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Copertina 768 capitolo 2 del 1-2022

Automation

A cura del Team:
TechnologyPlan_Automation
@telecomitalia.it


Automation is increasingly important and pervasive in company realities as it consists in the introduction of technologies that automate processes and manual activities, allowing costs saving, increase in efficiency and error reduction. In this paper we describe TIM Group positioning on three areas where automation is being used: Network Automation, Software Developing Automation and Robotic Process Automation (RPA).

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Articolo 02 - Automation

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Introduction and Context

Within the company realities, automation is gaining importance and, although it is applicable in various contexts, not only technological, it is assuming a central role and is becoming an enabler of innovation.
In TIM Group we consider three main areas where automation is being used: Network Automation, Software Developing Automation and Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
With the term Network Automation we refer to the introduction of systems to automate network management and to orchestrate services fulfilment and assurance. This is necessary to automatically answer to customers’ requests and to guarantee agreed SLAs. Software Developing Automation deals with software development, delivery and deployment automation. It allows incremental software releases by an integrated tool ecosystem necessary when applications move from monoliths installed on physical or virtual machines towards highly distributed microservice architectures, deployed in containers in a multi-cloud environment and characterized by a high frequency of new versions’ release.
Robotic Process Automation is the automation of front, middle and backoffice activities as well as repeated manual tasks. RPAs are especially relevant with legacy systems that are not machinecentric or programmable and only provide a GUI to interact with the underlying technology.

Current Situation

In Network Automation scope, at TIM and TIM Brasil’s domains, the implementation of an end-to-end Automation framework is ongoing. Among other tasks, the automation solution must deal with lifecycle management, design, and activation of customized network slices that will serve new verticals and new business models. An integrated management and orchestration environment is being built and gradually implemented. Each company has its peculiarities, but the common framework is the definition of a layered architecture with a network, an end-to-end resource, and a service layer. Each domain must guarantee supported services fulfilment and assurance through closed loop automation. Cross Domain functions are provided at end-to-end resource and service layers (Figure 1).

cap02-01 High-level Network

Figure 1: High level Network Automation Architecture

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Automation and Orchestration solutions are necessary even in the network functions virtualization area to manage the life cycle of virtualized and cloud-native network functions, to avoid any manual intervention in the Telco Cloud Infrastructure, including networking. In this context TIM has been deploying a large set of Virtualized Network Functions over a multi-vendor IaaS architecture and is going to deploy shortly the first set of Cloud-native Network Functions. TIM approach to RAN (Radio Access Network) automation is based on the evolution of TIM management and orchestration systems and the exploitation the use of the Open SON (Self Organizing Networks) functionalities to enable the control and optimization of all radio parameters in an automated and open way. RAN automation use cases currently address areas of optimization and configuration (i.e. for self-configuration), creation (i.e. self-establishment) and maintenance (i.e. self-healing).
On the other hand, in the SDN domain, the E2E SDN Automation tools have currently been deployed within TIM IP networks, addressing a significant number of use cases allowing effective operational activities.
A real-time assessment of the network is the input needed for a Closed Loop engine, which applies the right logic to understand and decide which actions must be taken to react to network events (e.g. Restoration of optical link in case of fault). TIM Brasil, aligned with the evolutionary Group perspective, started its Automation journey in 2018 and currently is expanding its scope towards Telco Cloud Infrastructure, RAN automation through Open SON, E2E SDN for IP networks and technical operational evolution through A.I. having as example TAIS (TIM Artificial Intelligence Service). Sparkle, as international player, has begun since 2016 to implement numerous feasibility studies on the Network Automation topic, in order to benefit from the numerous advantages offered by both SDN (Software-Defined Networking) and Intent-Based Networking (IBN) paradigms, combined synergistically to eventually achieve the so-called Closed Loop Automation.
In the Software Developing Automation context (CI/CD, Continuous Integration/ Continuous Delivery chains), the automation of Continuous Integration, Delivery and Deployment pipelines is not limited to code management, but it has various correlations with internal processes: consistency with project management systems, compliance with the Security guidelines for secure code development and, in general, integration with several internal systems (Figure 2).

cap02-02 DevOps Chain

Figure 2: DevOps Chain

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Automation in Noovle is applied at various levels, both for internal processes and for external customers, especially on issues of DevOps and management of Cloud environments (private or public).
The Robotic Process Automation context is addressed by TIM domestic, TIM Brasil and Sparkle, to keep the helm firm between the increasingly challenging needs of its customers and the urgency to make the supporting business processes efficient and effective. Digital Channel & Contact Center, Pre-Sales Business, Finance and Legal are areas of application of RPA in TIM Domestic.
“Network Intelligent Operation” (NIO) is a Sparkle program started in 2019 aimed at automating processes in Operations, Provisioning, Pre-Sales, Marketing, Security and Customer Care Areas, and based on two pillars: Operation efficiency and Customer Experience improvement (Figure 3).

cap02-03 NIO Program

Figure 3: NIO Program Evolution in Sparkle

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Standard and Fora

With respect to Network Automation many Standards & Open Source projects are active: 3GPP, ETSI, IETF, TMForum, ONAP, O-RAN Alliance, just to mention the ones where TIM is involved. Several new projects integrate the existing ones on AI-based and data-driven Automation. The topics addressed deal with moving stepwise to a fully autonomous network (3GPP), defining orchestration and automation platforms (ONAP and O-RAN Alliance) and working on PoC and Code/framework developments to deliver a “Zero X” experience (TMForum and ETSI). The use of Artificial Intelligence in network control and management domain is addressed by TMForum while IETF is working on IP networks automation: data modelling language and protocols to configure network elements.

Company Position and Guidelines

As we have seen, in TIM Group different initiatives are ongoing with respect to different automation areas. These initiatives have brought several benefits, and more are expected to come. With respect to Network Automation area, on VNFs/CNFs automation, important benefits have been achieved in terms of HW consolidation and reduction of time to perform tasks, that was dramatically reduced with respect to physical nodes. For example, thanks to virtualization and automation, the time needed to accomplish capacity expansion, or healing, of a mobile packet gateway was reduced from days down to hours, and the instantiation time of a new network function instance (e.g. a new mobile packet gateway) was dramatically reduced. On the RAN side we have many Open SON use cases already deployed on field. The evidence collected on deployed use cases show an enhancement of network performance, a reduction on congested areas and an improvement on time and effectiveness of troubleshooting.
Regarding the operational efficiency, the introduction of automation has shown a reduction on execution time as well as on the effort needed on relevant operation activities, but also the introduction of processes to enable new actions in the network. The introduction of E2E SDN Automation has made it possible to achieve some benefits in time spent in recurrent activities deployed on large number of equipment or reduction of operator mistakes. These benefits will increase as far as E2E SDN Automation will be extended to cover more and more operational activities and more devices in the network. Moreover, application of automatic and intelligent reaction to different type of events allows smoother network operations, thus increasing network resilience and overall spending efficiency.
Regarding Software Development Automation, the advantages of a DevOps methodology are increasingly recognized. For each new software development project, the creation and configuration of an automation environment is done in a few minutes and developers do not need specific skills in the field of CI/CD/CD pipelines; such pipelines are configured through a descriptor file. With respect to Robotic Process Automation, the usage of RPA technology showed excellent results contributing to:

  • Extend operational working hour: robots work H24, ensuring continuous support;
  • Ensurer eliability of tasks execution;
  • Reduce errors and reworking and time-to-repair/restore, with customers experience improvement;
  • Optimize and reduce execution/processing time, guaranteeing SLA compliance (e.g. MTTR, MTTO, Service Availability);
  • Improve tracking, monitoring and control of Netw ork performance;
  • Extend time for higher value professional activities with focus on customer satisfaction.

Due to reported benefits and new technologies that will come in the next future, the group is confirming current choices on the three automation areas and will extend such solutions following these guidelines:

  • End to end Automation. Complete ongoing activities in all areas to achieve automated environment. Orchestration shall be able to coordinate Service and Resource layers, and different Domains within the Resource layer.
  • Telco Cloud Continuum support. The ability to manage both VNF and CNF on a hybrid infrastructure spanning from Public Cloud to Telco Edge Cloud.
  • Closed Loop functionalities. Improvement of closed loop automation functions to react to network changes and maintain required SLA (Service Level Agreement) to customers.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). Progressive extension of automation platforms, both for Network Automation and RPA, with the introduction of new advanced automation capabilities such as Cognitive, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Predictive Network Maintenance.
  • Data centrality. Data need to be managed, orchestrated, and historicized. History of data is crucial to make ML algorithms properly work. To this end each orchestration and management layer will provide data to other layers and to the data lake.
  • Open APIs. Exposure of reusable functionalities through open APIs available at all network layers and to customers if needed. Their combination allows for creation of new functionalities and services.
  • CI/CD solutions. Solutions to manage the CI/CD process are being evaluated. The solutions will be integrated with TIM processes, compliant with security requirements, implemented in a process repeatable and automated.
  • Fully declarative model. All VNF/CNF must be accompanied by standard descriptors, that fully and univocally represent infrastructure requirements and life cycle management methods.
  • Fully cloud-native solutions. Network Functions suppliers will have to deliver cloud-native software, designed to be deployed and executed in any cloud environments and managed in a full automated way.

Conclusions

TIM Group is actively working on Automation in all areas as described in the paper. We’ll proceed along with the identified guidelines to achieve expected benefits and to allow digital transformation and innovation.

Contributing Companies

Contributing companies to this article are: TIM Italy, TIM Brazil, Sparkle, Noovle.

Acronyms

3GPP: 3rd Generation Partnership Project

5GC: 5G Core

API: Application Programming Interface

CI/CD: Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery

CNF: Cloud Native Function

DevOps: Development Operations

ENI: Experiential Networked Intelligence

EPC: Evolved Packet Core

ETSI: European Telecommunications Standards Institute

F5G: Fifth Generation Fixed Network

IETF: Internet Engineering Task Force

KPI: Key Performance Indicator

ML: Machine Learning

MTTO: Mean time To Obsolescence

MTT: Mean Time To Repair

NFV: Network Functions Virtualizations

NIO: Network Intelligent Operations

OAM: Operation, Administration and Maintenance

ONAP: Open Network Automation Platform

O-RAN: Open Radio Access Network

PoC: Proof of Concept

QoS: Quality of Service

RAN: Radio Access Network

RPA: Robotic Process Automation

SDN: Software Defined Network

SLA: Service Level Agreement

SON: Self Organizing Networks

TM Forum: TeleManagement Forum

VNF: Virtual Network Function

ZSM: Zero-touch network and Service Management