Over the past few years, telecom service providers (TSPs) have been warming up to the idea of automating telecom networks by leveraging cutting-edge technologies. As the pandemic spread across the world and crippled business activity, TSPs that implemented the concept of network automation have ensured minimum disruption in connectivity. While maintaining ph­y­sical networks remained a huge challenge in this scenario, telcos that had already in­troduced some level of network automation benefited, making the industry realise how important it is to automate networks and build a future-ready ecosystem.

As organisations continue looking for ways to streamline outdated workplace pro­­­cesses, more and more enterprises are turning to network automation to simplify data centre management. According to a re­­cent market research published by Meti­culous Research, the network automation market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22.8 per cent from 2021 to 2028. This growth is mainly due to increasing network complexity, originated by businesses demanding higher agility and higher reliability. The need to catch up with this rapid gro­wth has led companies to develop network automation strategies.

Market overview

The network automation market was valued at $14.56 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $48.39 billion by 2027, registering a CAGR of 22.49 per cent during 2022-27. As the Covid-19 outbreak spread, public and private companies as well as government entities have facilitated employees to adopt WFH (work from home), resulting in an unforeseen strain on all manner of networking technologies, thereby raising bandwidth and security concerns.

At present, enterprise networks are un­der pressure, with more users, devices and applications relying on the network for es­sential connectivity to a wide range of end­points. In response, organisations are in­c­reasingly interested in new network ar­chi­tectures and advanced management tools that leverage machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to create self-driving or autonomous networks. These ad­vancements are also significantly changing the way enterprises rely on services from their partners and vendors.

Automation is playing an important role in maintaining IT operations during the pandemic. According to the Verizon net­work report, the overall data volume across its networks increased by 19 per cent compared to pre-Covid levels. While data usage remains elevated, changes in how people are using the network have stabilised. Verizon stated that it expects the user to continue at sustained higher levels in the future.

The global network automation market is slowly turning into a fragmented ma­r­ket. It is expected to witness a robust increase in the near future, strongly driven by cloud trends and growing network traffic across various end-user industries. In order to maintain their foothold in the network automation landscape, the competitive strategy has been quite strong from current market leaders, mainly driven by their acquisitions of various start-ups and solution vendors in the market. Key players in the market are Cisco Sy­stem, Inc., Juniper Networks, Inc., IBM Corporation, etc. Such companies in the market aim to deliver highly secure, automated, software-defined and intelligent platforms to their customers. The strategic priorities of key companies include in­c­reasing the value of the network, accelerating their pace of innovation and transforming their business model. Companies continue to invest in optics, silicon and software, the combination of which is considered as the base of intent-based networking solutions.

Demand drivers

Growing need for IT automation in businesses to bolster market growth

Nowadays, one of the major challenges for network managers is the rising cost associated with network operations. The growth of devices and data is outpacing information technology (IT) capabilities, making it difficult for the network team to handle operations manually. As per Cisco, around 95 per cent of network-related tasks are per­formed manually, leading to operational costs being around two to three times more than the cost of the network. In this scenario, centrally and remotely managed IT automation is a must for companies to keep pace in the digital world.

Surge in adoption of connected devices

Connected devices are growing at a faster pace than that of the overall population. As per Cisco’s Annual Internet Report, the nu­mber of devices connected to internet protocol networks is expected to exceed the glo­bal population by 3 to 1, with around 29.3 billion networked devices by 2023, up from 18.4 billion networked devices in 2018. The exponential growth of network devices mandates a different approach that is based on automation and self-servicing capabilities that would control and manage complex data centres and network operations. Network automation solutions can help networking teams to keep up with this growth by streamlining the maintenance of physical as well as virtual network devices. Thus, a surge in the adoption of connected devices is likely to enhance the global network automation market growth.

Telcos move to automate networks

Recognising these benefits, telcos in India have started investing heavily in automation and its underlying technologies such as service orchestration, self-organising network, ML and network virtualisation. All three private telcos – Reliance Jio, Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) and Bharti Airtel – are investing in network automation in a bid to stay future-fit. In a recent development, Airtel has deployed Avanseus’s predictive maintenance (PdM) solution across its operations. Avanseus’s PdM applies principles of AI analytics to Airtel’s rich network data and uncovers actionable operational insights.

Over the past two years, Airtel has en­tered into partnerships with IBM, Red Hat, Cisco and Ericsson for modernising its network and enabling automation. Re­ce­ntly, Airtel renewed its agreement with Ericsson to provide pan-Indian managed network operations through the Ericsson Operations Engine. Under the partnership, Ericsson will deploy the latest auto­mation, ML and AI technologies to en­ha­n­ce Airtel’s mobile network performance and customer experience (CX).

Reliance Jio is also future-proofing its national transport network with transport software-defined network capabilities and laying the foundation of an adaptive network. The operator has partnered with Gu­avus to leverage the latter’s AI-based so­lutions to provide real-time CX and predictive analytics that would enable Jio to automate network troubleshooting and gar­ner key marketing insights. This will help Jio offer superior service to its custo­mers, while addressing critical service op­e­rations with intelligent automation.

In a similar move, Vi has selected Cis­co for network automation systems, seeking to boost user experience and accelerate the launch of new services on its 4G and future 5G networks. Further, Vi has automated its IT infrastructure and operations end to end by adopting the Red Hat the Ansible Automation Platform. Adopting Ansible Automation Platform has helped in reducing cost and improving operatio­nal efficiency with increased user productivity and faster go-to-market. Besides, the telco has partnered with Nokia to deploy more than 5,500 time division long term evolution massive multiple input multiple output (MIMO) cells in the 2500 MHz spectrum band in eight service areas – Mumbai, Kolkata, Gujarat, Haryana, Ut­tar Pradesh (East), Uttar Pradesh (West), Rest of Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The deployment of Nokia’s massive MIMO so­l­ution will support exponential traffic growth by bringing in extreme flexibility and automation, allowing the telco to adapt to dynamic and evolving traffic patterns, while ensuring a world-class network experience.

Meanwhile, state-owned Bharat San­ch­ar Nigam Limited (BSNL) partnered with Nokia for industrial automation solutions. Both BSNL and Nokia are demonstrating the ability to leverage automation across industries, showing how it can be replicated in other sectors such as automobile, oil and gas, mining, public safety and disaster management. In another move to­wards automation, BSNL has signed an MoU with Ciena. Under the MoU, Cie­na’s 5G network solutions will add scale and enable network automation in order to support a new age of mobile connectivity at BSNL.

The way forward

Net, net, network automation is proving to be a good bet for stakeholders across the industry. One of the biggest benefits of network automation is lower operational expense. Eliminating tedious and manual processes through automated and orchestrated infrastructures, one not only ex­ten­ds the network’s capabilities but also helps achieve a higher return on investment. Rather than viewing automation simply to reduce organisational resources, IT leaders should instead focus on driving efficiency, which frees up resources for more strategic use across the business.

The route forward to an autonomous network relies on telemetry, automation, ML and programming with declarative in­tent. To be effective, automation must br­eak free of traditional silos to address all network infrastructure elements, teams and operations support systems.