Next stop: Zero-touch automation standardization

Future telecommunication networks and services will need to take human intervention out of the loop. Zero-touch automation will be imperative to manage increasingly complex networks and short service life-cycles.

In this post we discuss zero-touch network and services automation prospects and introduce the main aspects of the recently started ETSI ZSM standardization group: the organization, status, and the challenges that the ICT industry will face in the pursuit of a truly zero-touch automation of network and services.

With new technologies such as network virtualization, 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT), service providers can potentially increase revenue from their networks. However, fully enabling the potential of complex services requires more dynamic management systems. They must be capable of handling the increasing operational challenges and accelerating the services life cycle (planning, delivery, deployment, provisioning, monitoring, optimization, etc.). There is a clear need for new approaches to create future-proof horizontal (cross-domain and cross-technology) and vertical (from resources up to application layers) end-to-end solutions that enable agile management and operational automation.

To achieve this new vision, ETSI (the European Telecommunications Standards Institute) created a new industry standard group (ISG) called Zero-Touch Network and Service Management (ZSM) in December 2017. Ericsson is a founding member of the group and is helping to shape the future of zero-touch automation for next-generation networks.

ZSM interim meeting at Ericsson´s head quarters, Kista, Sweden, in July/2018
ZSM interim meeting at Ericsson´s head quarters, Kista, Sweden, in July/2018

The future of automation in telecom

Automation in telecommunications has historically been done by means of semi-automatic scripts that are used in the initial deployment of services. However, zero-touch automation goes beyond this, covering the entire lifecycle of networks and the services built on top of them, across multiple domains (for example Radio Access Networks, transport, core and cloud) and multiple operators. Automation, especially in its zero-touch version, is not a monolithic solution, but an iterative and incremental process. At each step, from ordering of a new service to its delivery, there are several interleaved tasks that must be disassembled and carefully integrated into the automation processes. This creates a countless number of challenges.

Zero-touch is about minimizing human intervention. The purpose is not only to eliminate errors, but also to introduce agility in addressing Service Layer Agreements (SLAs) and meeting the requirements of new services. The main target is not to simply reduce costs and remove humans from operations, but to focus on what is more valuable – the new services. Most importantly, due to the complexity of future networks, traditional processes will no longer work, and automation is not an option, but an imperative.

Network automation is not something completely new, it is already successfully done in most cloud environments. But this type of automation is mostly siloed and does not seem to converge to a standard. Also, the ecosystem of cloud services is much more homogeneous and centralized than that of communication services. Hence, the need for standardization groups such as ZSM. We believe that coming together and harnessing the ecosystem capabilities is the best way to create an end-to-end solution that gets closer and closer to a truly zero-touch automation.

The journey to reach this goal is long. We all know that we cannot boil the ocean, but the joint work of groups like ZSM has proven to be effective in solving major challenges, and we believe this is the best way forward.

ETSI standards types and ways of working

If you are new to the ETSI standardization world, some basic terminology will help you understand how the standardization process works. Work Items (WI) are the different documents that are collaboratively and iteratively produced by group members and which will eventually become standards. Several types of standards can be created within ETSI and their contents can be classified as normative or informative. Normative standards are prescriptive and show how to achieve compliance. Informative standards are descriptive and help you understand key concepts of the technology.

The most common types of standards are:

  • Technical Specification (TS), with normative content;
  • Technical Report (TR), with informative content;
  • Group Specification (GS), with normative content;
  • Group Report (GR), with informative content.

The standards are written based on contributions submitted by professionals from any member company. Normative contents must be submitted for discussion and are accepted based on consensus. Each work item has an appointed person responsible for integrating all the approved contributions and managing the drafting, editing and approval processes. In meetings, remote and face-to-face, each contribution is presented by its authors and feedback is received from all participants.

ZSM current work items and work progress

The objective and main work items are summarized in the table below.

ZSM ISG – Zero-touch Network and Service Management Industry Study Group
Main Objective:

Discuss zero-touch automation and management architectural scenarios and requirements.


Work Item Objective
Requirements based on documented scenarios Drive the design of the reference architecture
Reference architecture


Specify the architecture principles, requirements and an end-to-end abstract framework reference
End to end management and orchestration of network slicing


Identify gaps / propose management solutions to be implemented within ZSM framework
Landscape Identify industry bodies, standardization and open source communities whose work could be leveraged by ZSM ISG
Means of Automation Explore industry-proven automation to nourish the architectural discussions
Terminology Consolidate nomenclature
Proof-of-concept Guide and enlighten the working group regarding practical results

Zero-touch Network and Services Management (ZSM) baseline architecture draft v0.7.0. Source: ETSI ZSM

Currently, the ZSM ISG has agreed on a baseline service-based, end-to-end management architecture, described in the document “Zero-touch Network and Service Management (ZSM) – Reference Architecture”. The architecture document can be downloaded from ETSI.

Zero-touch Network and Services Management (ZSM) baseline architecture draft v0.7.0. Source: ETSI ZSM

Zero-touch Network and Services Management (ZSM) baseline architecture draft v0.7.0. Source: ETSI ZSM

The architecture is focused on enabling end-to-end service automation, including all operational processes and tasks: delivery, deployment, configuration, assurance and optimization. It is founded on the principles of modularity, extensibility, and scalability. It allows deployments that can be adapted to different numbers of managed entities distributed across multiple domains, for example Radio Access Networks, transport, core, and cloud. The modules can be geographically distributed and scaled to meet the dynamic demands of the managed entities. The services of the architecture will also be designed for failure, so that they can cope with failure with minimal service degradation. The modular architecture is composed of a high-level end-to-end service management domain and multiple management domains, each one responsible for managing specific subsets of managed entities.

Learn more

If you are interested in knowing more about the ZSM ISG, we recommend visiting the ETSI ZSM ISG web site, and also reading the Operators’ White Paper that started off the discussions on zero-touch automation in ETSI.

Ericsson believes the combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) will be key for the future of mobile networks operation.

You can find more on our zero-touch vision based on AI/ML in the recent blog post Towards zero-touch network operations, and you can also read why our CTO Erik Ekudden considers that realization of zero-touch is one of the five key technology trends for the future.


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