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The Intelligent Automation Platform: Any mobile network. Intelligently automated

Increased RAN automation is key to addressing complexity but the latest automation solutions such as service management and orchestration (SMO) are expected to only automate Open RAN networks, which make up less than 2 percent of deployed networks globally. Ericsson is extending this powerful SMO concept to purpose-built 4G and 5G networks with the launch of our Intelligent Automation Platform.

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Head of Solution Area OSS

Head of Solution Area OSS

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Announcing the Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform – Ericsson’s SMO

On November 16, 2021, Ericsson announced the launch of our Intelligent Automation Platform: an implementation of the service management and orchestration (SMO) concept. However, Ericsson’s approach to service management and orchestration is unique. We believe that the powerful automation capabilities that service management and orchestration bring to the market – through the non-real-time RAN intelligent controller (Non-RT-RIC) and the associated rApps – shouldn’t just be available to the new Open RAN technologies, such as Ericsson Cloud RAN, but should also work across the existing, purpose-built 4G and 5G networks that are ubiquitous today. We call this multi-technology.

“Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform brings scalability, performance and operations simplicity to the increasingly complex environment of mobile networks, including purpose-built and Open RAN." - Sue Rudd, Director Networks and Service Platforms at Strategy Analytics

Sue Rudd, Director Networks and Service Platforms at Strategy Analytics, says: “Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform brings scalability, performance and operations simplicity to the increasingly complex environment of mobile networks, including purpose-built and Open RAN. Ericsson’s long demonstrated expertise in radio networking and end-to-end network slicing, in parallel with its active participation in the O-RAN Alliance and leadership in ONAP network automation have enabled it to create this powerful platform to assist customers to maximize their ROI through smart delivery of high-quality services to their end-customers.” Sue also notes that” Ericsson’s proven record of multi-vendor service orchestration and open operations automation make it an excellent partner for rApps developers and systems integrators who can leverage this unique toolkit and development environment.”

At Ericsson we also believe that it doesn’t make sense to have service management and orchestration as a siloed, vendor-specific entity. The power of the Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform is that it’s an open platform, designed to support multi-vendor Open RAN and purpose-built RAN.

We believe this approach to openness is what the industry wants. But openness requires true collaboration. This begs the question: “Will other RAN vendors work with us to create the single, multi-vendor, multi-technology automation platform the industry needs?” Or will we discover that their ‘openness story’ is just that, a story?

Finally, don’t worry if some of the terminology introduced here is new and somewhat ‘frightening.’ The Open RAN architecture introduces a number of new and exciting functions and this blog will endeavor to explain them.

 

Why is RAN automation so important for our customers?

In the recent blog, Why intelligent RAN automation is going to rock your world, we talked about why automation of the radio access network (RAN) was so critical for improving network performance, enhancing customer experience and reducing operational costs.

We know that the RAN accounts for nearly 50 percent of operational costs in most communication service providers (CSP) networks. The ability to heavily automate RAN operations, deployment, optimization, field maintenance and power management brings significant operational savings. Therefore, it isn’t a surprise that there’s a high degree of focus on RAN automation and that new architectures and concepts have been developed to address the RAN automation challenges. 

 

Understanding the O-RAN Alliance service management and orchestration concept

O-RAN Alliance Service Management and Orchestration (SMO) architectureion (SMO) architecture

Figure 1. O-RAN Alliance Service Management and Orchestration (SMO) architecture

 

The O-RAN Alliance, a service provider driven industry consortium with over 300 active members, has defined an architecture with two specific entities for RAN Automation: the imaginatively named non-real-time RAN intelligent controller (non-RT-RIC), which automates rApps, and the near-real-time RAN intelligent controller (near-RT-RIC), which automates xApps.

 

Automation simplifies complexity

Operator networks are complex. Many operators pursue a dual-vendor strategy for RAN, not wanting to be totally reliant on a single strategic vendor for such a critical part of their business. With every new generation of radio technology, service providers assess and analyze potential vendors based on their own criteria before making a purchasing decision. As a result, the vendor mix in each new generation is likely to be different and – with many service providers having 2G, 3G, 4G/LTE and 5G networks – this results in significant complexity.

The automation tipping point - After 5G automation is no longer optional

Figure 2. The automation tipping point - After 5G automation is no longer optional

 

In our opinion, 5G is where service providers are forced to cross an important threshold: it’s when automation stops being optional and becomes essential for cost effective network operations.

It would be easy to assume that it’s 5G itself that causes this tipping point, but in reality 5G is the radio technology that, so far, is the most automatable. However, 5G’s increased spectral efficiency, increased radios in public and private, macro and micro-cells and huge increase in available frequency bands adds to the existing complexity of the existing network infrastructure.

The Open RAN movement, a movement to disaggregate networks and increase vendor diversity, also adds to that complexity as do all the other transformational initiatives in a modern mobile network.

Modern networks are complex – anyone who tells you they aren’t is probably selling something.

 

Scalability and performance, a winning combination

Another challenge for CSPs is about how to scale networks to match consumer demand and maintain, or preferably, improve performance.

Despite the huge improvements in capacity and performance of 5G networks, there is a constant struggle to keep up with demand, and in our densest urban centers the ability to scale and deliver performance is critical. New technology must be able to scale and perform to be viable in the long term.

Again, this where the need for specialist automation solutions play an important role. The new xApps and rApps automation applications are designed to improve network performance in many different ways.

 

What is Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform?

The new Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform, our service management and orchestration product, is our implementation of service management and orchestration (SMO). It provides intelligent automation and orchestration of the radio domain.

Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform - Multi-vendor, multi-technology

Figure 3. Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform - Multi-vendor, multi-technology

 

Importantly, the Intelligent Automation Platform handles the orchestration of services and resources against demand. It provides the intelligence to manage conflicting demands and limited resources – it’s the brains of the operation. The SMO can take in multiple external data sources, such as location data, or weather data to create AI/ML driven models. Its ability to handle external data sources is one reason why we expect the automation applications, rApps, to be highly diverse.  

The Intelligent Automation Platform includes a non-real-time RAN intelligent controller, which acts as an operating system or execution environment for rApps. It supports the open R1 interface between the non-RT-RIC and the rApp itself. This open R1 interface is another important factor driving rApp diversity.

 The intention of the open R1 interface is to create a standard interface for rApps: meaning applications will be portable. rApps developed for the Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform will run on any other SMO/Non-RT-RIC that supports the interface and vice-versa. As a result, any third-party software developer building rApps isn’t locked into any specific vendor and this portability of rApps makes them easier to monetize. This is one of the major differences between the non-RT-RIC and the near-RT-RIC. The near-RT-RIC does not have a common or open interface to xApps, which means xApps are not portable between near-RT-RIC vendor platforms. In comparison the xApp, near RT-RIC interface is proprietary.

Ericsson’s SMO has an advanced SDK, known as the Intelligent Automation Platform SDK, that’s designed to facilitate and accelerate the development of rApps by numerous parties: Ericsson, CSPs and any other third-party. The SDK includes API libraries, instructions, test tools and event application templates, all designed to make rApp development easier and faster.

Finally, because the true value of the Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform comes from the rApps that the platform runs, Ericsson has launched a number of initial rApps with a roadmap of new applications to be announced over the next weeks and months. In fact, Ericsson hopes to shortly announce its first third-party rApps that are currently being developed by independent software developers.

 

Multi-vendor service management and orchestration

The challenge of the service management and orchestration approach is that without the necessary vision – a real commitment to collaboration and openness – it becomes trapped inside a single-vendor silo. Part of the promise of the SMO is to provide a single ‘pane of glass' for operations: to achieve this the platform must be capable of supporting multiple vendors radio access networks. That’s why the Intelligent Automation Platform is designed to be a multi-vendor solution.

"Ericsson’s vision to extend that SMO concept to support both Open RAN and existing 4G and 5G networks, using a single operational pane-of-glass is an innovative approach.” - Neil McRae, MD Architecture & Strategy, BT Group Chief Architect

Neil McRae, MD Architecture & Strategy, BT Group Chief Architect says: “At BT we connect for good and continuously innovate to provide the best services for our customers. As we expand and modernize building more reliable networks in more places,

managing network complexity via automation is critical to ensure our customers best quality of experience.  I’m pleased to see that Ericsson is launching the Intelligent Automation Platform for automating networks, based on the O-RAN Alliance Service Management and Orchestration (SMO) concept. Ericsson’s vision to extend that SMO concept to support both Open RAN and existing 4G and 5G networks, using a single operational pane-of-glass is an innovative approach.”

"KDDI recognizes the importance of service management and orchestration (SMO) and automation to achieve optimal network operations across multi-vendor, purpose-built RAN and Open RAN environment." - Toshikazu Youkai, Executive Officer, Chief Director of Mobile Technology, KDDI

Toshikazu Yokai, Executive Officer, Chief Director of Mobile Technology, KDDI, says: “KDDI recognizes the importance of service management and orchestration (SMO) and automation to achieve optimal network operations across multi-vendor, purpose-built RAN and Open RAN environment. SMO, combined with an open software-development toolkit (SDK), has the potential to drive application (rApps) innovation and diversity: unleashing CSPs, telecommunications vendors and third- party software provider innovation to optimize network performance, improve operational efficiency and drive superior customer experiences. KDDI expects SMO and the Non-Real-Time RAN Intelligent Controller (Non-RT-RIC) to fine-tune RAN behavior and to assure SLAs dynamically based on slice specific service requirements. KDDI looks forward to collaborating with Ericsson to explore the potential of these solutions."

 

What does multi-technology mean for choice?

The other challenge for the SMO concept is that it is solely focused on Open RAN technologies, which only make up a tiny fraction of the deployed networks today. We know that automation in the RAN brings huge benefits in terms of performance, experience and OPEX reduction, so it doesn’t make sense to limit that automation capability just to Open RAN. Ericsson’s Intelligent Automation Platform extends the SMO concept from Open RAN to the existing, purpose-built 4G and 5G networks that are ubiquitous today. We call the ability to support Cloud RAN/Open RAN and purpose-built RAN multi-technology. A multi-technology SMO provides choice to service providers. Whether you have aggressive Open RAN deployment plans or have a more gradual approach to adopting the technology, the Intelligent Automation Platform automates your entire network and provides value from day one.

 

Why seamless integration is critical for success

The Intelligent Automation Platform sits within the operational supports systems as a radio network domain controller. In this role it seamlessly interfaces with other operations support systems (OSS) from Ericsson and other vendors. It has been designed to support end-to-end (E2E) network slicing, open and closed-loop assurance, virtualization, and even complex enterprise service orchestration by automating the RAN – critical for the delivery of a true end-to-end service. In Ericsson, we feel that its capability to seamlessly integrate the RAN to deliver end-to-end performance and scalability is one of its key strengths.

A good example of its seamlessness is how the Intelligent Automation Platform works alongside Ericsson’s network slicing solution and network data analytics (NWDAF) solutions.

 

How does an SDK drive rApp development and new ecosystems?

The Intelligent Automation Platform SDK is the ‘jewel in the platform’s crown.’ The value of a service management and orchestration platform is its ability to run many diverse and specialized automation applications from network vendors, such as Ericsson, service providers and any other third parties who have an interest in creating, deploying and monetizing applications for the mobile communications industry. This is where rApps come into play – they are the key.

Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform SDK - overview

Figure 4. Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform SDK - overview

 

 The benefits of rApps for different parties include:

  • Network vendors: rApps give network vendors the ability to optimize and enhance their equipment capabilities with capabilities like centralized self-optimizing network (C-SON) features
  • Service providers: rApps give service providers the opportunity to customize their networks to more accurately meet the needs of their customers and their particular circumstances and expectations. In a world of increasingly shared network infrastructure, it gives them the opportunity to differentiate their offering from their competitors
  • Companies: rApps give companies with specialist knowledge or access to specific data sets to collaborate and co-create new and innovative applications. I expect that during the recent COP26 climate talks there would have been discussions about how climate and environmental data can be used to create more sustainable, more efficient mobile networks. I believe rApps are the key.

Given that rApps are the key, the role of an SDK is essential for accelerating rApp development, removing the barriers to entry for new vendors and improving time-to-market for new applications.

 

Accelerating rApp development

The Ericsson Intelligent Automation Engine SDK is an advanced and feature rich toolkit. In addition to the expected libraries and APIs, the Ericsson SDK includes detailed instructions for building rApps, automated test and deployment tools to assist implementation and deployment and even template or framework applications. Template or framework applications provide a starter kit for a working rApp that simply needs adaptation and access to new external data sources to create working rApps. Think of it as an application that’s developed 75 percent in advance.

All these things are designed to make rApp development fast and efficient.

By now you might be asking yourself: “Why is Ericsson making such a powerful toolkit available on the open market?”

Firstly, within Ericsson we use the SDK to build our own rApps. We consider this approach ‘flying our own jets or ‘eating our own dogfood,’ if you prefer. An advanced SDK helps us build new rApps quickly and efficiently to provide new and innovative network features of our own, but we also expect some of our customers will commission us to build rApps to their own specification. The SDK gives us the ability to help our customers customize their own networks.

The success of service management and orchestration is driven by the availability of many diverse and innovative rApps. The more rApps and rApps vendors there are the more likely this approach is likely to gain mass adoption and move the industry forward: the SDK is a catalyst for innovation.

 

SDK: a catalyst for innovation

We expect that the introduction of the service management and orchestration architecture will lead to a new development ecosystem. A high performing SDK creates low barriers to innovation and will help to stimulate this nascent – just coming into existence – market.

The other important aspect of the SMO/Non-RT-RIC architecture is the open R1 interface: an important factor in rApp development. For the new development community, the rApp development ecosystem is much more attractive than the equivalent xApps. The open R1 interface means that rApps are portable with rApps not tied or locked-in to a specific company’s platform. Because the rApp interface is open, any rApp will work on any other vendor’s SMO/Non-RT-RIC; assuming that interface is fully compliant. This makes it extremely attractive to an independent software company: be it a major systems integrator, a specialist developer, a start-up, university lab or even a small, one-man-band/ ‘Fred in his shed’ type operation. If you build an rApp it can be sold to anyone. The rApp market is a single addressable market, which makes the monetization of applications easier.

 

What does open rApp innovation mean for service providers?

There are two key benefits for service providers in embracing the SMO/Non-RT-RIC/rApp approach to automation: openness and standardization.

Openness: Openness is a major driver for the adoption of Open RAN technologies. The non-real-time-RIC, with its open R1 interface, is the most open way to automate a network. The open interface promises to create the most open and diverse development community, and its low barriers to entry will, hopefully, drive true innovation. For the same reasons, the near-RT-RIC/xApps approach – with a closed proprietary connection between the application and the platform – is likely to attract a small and highly specialized group of application developers that are happy to be locked-in within specific vendor siloes. Ericsson recognizes the role the near-RT-RIC and xApps, and the role of the SMO in orchestrating the near-RT-RIC using the open O1 interface. This approach to openness is one of the main reasons why Ericsson has been such a major contributor to Open RAN principals.

Standardization: The second benefit for service providers is highly pragmatic. Our industry is complex with most service providers having a dynamic vendor environment which changes – sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically – between each new generation of radio technology. Add to that, acquisitions and consolidation – and for large carrier groups totally different geographic, demographic and environmental conditions – and we see some very complex RAN vendor landscapes occurring within the industry. The potential power of rApps is about creating a standard approach to network performance and experience across the national or multi-country vendor landscape.

A major carrier group could centrally purchase and deploy the same group of rApps across every operating company to move towards a standard level of performance and experience across the whole estate. The same rApps can work on any vendors’ SMO/Non-RT-RIC, so even if there are regional variations in the platform the rApps are the same. While this level of coordination and synchronization may be years off, the open nature of rApps makes it possible.

 

‘Flying our own jets:’ Ericsson rApps

We define four key categories of rApps:

  • Network evolution
  • Network deployment
  • Network optimization
  • Network healing
Ericsson rApp categories

Figure 5. Ericsson rApp categories

 

Ericsson’s initial rApps are in the network deployment and optimization categories. For example, Ericsson's AI-based Performance Diagnostics solution is a key AI/ML driven network optimization application. Network engineers can manually analyze, interpret and optimize performance faults in a particular cell in around 20 minutes, but when some networks have hundreds of thousands or even millions of cells manual optimization is limited to only a small percentage of the worst performing cells. The Ericsson Performance Diagnostics rApp can automatically analyze data from up to a million cells in under an hour: enabling prioritization and accelerated fault resolution.

Many of the first rApps are expected to be enhanced versions of traditional centralized-SON applications, such as Frequency Layer Management and Centralized 5G Automatic Neighbor Relations which have field-proven performance. The Ericsson Frequency Layer Management rApp has been ported and enhanced from the existing C-SON application, and many independent observers believe that the entire C-SON market will migrate to become C-SON rApps in a couple of years. For service providers, there are additional benefits for this evolution. C-SON and other network applications today tend to be tightly coupled to the underlying application platform. By migrating them to C-SON rApps you gain significant platform consolidation benefits as you potentially move from multiple application platforms to a single SMO/Non-RT-RIC architecture based on a common, open, R1 interface.

Ericsson expects to announce a regular stream of rApps in the coming weeks, months and years.

 

Helping to build other people’s jets: third-party rApps

You may think that Ericsson will be challenged by competition in rApp development and that the company has made a mistake by sharing its SDK with the wider market. While It's true that our SDK will allow multiple organizations to build similar, competing, rApps – because we share the same toolkit – our approach gives our customers maximum choice and the ability to create ‘best-in-class' networks. You may, for example, find two or more frequency layer management rApps with service providers evaluating and choosing the best one for their needs based on technical and commercial criteria: this is simply market forces at work. We don’t believe that creating artificial barriers to rApp innovation is the right things to do in the emerging rApp development ecosystem.

We expect rApp developers, vendors, service providers and third-party independent software developers, to build rApps in their own areas of knowledge and expertise. We’re also willing to ‘take the Pepsi challenge' around the types of rApps we will build based on our 40 years of market leadership in radio access networks. We’re confident in our abilities to build some of the best rApps in our areas of expertise.

However, the most exciting area of rApps is in the opportunities to collaborate or co-create with new third-parties.

As an example, our collaboration with VIAVI would provide GEO location capability inside the Ericsson SMO as an rApp, which will allow customers to create custom pipelines that utilize the intelligence from one rApp into many others, all within a single SMO platform.

"VIAVI and Ericsson have a rich history of innovation, supporting operators around the world. We view the Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform as an important step forward..." - Deepak Shahane, Vice President and General Manager, Service Enablement, VIAVI

Deepak Shahane, Vice President and General Manager, Service Enablement, VIAVI, says: “VIAVI and Ericsson have a rich history of innovation, supporting operators around the world. We view the Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform as an important step forward for enabling service innovation and automation across Open RAN and purpose-built networks. Partnering with Ericsson, VIAVI is committed to making available rApps available across the VIAVI NITRO Mobility suite of services, and we’re focused on delivering RAN Performance, management, optimization and orchestration to ensure robust mobile networks.”

We believe that third-party rApps offer the greatest opportunity for disruptive innovation and co-creation.  We’re hoping that new and diverse players will come into the market and seek to co-create rApps with us and with our customers: this will significantly improve network performance, enhance customer experience and reduce operational costs. In fact, we’d love to hear from companies interested in learning more about the Intelligent Automation Platform SDK and working with us.

Our collaboration with Infovista includes their first rApp that automates network design and optimization (NDO) activities and supports the radio design of Cloud RAN networks, allowing for the integration of complex combinations of physical and virtual infrastructure.

"The combination of Ericsson open platform approach and Infovista's cloud-native applications for planning, testing and assurance (network lifecycle automation) gives CSP's a unique opportunity..." - Franco Messori, Chief Product Strategy and Transformation Officer, Infovista

Franco Messori, Chief Product Strategy and Transformation Officer, Infovista, says: “The combination of Ericsson open platform approach and Infovista’s cloud-native applications for planning, testing and assurance (network lifecycle automation) gives CSPs a unique opportunity to rapidly deliver innovative services and rApps when deploying Cloud RAN and purpose-built 5G networks.“

We believe one of the most exciting and topical areas today is around building more sustainable networks. Do you have the knowledge and skills to help us create rApps that improve energy efficiency, intelligently manage radio networks to minimize consumption and maintain performance?  

 

Delivering on the future of networks?

To briefly sum up, if I had to explain in a nutshell what the Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform is I’d say that it’s a new and exciting addition to the Ericsson OSS portfolio that seamlessly integrates the RAN into existing areas of innovation such as: end-to-end network slicing, open and closed loop service assurance, virtualization and cloud native networks and the orchestration of complex 5G consumer and enterprise services such as mission critical communications.

With the Intelligent Automation Platform, we have created a service management and orchestration entity that isn’t simply for a single network vendor or just for Open RAN technologies, such as Ericsson Cloud RAN. Instead, the Intelligent Automation Platform is an open multi-vendor, multi-technology automation and orchestration platform for Open RAN and existing, purpose-built RAN. It’s designed to create a single ‘pane of glass’ review for network operations to handle the complexity of modern operator networks and to scale to match their current and future needs.

We believe it supports choice through an advanced SDK and an initial handful of rApps. Whether you have aggressive plans for Open RAN rollout, are taking a more cautious or conservative approach – even if you are undecided – the Intelligent Automation Platform intelligently automates your network:  improving performance, enhancing experience and reducing operational costs in the RAN. With the RAN being the largest area of operational expenditure in any mobile network, typically accounting for 45-55 percent of total OPEX, the ability to automate this area is critical for profitability.

For us, the slogan is: “The Intelligent Automation Platform: Any mobile network. Intelligently automated.”

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