AI in the center of the conversation
Over the past three decades, the evolution of communications networks has elevated the importance of Network Operations Centers (NOCs) within telcos. Initially, NOCs facilitated the centralization of operations' silos and the implementation of a framework of tools, processes, and structure focused on network assurance. However, recent market diversification has shifted telcos' focus to enhanced service assurance, customer experience, and optimized business operations. This shift is catalyzing the development of a modernized telco-operations paradigm wherein NOCs are integral to business operations.
Herein, we describe the typical characteristics of current NOCs, different approaches for their implementation, and their ecosystem. We also describe the standardization framework at a high level and provide use cases that represent the current status of NOC evolution. Most importantly, this blog introduces the new Cognitive NOC (cNOC) capabilities that are enabled using AI/ML, including anomaly detection/prediction, the automation of remediation, and fulfillment workflows.
The Role of NOCs
NOCs are responsible for monitoring network elements to avoid degraded service. Telecom operators implement NOCs to oversee complex networking environments that require high availability to eliminate single points of failure within the Network & provide continuous operation, thereby optimizing uptime. Service Level Agreements (SLAs) define individual NOC operations. NOC personnel (Level 1 & Level 2 support) track, analyze, troubleshoot, and resolve problems per network element (NE). When necessary, NOCs escalate issues to Level 3 support to remedy the situation. NOCs usually follow Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) Service Operations processes to fulfill user requests, resolve service failures, fix problems, and carry out routine operational tasks, including:
NOCs use Operations Support System (OSS) tools, including Fault Management (FM), Performance Management (PM), and IT Service Management (ITSM), and cover:
Telecom Network Management: RAN, Transport (MW, IPRAN, WDM, IPBB), CORE (CS, PS), VAS
IT Enterprise Management: CRM, Fulfillment, Rating / Charging / Billing, Mediation, DWH & BI, IT infrastructure, Corporate LAN, IT Security, DB
Field management: Site management, Electromechanical, Telecom
Conventional NOC pain points are listed below:
Operations departments work with a silo mentality that focuses on day-to-day issues and escalations & deprioritizes cross-functional tasks, e.g.:
-End to End troubleshooting and performance impacts
-Reconciliation between numerous data sources handled by different teams
A reactive Firefighting Mode management approach where everything is considered a top priority causes critical issue oversights amid alarms and escalation floods
Varied personnel expertise levels adversely impact contractual SLAs (heavy manual procedures, human mistakes)
Lack of Service Quality Management:
-End-to-end service quality is difficult to measure as OSS tools are network element (NE) specific
-Focus on NE performance rather than End-to-end service quality or End User experience
For a long time, NOC focused on NE monitoring (Traditional NOC). However, with the emergence of Data based services, the advent of the SOC (Service Operations Center) arose to target End-to-end services.
SOCs monitor the quality of the overall service and orchestrate the necessary actions in the case of degradations. In the past, SOCs rollout consisted either of a complete NOC to SOC transformation or a standalone department interacting with traditional NOC.
SOCs streamline troubleshooting activities with cross-functional teams, including services, Network, and IT experts. SOCs use NOC Monitoring tools, SQM (Service Quality Management), and CEM (Customer Experience Management) tools.
With the increasing complexity of Telecom technologies, cost reduction constraints, and more challenging SLAs, the reactive approaches of NOCs and SOCs need to evolve. The path to success for Cognitive NOCs involves a proactive approach based on automation, correlations, predictions, and auto-corrective actions.
Figure 1: NOC Interrelationships with Other Telco Organizations
As depicted in Figure 1, NOCs have become a critical part of telco operations, providing crucial information for departments like Engineering, Optimization, Customer Care, Revenue Assurance, etc. NOCs are the single source of truth for many cross-functional operational metrics. Likewise, NOCs ingest information generated by external departments into their BSS/OSS systems for various functions, including service/customer segment profiling, anomaly detection/prediction enrichment, prioritization of remediation tasks, issue impact estimation, AI/ML models training, and real-time building of network/service topology from external inventories. Operating revenue pressures and resulting OPEX optimizations generate the need for cNOCs that provide automation and open interfaces to enable sustainable scalability.
NOC + Service Assurance+ AI/ML = cNOC
The necessity for NOC optimization accelerated the evolution from traditional NOC to Cognitive NOC, adding much-needed new operational capabilities. Figure 2 lists some of these new capabilities mapped to the associated value proposition for telcos.
Figure 2: cNOC Capabilities & Associated Value Proposition
The first three capabilities relate to introducing AI/ML in OSS/BSS systems. Many operators are already implementing ML models for anomaly detection and prediction and currently face the challenge of automating remediation workflows through AI. The inclusion of ML represents a clear step forward. However, immense growth opportunities remain for the telco industry & significant advancements are on the horizon. Cutting-edge developments in the NOCs of the future will include promising progress in automating NOC layer 1 processes.
The NOC conceptual framework is a heterogeneous combination of processes, tools, organizational structure, and culture. Accordingly, there is no standardized reference from industry bodies for NOCs to follow. The first comprehensive approach to standardizing OSS systems came from the ITU-T developing the TMN (Telecommunications Management Network) standards in 1988, compiled in ITU's M-series of standards.
In the process domain, the primary reference for traditional NOCs was the ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), which focused on service provision to internal customers. However, as NOCs evolved from focusing only on Network or service assurance to playing a pivotal role in service fulfillment and business operation, eTOM (enhanced Telecom Operations Map) emerged and focused on service delivery to external customers.
In the technology domain, TM Forum ODA (Open Digital Architecture) has become a comprehensive reference for building OSS/BSS systems for CSPs and has opened a market for standardized cloud-native software components. Furthermore, it enabled communication service providers and suppliers to invest in IT for new and differentiated services instead of maintenance and integration. Additionally, the advent of 5G offering new capabilities, such as network slicing and virtualization of cellular infrastructure, required enhanced management approaches. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) provides a focal point for standardization across these cellular and radio technologies, specifically in 32-Series and 28-Series.
Reailize is currently helping Tier-1 CSPs evolve their NOCs by designing and implementing cloud-native OSS systems based on open architecture and interfaces. For example, in the case of a Tier 1 CSP in the Middle East, we supported their transition from NOC to SOC by deploying our AGILITY system, which consumes FM, PM, and CM data as well as service KPIs, topology, and CRM information to provide:
RAN anomaly detection & qualification
Core and Transport anomaly detection & qualification
VoLTE and Data service impact analysis
UI-based anomaly reinforcement
Prioritization and visualization of services
Root cause analysis by domain
Cross domain anomaly correlation
Cross domain & service root cause analysis
Another remarkable use case is the NOC for a global Tier 1 satellite broadband service provider. In this scenario, we deployed a solution combining the capabilities of two of our products (Network Insight and AGILITY) to provide anomaly detection and service predictions that detect network issues before customer-facing impact.
The Path to Business Optimization
Since their conception in the 1990s, the development of NOCs hasn't been linear. Initially, traditional NOCs were network-centric. Then, over the past decade, NOCs merged previously standalone Service Assurance Centers (SOCs) with NOCs. Most recently, the NOC developmental trend over the past five years has reemphasized the need to centralize network and service assurance into cognitive NOCs.
Presently, CSPs' reliance upon NOCs as enablers of much-needed business transformation is undeniable. However, business optimization requires an evolutionary vision and a prioritized roadmap of specific transformation initiatives with clear ownership, timeframes, and business benefits; enter cNOC. Specifically, transformation initiatives must cover the three main CSP pain points requiring redress, including organizational structure, technology, people, and skill sets.
The current NOC trend is evolving to a more horizontal structure by progressively automating Tier 1 and Tier 2 NOC processes while maintaining and expanding the capacity for senior operations engineers' responsibilities related to strategy, policy, and process improvement. We can already see evidence of a few CSPs achieving full automation of Tier-1 and some Tier-2 processes, such as root cause analysis (RCA). Additionally, NOCs will bring security assurance under their responsibilities, as this is becoming a frequent cause of service issues.
The crucial yet most challenging aspect of NOC evolution is workforce transformation. Telcos need to focus on Continuous Assurance by filling the skill gap with DevOps-skilled collaborators, reskilling existing resources, and hiring new talent. In addition, management engagement and high-quality metrics in cNOCs will enable evaluation of the value-add achieved throughout the transformation and educated reframing to correct the course of action when necessary.
Reailize is a CSP partner in the advancement towards cNOC. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how Reailize can help your team implement a Cognitive NOC to leverage the power of AI/ML and optimize your existing NOC and SOC frameworks.
TM Forum (2022). GB991 TM Forum Core Frameworks Concepts and Principles v22.0.0 Business Process, Information, Functional and Application Frameworks
TM Forum (2020). The Future Fit NOC – Keeping Network Operations Relevant