PCCW's Hughes: The nirvana of automation starts small

PCCW's David Hughes says carriers can more easily enable automation in their networks due to the deployment of over-the-top services. (FierceTelecom)

Carriers' quest for automation is nothing new, but the processes and technologies are now aligned to make it happen, says PCCW's David Hughes.

Speaking at last week's Light Reading NFV and SDN conference, Hughes said telcos have historically struggled with automation because their networks have always been tied to physical resources.

"What we would like to achieve is that nirvana of full automation," said Hughes, vice president for IP engineering at PCCW Global. "It's always been a little bit out of reach, right? It's like the ring on the carousel; you just can't grab it."

Currently, network engineers spend a lot of their time provisioning services such as shipping equipment, returning equipment and ordering long haul and local loop capacities.

"So if we just automated the network engineer's job in provisioning service, we're effectively taking a 90 day job and making it an 89 day job," Hughes said. "So there really hasn't been that motivation, that business motivation, to do this automation in telcos because there wasn't enough payback."

RELATED: F5 Networks' Feger: Simplify and reduce complexity for end customers

Hughes said the automation of the network engineer's job removes a layer of human intervention, which in turn allows engineers to focus on other areas. In addition to software-defined networking, more services are over the top now, and these are easier to automate because they aren’t tied to the traditional network infrastructure.

"We need to start small," Hughes said. "I even mentioned that earlier, that you just got to work on the little things to get to the automation. We tried for probably two decades, but we really haven't had much success. And so what makes us think this time's going to be any different?

"Well, times have changed. The drivers are a little bit different. And automation is almost more of an existential thing because of over-the-top provisioning and things like SD-WAN, and things like different cloud providers. There's an almost an existential challenge to us to start automating things. So what we did at PCCW is we just kind of started off real simple, real small, using a lot of open source, or small software to build from simple resource configuration management because there's no reason why you need to go do the same configuration every time."

Using open source, PCCW put together a streamlined stack that has slowly evolved over time, and will continue evolving to create robust automation, Hughes said. In addition to freeing up network engineers, the benefits of automation include help with testing and troubleshooting as the elements are compartmentalized now, which helps identify where the problems are. Hughes said automation also helped with auditors because it's now easier to show them where "things came to be in the network."

"So once you start automating, then you see that there's benefit there, and the engineers understand,'Wow, this actually helps me,' and so then they kind of get on the bandwagon," Hughes said. "And then you have a little bit of forward momentum that's sort of pushing everybody to automate on their own.

"What we found is that you just can't take a manually controlled network and automate it. You have to start re-architecting networks and systems so that they're built for automation."

Hughes said PCCW pushes back on the argument that if everything is automated the network engineers would lose the skills that are necessary to fix things when they break down.

"Well, you just have to go in and you automate those things as well over time," he said. "The engineers don't necessarily lose the skills, they just get better at it, is what we have found. Because the more you automate, the more it helps the engineers to solve a more complex problem. And it frees them up and makes upgrades easier, because now they don't have to spend all this time doing upgrades and maintenance doing health checks, those types of things. They can actually stick to the business of running the network."