A discussion at IBM Think 2021 about unleashing the power of network automation.

5G. Cloud-native. Network automation and orchestration. Anything as a service.

These are the topics leading the telecommunications industry into the newest phase of its ongoing evolution, and they were the focus of the discussion at IBM Think 2021 between Amit Pathania, Head of Orchestration and Automation at DISH Network, and Saadi Ullah, IBM’s Enterprise Strategy Practice Leader for 5G and Edge.

As Ullah explained, the telco industry is entering a third wave of digital transformation focused on delivering agile enterprise services that will enable providers to lead the way and capture new business potential in the shift to 5G.

Both DISH and IBM are investing heavily in leading these changes.

IBM, for example, is promoting AI-powered Automation through its IBM Cloud Pak® for Network Automation.

But DISH’s disruptive approach to 5G was the true focus of the Think discussion.

DISH is differentiating from other 5G telcos by building — from the ground up — a greenfield, cloud-native 5G network with end-to-end orchestration and automation. Its network could be commercially available toward the end of 2021.

Wave 3 is imminent, said DISH’s Pathania. “And DISH, as a greenfield operator, is sitting in that window of opportunity. We have services, we have focus on enterprise and we have a focus on business enablement. And this is a daunting task for network operators.”

The key deliverables for Wave 3, according to Pathania, are the following:

  • High-velocity service delivery
  • Lowest cost
  • Guaranteed SLAs

So how will DISH achieve these objectives?

“We’ve decided to go completely cloud-native on hybrid cloud,” said Pathania. “The applications are also built on cloud-native principles, so there’s a lot of microservices-based, stateless architecture. We make use of as many open APIs as we can. We make full use of DevOps, we build CI/CD pipelines, so the best code with the best features, most advanced functionality and… virtually zero vulnerabilities, exists in the network at any given time.”

Automation for agile service delivery

DISH also uses a layered architecture to help automate and orchestrate the network:

“All of the things that we intend to do will not be possible if we keep looking at the network the way it is looked at today,” said Pathania.

A conventional view of a network sees RAN components, radio network components, code network components and transport network components — and automation must address each element separately.

“We’re trying to separate the network out into layers,” said Pathania. “So, each layer abstracts the one below it and provides services to the one above it.”

As Pathania explained, “The intelligence and the automation at each layer is available at that layer. This allows us to make use of orchestration, which combines the automation available at each of these layers. It kind of serializes them or creates a workflow all around them, so we can have orchestration that’s maintaining and operating this complicated but very flat-looking network.”

The main goal of orchestration in a 5G cloud-native network, according to Pathania, is agile delivery of enterprise services. However, he pointed out that different enterprises require different services with different SLAs. This means DISH is rethinking service delivery, evaluating what is being delivered and why it’s being delivered in a certain way. “How is where the technology comes in,” said Pathania. “That’s where we automate. So that’s the entry point into orchestration.”

The second major aspect of orchestration, for DISH, is being intent-driven despite many moving parts: “The ability to convert a business intent into the automated workflow is a key driver for us in choosing the right kind of orchestration solution. We want to be able to model services and model the intent right at the design level.”  

Closed-loop DevOps

“Closing the loop is where orchestration shows its best abilities,” said Pathania. “We have to have a closed-loop automated pipeline and we have to have a closed-loop DevOps system.”

Cloud-native applications can be upgraded on the fly and orchestration can facilitate the process according to best practices. “The network must be kept at its best and most secure state at any given time, and a good and robust orchestration system will integrate and interact very closely with the CI/CD pipeline… And we are able to close a loop with development. Any time something new is pushed into the network, there’s an immediate feedback loop that goes back to the development organizations, and they can see exactly what they implemented and how it’s running.”

A service-delivery model

Pathania pointed out that some of the technologies that enable 5G, such as network slicing and edge cloud computing, allow DISH to develop new business models. “Can we do network as a service? Can we use orchestration to allow enterprise customers to consume our network as if it’s their own network? Network slicing allows us to do that.”

“Security as a service: It is possible with orchestration and slicing to have a distinct security profile in any enterprise customer. We can offer analytics as a service… We are a connectivity company, but we’re trying to be more of a service-delivery company. Anything as a service is the end goal.”

Learn more about IBM solutions and how they enable the capabilities discussed in this session: IBM Cloud Pak for Network Automation.

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