Vodafone UK adds automation to its optical, IP transport network

Vodafone UK Chief Network Officer Andrea Dona

Vodafone UK Chief Network Officer Andrea Dona

  • Vodafone UK is revamping its transport network
  • It is adding automation capabilities using Blue Planet orchestration software
  • Multi-vendor transport domain orchestrator will manage Ciena and Nokia tech
  • CTO says automated processes are essential and need to be implemented now

Vodafone UK is deploying network automation software from Blue Planet to manage its optical and IP layers as part of a broader revamp of its transport networks, with the operator’s CTO saying the move is absolutely essential if Vodafone is to run its network in an efficient and viable way and meet its customers’ needs.  

The operator is already 12 months into a three-year revamp of Redstream, its core optical and IP transport network architecture, which involves a rationalization and upgrade of the infrastructure and network topology Vodafone UK brought on board with the acquisition of Cable & Wireless Worldwide almost 10 years ago. At the end of the project, Vodafone UK will have a single programmable, software-defined transport network with distributed functionality supporting its fixed broadband, mobile and enterprise service requirements.

Vodafone UK Chief Network Officer Andrea Dona (pictured above) says the existing topology didn’t “lend itself to a cost-efficient expansion… so we decided to rearchitect our backbone transport network into an edge-based architecture” that allows more flexibility and decentralization of functionality where appropriate. “We're moving to edge-based regional aggregation nodes that are further detached from the centre… so as we expand our mobile broadband capacity, and we've got maybe some hotspots of traffic, we can [just] upgrade the last box. Sometimes we might have to do the full chain but not in all cases.”

The other reason for the revamp is to support the move towards more sophisticated enterprise services. “This underpins our strategy of moving away from being a pure connectivity play… I'm laying the foundations of network-as-a-platform, a standardised network that is easily programmable and configurable, through which we can expose, in a very standardised manner, network functionalities, into which our customers, partners and developers can interface through standard APIs and create new services and revenue streams, availing themselves of network functions that have always been there but which have been very complex to expose… abstracting that complexity into standard interface-level APIs is the means by which we expose those functions, that gives you automated service provisioning [and activation],” and enable self-provisioned on-demand services.

Dona says such automated configuration and programmability will be possible with 5G once a standalone architecture is deployed, which will enable what appears to be the holy grail of the mobile network community right now – network slicing. But having such capabilities in the radio access network alone will limit the services potential – this upgrade and the deployment of Blue Planet’s transport domain orchestrator will enable dynamic service provisioning in layers 1-3 as well. 

So what exactly does an “edge-based architecture” look like for Vodafone UK? How distributed is the functionality? And where is the operator on its project timeline?   

“We're a third of the way through a three-year programme. Our home broadband is already edge based, and this year we're moving our mobile and then enterprise. One thing that underpins our journey is the rationalisation of our fixed estate, selecting which nodes in our network are defined as strategic, where we co-locate our aggregation nodes and also co-locate, where appropriate, our MEC [multi-access edge] outposts and our virtualization centres,” says the CTO, referencing the edge computing partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced by Vodafone Business late last year. (See AWS Wavelength (finally) gives telco edge an international flavour.) 

“So we’ve created what we’ve called Long Term Evolution Centres which concentrate multiple aspects of the network [aggregation, edge, virtualization] and that becomes our strategic estate…. We currently have four of these centres and we’re expanding to have eight over the next several years,” says Dona. 

So Blue Planet’s automation software will be running in all of these centres, but can it be taken further if needed, to even more distributed nodes and even onto public cloud-based deployments? 

“Yes, it can… strategically, we won’t want to do that, because of the concentration of the functionalities in the nodes, so we'd like them to be our nodes… but Blue Planet allows us to make… the most efficient planning assumptions, so you have the least number of available nodes while maximising the coverage… without the flexibility and scalability you’d need probably twice as many nodes to cover the UK,” says the CTO, who adds that it’s critical to get this part of the network revamp strategy, the automation element, right at this stage. 

“One thing that's often missed is that if you don't do this correctly – also within the context of sustainability – you're going to hit a blocker here… there's not going to be enough power, enough cooling, enough [network infrastructure] to do all the things that we need to do and therefore this software intelligence is key,” says Dona. “[Without it] you're going to build too many of these things and you're not going to be able to afford them.”

Blue Planet’s expanding orbit

The deployment marks the latest success for Blue Planet, a unit of transport network equipment vendor Ciena. Blue Planet has been gaining steady traction with telco customers and now has a very solid base in the UK, having landed a deal with BT late last year. 

And while the network automation software vendor has always espoused a multi-vendor strategy and been treated as much as possible as an autonomous operation, there’s no doubt it helps to be part of one of the optical networking market’s leading players.

For Vodafone UK, Blue Planet offered the best of both worlds – a close tie to its existing optical transport equipment supplier, Ciena, and the multi-vendor and multi-domain orchestration capabilities to also manage the IP transport layer technology and, in future if needed, accommodate any third-party vendors that might be added into the Vodafone UK network. 

“The orchestrator dilemma that is still unresolved is whether it’s best to go with an orchestrator that is vendor-specific and completely understanding of the underlying technology, or one that is technology agnostic. In this particular case, specifically on the choice of the TDO [transport domain orchestrator], we’ve gone for Ciena’s Blue Planet because it should be easy to expose the Ciena optical layer, and then it also exposes the IP layer, which was Cisco but which we are swapping to Nokia.”

What’s a bit surprising here is that multi-domain, multi-vendor transport network orchestration and automation is still, seemingly, quite a tough nut to crack, if vendor-specific orchestrator tools are still deemed to be the most reliable. Multiple vendors have been working on these capabilities for years, including all of the optical and IP vendors, as well as the likes of NEC’s Netcracker and Sedona. 

But as with other domains and areas of industry development, the industry’s major operators are aiming to develop an agreed approach via the work of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), where the Open Optical & Packet Transport project group has set up a workstream called MUST (Mandatory Use Case Requirements for SDN for Transport), which aims to “accelerate and drive the adoption of SDN standards for IP/MPLS, Optical and Microwave transport technologies.” That group is headed up by Eva Rossi from…. Vodafone, but also supported by other major telcos (Deutsche Telekom, MTN, Orange, Telefónica and telia). 

Why is this group needed? “The prevailing diverse SDN standards and automation frameworks have caused confusion and have slowed down network automation progress,” notes Anil Rao, Research Director and Lead Analyst for network and service automation research at Analysys Mason in this blog. “This collaboration is therefore an important milestone; CSPs are taking control of the standardisation process, to not only accelerate transport network automation, but also to prepare for 5G network slicing,” adds the analyst.

Such a development is, of course, beneficial to Blue Planet, which is understandably pumped by the engagement at Vodafone UK.

“In general, ‘multi-vendor’ orchestration is ramping. We have five-to-six very active engagements where we are playing as the top-of-the-stack orchestration platform,” says Blue Planet Vice President Rick Hamilton. “Every OEM on the planet has its own orchestration platform, but there are very few that are truly multi-domain, multi-vendor and multi-layer. Vodafone clearly recognizes this too,” he adds. 

Hamilton says the key factor to landing the gig at Vodafone UK was “one of interoperability across multiple standards – northbound into the BSS layers such as order management, southbound into the infrastructure, and also across all the major cloud platforms – AWS, Azure and Google Anthos.  This is what being multi-domain, multi-vendor and multi-layer is all about – interoperability across many forming and existing standards that will ultimately deliver real end-to-end automation,” says the Blue Planet executive. 

And what does this mean for Blue Planet’s broader relationship with the Vodafone Group? “We’ve been engaged with Vodafone Group for a very long time [but] this is our first major Blue Planet engagement with them. Ciena has long been engaged at Vodafone on the transport side, but this deal was isolated to Blue Planet,” notes Hamilton. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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