Digital Nasional Berhad and Ericsson: DNB’s stunning success with intent-based operations

From data-driven to intent-based network operations.

This is the story of how Malaysia’s Digital Nasional Berhad used Ericsson Operations Engine to adopt automated and data-driven processes that helped them build the world’s first multi-operator core network, before successfully trialling intent-based operations (IBOs) that unlock greater profitability.

 

Highlights

View the case

Digital Nasional Berhad created the world’s first multi-operator core network, which met the needs of six different telecom service providers and ensured affordable 5G connectivity for the people of Malaysia, just six months after its founding, thanks to Ericsson Operations Engine.
Automation was used to manage the complexity of these networks so effectively, that significant increases to network uptime and reductions to operating costs and alarm rates were achieved. This success led to DNB being chosen to trial the use of IBOs on its network, which, in turn, led to the introduction of monetization, expanded business outcomes and an open route to differentiated services with distinct slices and guaranteed SLAs.

 

DNB’s challenges

  • each service provider had their own complex networks, the complexity of which only increased over time
  • DNB had to manage six separate networks, and six distinct sets of systems and processes
  • DNB had to ensure that the SLA requirements of each network was met without any conflict
  • software upgrades and new rollouts had to maintain total network availability and integrity
  • a multi-operator core network had never been built before
  • DNB were a startup who had to begin from the ground up

 

“When DNB started off in 2021, it was a startup. Literally from the ground up, we had to build the people, we had to build the process. We didn’t even have an office.”
– Ken Tan, Chief Technology Officer of Digital Nasional Berhad

 

The solution

To manage the challenges it faced during the rollout of the network, DNB turned to Ericsson Operations Engine (EOE). This operating model is used to run multi-vendor, multi-technology network operations and facilitate the transformation to autonomy while ensuring high customer experience. EOE replicates and improves upon the reasoning of skilled engineers, by making use of closed-loop AI-based automation capabilities and data-driven processes that utilize machine learning to automate a network’s management, as well as cognitive core-based, intent-based automation and API-based connectivity solutions while remaining capable of resolving conflicting requirements without compromising on service quality or profitability.

Ericsson Operations Engine

Qualified personnel remain able to provide important oversight and actionable insights are obtained from advanced analytics, which help operations move from a reactive stance to a predictive one over time, thanks to the intelligence gleaned from machine learning. Additionally, standardized global processes reduce complexity and increase scalability, while the combination of network engineering and data science allows for the introduction of new processes that help networks run more efficiently.
There was an increase in efficiency with a reduction in downtime and alarm rate, while there was a significant network performance improvement. Customer experience improved overall, as did the service desk response time, as auto-actuation of corrective measures meant that customer complaint resolution time fell by 90 percent and the proportion of automatically created trouble tickets increased to 95 percent. Auto-analysis and correlation of alarms and actuation in the network led to a 500 percent reduction in alarm count 6 months after its introduction. Feedback loops from DNB’s network data combined with analytical models brought about a network uptime greater than 99.8 percent.
The management of DNB’s wholesale operation was set up with an inbuilt data-driven process that led to the achievement of measurable business outcomes, while real-time network visualization capabilities provided by autonomous analytical dashboards granted superior network visibility for customer experience management. The key to DNB’s success was the fact that the network was system driven with some assistance from humans.

 

The result: a step toward network autonomy

  • The successful proof of concept for IBOs introduced a pathway to profitability, and to affordably introducing additional 5G capabilities in a way that scales with growth.
  • Replicating and automating engineer decision-making will unlock service diversification and variability at scale.
  • Simplifying processes and managing ever greater complexity through EOE automation brings in performance enhancement that cannot be matched by human involvement.

 

“All this became possible with the robust managed services environment framework under EOE, and data-driven, AI-based automations which converted challenges into opportunities and first-time right results.”
– Anchit Kakroo, Managed Services Chief Operating Officer, Ericsson Malaysia

How an engineering mindset will make network consumable like cloud

Robin Farnan of Colt Technology Services talks to Contributing Editor Annie Turner about achieving a stellar NPS of 74, a proposed acquisition and global ambitions for the industry.

Robin Farnan has been Executive Vice President, Operations & Engineering at Colt Technology Services since September 2020 and with the company for six and a half years. Previously he was MD of BT Financial Technology Services, which he left in 2015 to work in IT services deciding, as he puts it, “to have a go at software engineering stuff.”

Farnan oversees about half of Colt Technology Services’ employees – some 2,500 staff across 30 countries. His responsibilities cover: engineering, that is, designing and building the network; service delivery & operations from customer installations to service assurance, including in-life customer experience; and global supply chain and logistics.

He says, “Almost anything Colt does, I’m involved with… I’ve brought the customer to the engineer and if you keep the customers at the forefront of your decision making, you’re not going to go far wrong…If you automate and simplify things, it’s all about customer experience. By being agile, we speed things up for the customers.”

The theory works: “We’ve just finished our Q1 with a Net Promoter Score of 74,” Farnan says. This is an extraordinary score for any industry and little short of miraculous for telco. In the same quarter, Colt scored 73 for service delivery and 70 for operations, measured by Net Easy Score (NES), a metric the operator adopted a couple of years ago. It’s a measure of simplicity and ease of interaction, across the whole customer journey from the initial sales stage to a billing query.

Farnan applies the principles of automation and simplification to projects large and small, and there is no shortage of either. Colt is about to replace its inventory system, which is capital intense and a major undertaking. It chose Amdocs as its partner which will work with Colt’s data lake team to create a single, accurate version of the truth. He observes, “Without data, you can’t automate – or you can, but it’s the old adage, rubbish in, rubbish out”.

Colt recently implemented a new voice monitoring system and is replacing its fault monitoring, reporting and provisioning systems. These are all multi-year projects. “In parallel, I can point to at least 50, smaller ongoing projects,” Farnan says, “that are not soaking up lots of CapEx. Some have no associated cost, it’s just our people thinking about how to simplify what they do to be more productive and provide a better customer experience.”

Mindset trumps automation

Farnan is a huge believer in process: “There are no silver bullets. Double down on process and what you’re trying to achieve and mirror that with lots of continuous improvements, which is all about mindset.”

He explains, “I’m very open to change. I’ve always been a risk taker, with a bring-it-on attitude, but my learning is many people are averse to change, so change management is key because mindset is more important than the automation and the technology behind the automation.” Change management was the subject of Farnan’s post-graduate dissertation.

Colt lives in a state of constant change, driven by customers, but a change of a different magnitude is looming. Last November the operator announced its proposed acquisition of Lumen EMEA, currently going through regulatory approval processes. Lumen claims to be the most peered network in the world, recently announcing 400G IP transit ports across its internet backbone network in the US and Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Farnan describes this as “an incredible opportunity” and says that scale is a “massive” motivation for the proposed acquisition.

He underlines the importance of scale in the industry by pointing to the move from IP VPN to SD-WAN, which requires provisioning of overlay and underlay layers. He elaborates, “The underlay can become back-up, it can be 4G, 5G or in some countries, internet access. It’s new and not as efficient as it needs to be because it’s growing at 140% year on year and continues on that curve.

“We’ve automated 83% of the tasks involved – we won’t be able to automate them all, we will still need some human beings – but the coolest thing is that it wasn’t achieved by a top-down edict, but by curious engineers thinking about how to handle the demand. The best change always comes from ‘the bottom’ – that is what I mean about mindset.”

He continues, “[SD-WAN] customers always want new features but if you make sure they are in your data lake after the first use, they become reusable, pluggable. When the next customer comes along, deployment is automated. This is how I’ve kept my headcount flat but absorbed 140% growth in SD-WAN. It’s how you scale – you can’t just keep throwing human beings at the problem.”

First-mover advantage

The core SDN backbone is another instance of looking to fulfil customers’ needs. “We worked very, very hard on it because it allows us to be far more agile in bringing on new services,” Farnan says. That work was recognised by Colt recently winning Gartner’s inaugural Eye on Innovation Award for Communications Service Providers (CSPs) in the Europe, the Middle East and Africa region.

Farnan says, “This is leveraging technology and the ecosystem that exist already – while consuming 81% less power. Success is down to people, process, system – and I’ll add planet to that because it plays to the ESG [environmental, social and governance] strategy.”

“Our target is to reduce power consumption by 15 GigaWatt hours, which is huge, but I’m also working with our partners, whether that’s Cisco or whoever, you’ve got to influence them…I’m always happy to be a first mover and trial things; the technology that’s coming along like the pluggable optics, the transponders, the router, the ZR+ [a 400G interoperability solution] that Cisco bought with Acacia, he continues. “We’re riding the wave.”

Moving forward

Farnan states, “Every day, every year, I’m challenging the business about how we can remove legacy and future-proof ourselves. Legacy is a drag. You can’t ‘talk’ to older equipment. To leverage the partner ecosystem, everyone must have APIs.” Colt is scheduled to switch off its SDH TDM network at the end of April, which will help it simplify the infrastructure. At the same time, the engineering team is thinking about what needs to happen for the network to be consumed like cloud is today – the subject of Bart Janssen’s presentation at MPLS SD and AI Net World 2023 in late April. Janssen is Colt’s Senior Specialist in Packet Architecture.

Farnan explains, “You’ve heard about PaaS, iPaaS, SaaS and whatever as a Service but service is not the network”. He pays tribute to “the amazing work by TM Forum on the OSS and BSS” adding “the orchestration of the optical layer and network synchronisation are not about infrastructure so much as services and applications.

“The trick [for the network] is getting all the end-to-end BSS, OSS and NMS [network management systems] to work together, orchestrate and sync because to some extent network remains ‘standalone’.” He points out, “We’ve got thousands of services on-demand, you could argue that’s the best automation. Literally, some big customers in America have just a few keystrokes and 20 minutes later, the service is up and running.”

Going truly global

He continues, “Systems and technology allow you to have end-to-end networks that talk and that’s exactly what we’re are looking at. Today the networks interconnect, but no-one’s got one global infrastructure. If you could get them to talk to each other in common languages, it would be far more efficient and better for customers. You need like-minded players in the ecosystem; people who are willing to open up their APIs and technology and about how they see things.”

This is hindered now because a single transmission can involve so many players, with many different kinds of technology in the multiple links, with SLAs piled on top of SLAs and everyone needs margin. “Who is selling to the end customer?,” Farnan asks. “Managing multiple languages and stages of a project can be challenging, especially when it results in delayed and fragmented communication with customers.” He is optimistic. “Imagine if we could offer customers a single view of their ticket status for example? This is where blockchain technology could be a game-changer.”

And progress is being made. “We do a lot of work with Windstream [which offers very high bandwidth and networking solutions to everyone from households to enterprises in the US]. They wanted to prove 400G services from the US over subsea [cables] to Frankfurt, so we worked with them on a PoC [proof of concept] and were able to prove it,” Farnan says. “They’re very open and a great bunch of engineers. We don’t feel threatened by each other because we’re looking at what they have and what we have so we can work to make it seamless. Those like-minded players in the ecosystem are going to be key if we want telecom to be more global,” he concludes.

5GSA – for now the innovation is all under the hood at Swisscom

Swisscom’s Mark Düsener talks to Contributing Editor Annie Turner about the critical power of cloud native and automation – and why preparing properly for 5GSA right is more important than launching first.

Mark Düsener, Executive Vice President Mobile Network & Services at Swisscom, is a relative newcomer, having joined the operator in November 2020. Previously was at Deutsche Telekom’s T-Systems International in different roles over several years. He is a great example of why fresh thinking, even in a culture of excellence, can be such a powerful thing.

Swisscom is justifiably proud of being the first in Europe to launch 5G, then achieving 99% coverage of the population in less than six months. It has also been recognised many times for its world-beating infrastructure, including as having the country’s best 5G network by Ookla in terms of both speed and coverage.

Yet when it came to 5G Standalone (5GSA), he resisted his team’s “old habit” of being first because, “We don’t’ do things for the sake of doing them, but to enhance the quality and resilience of the network and the speed of innovation for our customers.” He adds, “There’s no customer demand yet and secondly, it’s a great opportunity to change the way we do things, because it’s a big technology shift.” In other words, getting it right is more important than being first – and that includes timing.

Customers come first

Düsener politely suggests that some announced 5GSA deployments are marketing gimmicks or proofs of concept more than commercial offers. He observes that popular showcases, such as broadcasting from stadia, “Don’t profoundly change an operator’s business.”

So where are new commercial use cases that will bring that change and what does he think they will be? “That’s different for each country. We’re a small country with very close to total coverage. Most European countries don’t have that coverage yet, so TV from a small rural stadium won’t work without 5G coverage, but that’s not holding us back in Switzerland. We only have four datacentres supporting our mobile infrastructure, so the distance between them isn’t great and we already have latencies of 10 milliseconds and guaranteed latency is a feature we can apply.”

Readiness is all

While various industrial sectors are readying themselves for the next stage of digitalization and automation, he is seizing the chance to be ready when they are. Düsener says, “I want to use this rare opportunity of a greenfield approach. It requires a different way of working. We’ve focused on setting up the optimisation chains, building the tools and training ourselves, exploring how to work differently.”

Swisscom did not embark on this journey talking about transformation, he explains, although it is mightily ambitious. He points out, “We are not only a telco, but a big IT business too – our logo says, ‘From telco to techco’. We do not only want to consume but to drive the softwarisation of our industry,” he states. Düsener’s starting point was building “people journeys” – looking at what new skills would be required for the cloud-native 5GSA architecture.

In particular, he was keen to embrace continuous integration, deployment and testing (CI/CD/CT), different forms of release management and optimisation programming. He says, “Only when we started that process of upskilling, which is up and running, did we start the transformation necessary to become a software organisation.”

Düsener stresses that cloud native is the driving force, adding, “It’s an industry effort and it is our ambition to lead the industry with our partners to achieve simpler, cheaper operations, greater optimization of network assets, better customer experience – all of these things.”

Start with service design

He elaborates, “It starts with service design. Instead of planning ‘this network function will get this IP address and so on’, we want an operating system, Kubernetes and the like, that automatically instantiates what’s necessary. We define our intent, what we need for connectivity, instead of describing how to do it, as we do today. The telecom model always about shifting and deploying physical boxes, then they became virtual, but are still treated as boxes. Now we have the chance to either have cloud-native boxes, or we get rid of the concept of boxes.

“Instead of thinking, ‘I need eight packet core gateways’, I don’t care how many I have. I need that core functionality, and the system will instantiate the number necessary – maybe adding a few in peak hours and shutting them down during the night.”

That’s the vision, what will it take to get there? Düsener says, “We need capabilities like connectivity as a service – I request connectivity and automation happens in the background network as a service that delivers some IP addresses and manages the resources and so on.”

Even further down the line, “I believe everything in the end will be code: I will be able to address functionality as code to decouple further. Today in core we typically have maybe one major release per year that we need to instantiate in the laboratory and test. It’s a really huge effort. I want releases per month or faster and not only ‘as required’ but ‘as delivered’. Once I deliver something – a patch or new product feature – I instantiate it with CD/CI and let’s not forget CT. That has a huge impact on how we work.”

Canaries and A/B testing

Swisscom has advanced furthest with this softwarisation is its radio access networks, which the most hardware intensive. The operator releases new features every second week. Düsener notes wryly, “I have heard that my peers would like to understand how we do it. We use ‘canary testing’ by applying new feature to a selected area for initial testing and even A/B testing where we try out two different feature sets on the same antenna with 50% of the customers using A and the others B, then we compare the results.”

The operator is optimising power usage for different frequency bands, but this depends on which kinds of phones are in use in any given area and the frequency bands they use. Power and other kinds of optimisation are automated, through more than 25 fully closed-loop use cases up that run constantly.

While Düsener expects the number of closed loops in use to proliferate, he does not see an estimate of the eventual number as a useful metric so much as keeping the automation vision in mind. In access, for example, the plan is to create a base-site configuration algorithm that the operator will use, unaltered, to configure all sites. Configuration and replication, not customisation, is the aim, although, as he says, “You’re never finished with optimisation.”

Being stateless

In the core, most of Swisscom’s systems that serve customers are virtualised with a few dedicated appliances still in use and a few cloud-native installations. “The next lever really would be 5GSA,” Düsener says, but in the meantime, the operator manages virtual packet and voice cores on its private telco cloud, but it is already working on “the next big step” with public cloud hyperscaler, AWS.

Düsener says, “I want to be able to deploy AWS not only as an outpost in my data centre, I want to be able to deploy real cloud native public cloud, not private cloud. Yes, this means a certain level of security and privacy, but more importantly, telco workloads aren’t cloud native today because they are session based, whereas being cloud native means you don’t have a state.

“When most workloads are built on cloud-native principles, the changes are manifest because most big workloads and most types of workloads use layer 2 networks and public clouds use layer 3”. He adds, “Now almost all our workloads are stateful, so changing is not an easy task, but if there is no state and a certain network function is not behaving properly, you just kill it. You don’t have to take care of anything else, the environment, Kubernetes and so on, will re-instantiate to meet the need automatically, based on the defined end state.”

Düsener continues, “It’s not an easy design choice, but it is a design choice. This is what we’re driving with our partners, AWS and Ericsson, because that’s what will change the industry. We believe there will be a big, dramatic, positive impact on how we operate.”

Automating innovation

When will this major change happen? Düsener is not to be drawn into a precise answer about when he thinks this will be, saying, “Less than five years more than six months…I think it’s a typical hockey stick scenario; you need you need certain factors to be in place before the wheel starts to turn faster. At the moment, we’re not driving 5GSA because we’re waiting for that increase in wheel speed.”

He stresses, “The real revolution is under the hood [or bonnet, if you’re British] It’s not about faster networks or the next use case. We will see some business-critical communications coming up and so on, and there will be use cases because of new features that we couldn’t do in the past. But once we are able to automate further, to really apply software patterns to our industry, the speed of innovation will change dramatically.”