates into non-real time and near-real time operations. The Open RAN Service Management and Orchestration (SMO) framework which manages non-real time operations is an ETSI-ZSM RAN domain controller.

AI is a crucial part of OSS operations in a disaggregated network. But it’s not just about the code, said Ericsson. Equally important is dependable results.

“In designing an OSS AI solution that takes critical decisions affecting the performance of an entire network, the success of the system depended on more than building more efficient and accurate models and algorithms. Trust is an essential factor in the human-AI interaction, and if we want the users of our AI solutions to accept handing over more critical tasks and decisions, we need to design them to be trustworthy,” said Ericsson.

5G and Zero-Touch Networks

“AI could help service providers deal with the increasing number of parameters the network requires, and help the user of the system interact with it on a much higher level. The system should not only be able to execute what the human user wants, AI systems will autonomously come up with predictions, recommendations and decisions,” said Ericsson.

Rakuten Symphony’s Symware is a carrier-grade Open RAN (O-RAN) solution for mobile network operators to modernize radio cell sites. Developed with Intel and Juniper networks, Symware combines containerized cell site routing functionality and a containerized Distributed Unit on a single general purpose server platform.

Symware enables 5G network slicing features in RAN and transport domains. That includes slice isolation, slice monitoring and dynamic traffic steering through segment routing. Symware supports automation with zero-touch provisioning, rolling updates, telemetry, and analytics for all the components. The platform employs Kubernetes for orchestration and networking.

Orange is beginning a 5G standalone network in the town of Lannion, with expansion expected in 2022. The idea is for Orange’s experimental network to basically run itself as a fully cloud-based, “zero-touch” network. The network automatically provisions services and fixing issues, using data to optimize infrastructure. The network will also offer a glimpse into Open RAN and how open networking can coexist with other technologies.

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