As is always the case this time of year, trade publications are rife with prediction pieces examining trends to watch in the new year. A review of the telecoms landscape comes up with a number of 5G-related watch words with stand outs including edge computing, hybrid cloud, IoT security and network automation. The latter is interesting in that it’s somewhat higher order than the others and serves as a tool that can orchestrate solutions across a number of key technologies and, at its core, serve to turn technology investments into new revenue streams.

To make a high-level statement, operators desperately need to monetize 5G but that isn’t happening just yet. In the U.S. communications service providers are collectively spending in the ballpark of $80 billion on mid-band 5G spectrum. This puts enormous pressure on the C-suite to turn that investment—and multi-billion dollar annual infrastructure spend—into new lines of service revenue. In terms of bringing together 5G, edge computing, the internet of things and cloud-native network operating models in pursuit of delivering bespoke enterprise services, network automation has a direct line to turning a flexible network into a flexible network that can deliver services that businesses will pay for.

Network automation “is key to future success”

Morgan Stern, vice president of automation strategy with automation software specialist Itential, framed it like this in an opinion piece published by RCR Wireless News: “CSPs are facing more pressure than ever before for their networks to perform without failure. With the explosive growth in cloud-application usage, mobile devices, and extending connectivity and computing to the edge with 5G, CSPs must keep up with demands for more total capacity and higher throughput. This shift forces network operators to change how they manage and deliver network services.

“As a result, network operators want to employ automation to help respond to increased demand with faster provisioning, while maintaining service delivery requirements. Since most CSP networks span multiple domains (cloud, mobile, wide area network, radio access network, edge, transport, data center, managed services, etc.) and require a higher level of investment and management, ensuring network automation initiatives are correctly designed, developed and implemented is key to future success.”

That multi-domain bit is important. With a cloud-native network, predicated on the shift from non-standalone to standalone 5G and further contemplating investments in edge computing, an operator is positioned to deliver network slices tailored to meet the needs of a particular enterprise or enterprise use case. Ideally this slice would be provisioned and delivered automatically thereby making the most cost- and resource-efficient use of the network; doing that is a function of network automation.

“Hundreds of thousands of slices”

Case in point: in October Nokia claimed a world’s first with the announcement of new network management, control and orchestration tools for delivering a slice across the core, transport and radio access networks. Head of Product Marketing for Network Automation Roland Mestric told us that, in the context of delivering specific types of services, “The SLAs really matter. These industries, they run some critical business on these services. That’s where the slicing comes into play as a way to deliver this quality.”

In addition to the importance of reliably adhering to service level agreements, “Responsiveness, I think is going to be just as important,” Mestric said. “When you talk about network slicing and 5G, the end customers, they will expect those slices to be delivered in a matter of minutes or hours rather than days or weeks as it is today with traditional 4G services.”

He said that automation capabilities accelerate the deployment of new services on network slices but also help operators manage the sheer complexity expected as 5G proliferates. In terms of the going thinking around how slices will evolve, an operator could divide public mobile, fixed wireless, IoT and public safety users onto slices. From there, they could layer in slices for specific enterprise customers or consumer-facing use cases like cloud gaming. But, long-term, “We talk about hundreds of thousands of slices,” Mestric said. “The only way operators will be able to master that complexity and meet the challenges on quality and responsiveness will be through automation.”

In commentary provided to our sister site Enterprise IoT Insights, IBM’s Marisa Viveros, vice president of strategy and offerings for the telecom, media and entertainment, discussed the hand in glove relationship between network automation and security. Consider, for example, an enterprise that wants to configure hundreds or thousands of IoT devices like security cameras or environmental sensors and attach the new devices to its network; a manual process just isn’t viable.

“Automation and security will be increasingly integral to accelerating how telcos and enterprises efficiently and securely transform their networks to harness 5G,” Viveros wrote. ‘With millions of new connected devices, 5G represents a significant opportunity – and an expanded attack surface. Hackers will benefit not only from more targets to choose from, but new attack vectors in the form of IoT and other connected devices.”

Drawing in hybrid cloud operating models, Viveros noted that operators can use that functionality to “seamlessly integrate the deployment of automation and advanced security technologies that improve the scale of how security and data privacy is managed. They will also need to come together on issues like encryption and data architecture, and to support the work of independent security researchers.”

In November IBM announced a telco-focused hybrid cloud architecture and assembled a group of 35 ecosystem partners focused on “accelerating business transformation, enhancing digital client engagement and improving agility as they modernize their enterprise applications and infrastructure to unlock the power of 5G and edge,” according to the company.

According to Big Blue execs Howard Boville and Steve Canepa, “The holistic hybrid cloud offering will be complemented by our ecosystem partners’ software and technology, and enable mission critical workloads to be managed consistently from the network core to the edge to position telecom providers to extract more value from their data while they drive innovation for their customers.”

Whether the 5G angle you take is security, hybrid cloud operations, latency-dependent edge use cases, or something else entirely, the common thread is around using network automation to gain internal and customer-facing efficiencies in the long road to 5G service revenues.

As Itential’s Stern put it: “Looking at these needs and advancements within the CSP space, it is evident that services are no longer static. They change as customer needs change. Without this understanding, service providers will find it difficult to meet the demands of its customers and as a result will lose their competitive advantage. Now more than ever, network automation is critical to create a dependable and seamless experience.”