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Standardization Enables End-to-End Network Automation to Serve Digital Transformation

by Guang Yang | May 28, 2020

Network Automation Key for 5G SLA

As discussed in my previous blogs Core Network Market to Be Extended as Digital Transformation Demand Rising and 5G Improves Network Determinacy to Support Digital Transformation, the combination of guaranteed network SLA (Service Level Agreement) and flexible deployment is a unique advantage of 5G network in enterprise and industry IoT market. Network SLA could be a stepping stone for communication service providers (CSPs) to enter the market and serve enterprise digital transformation. But we should realize that the implementation of network SLA not only depends on URLLC (Ultra Reliable and Low Latency Communications) and network slicing features, but also relies on the end-to-end network management functions.

First of all, the SLA requirements will be mapped to SLS (Service Level Specifications). Then the SLS will be further translated into the SliceProfile of different technology domains. The domain specific SliceProfile requirement needs to be translated and populated to corresponding network configurations of core network (CN), radio access network (RAN) and transport network (TN) in order to implement the end-to-end SLA. Different network domains should communicate and coordinate with each other to contribute to the overall SLS. All the procedures rely on network management functions.  

To meet an SLA requirement, the appropriate parameters should be configured for each network element and the configuration should be able to be optimized according to traffic load and network condition in a real-time manner. The measurement and reporting of network KPI and quality of experience (QoE) are required in order to support the real-time optimization and to show customers the compliance of SLA requirement. All these also rely on the network management functions.

Therefore, the network management functions are important for the end-to-end SLA management. But today’s mobile network has become too complex to be managed manually. For example, massive MIMO is a key technology of 5G NR radio access network. The number of parameter sets for the massive MIMO configuration is often more than 1,000. A manual configuration has been impossible. Network automation has become a must-have for the network management loop. Thus, the network automation plays a key role for the end-to-end SLA management.  

Layered network autonomy requires cooperation across domains

As shown in the above chart, a mobile network comprises multiple domains, such as radio access network, core network and transport network. Each of them has specific tasks. For example, the radio access network targets to exploit radio resource as efficiently as possible, while the core network is in charge of the subscriber management, call processing, mobility management, etc.

Operators pick best-of-breed componentry for each domain and stitch them together, so different domains in a mobile network are often provided by different vendors. A vendor usually has its own implementation and know-hows. It would be difficult for a third party to directly manage the network elements in a specific domain. Therefore, cross domain cooperation is crucial for end-to-end network automation.

In fact, 3GPP has started to define a multi-domain/layer/technology management framework (see the chart below). The framework could enable a mechanism of “layered autonomy and cross-layer coordination”. This mechanism should be the best trade-off approach between the unified end-to-end autonomy strategy and the most efficient autonomy in each domain.

Layered Autonomy

Standardization towards network automation of full life cycle and cross domain

Even though COVID-19 has forced 3GPP to stop all face-to-face meetings, the standardization work is still on track. 3GPP Release 17 work has been kicked off. The enhancement of network automation is one of the priorities in Release 17. By February 2020, more than 10 new Work Items (WIs) / Study Items (SIs) have been set up in 3GPP TSG SA and RAN for network automation, which cover multiple subjects including autonomous network levels,  Enhancement on Management Aspects of 5G SLA, Enhanced Closed loop SLS assurance, Intent driven management service for mobile networks, etc.

Our recent report Who Are the Leading Players in 5G Standardization? An Assessment for 3GPP 5G Activities found that infrastructure giants – Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia – are leading 5G standardization activities in 3GPP. But in terms of the network automation standardization, operators are also active. China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom and Orange are leading contributors to the new network automation WIs / SIs in Release 17. This highlights the importance of network automation to CSPs. Network automation will play a key role when CSPs leverage 5G SLA to serve the digital transformation. The standardization is building the foundation for the end-to-end network automation. We expect to see more industry players to join the standardization activity to accelerate the development of network automation.  With these activities, a truly service driven infrastructure would become reality that enables CSPs to deploy and operate new profitable, high performance services such as dynamic network slicing, that are infeasible or uneconomic without a high degree of intelligent automation and eventually Zero Touch AI.

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