Self-organised. Self-managing. Self-aware. Sounds a lot like you? Maybe so, but with the help of EU-funded research, it may also increasingly describe telecoms networks. The autonomic systems of the future won’t need us to keep them on track. They will spot and even anticipate glitches and sort them out faster than we ever could.

“This innovation could help telecoms operators to make significant savings”

Network operators spend fortunes to ensure that their systems run smoothly, but the task is growing out of hand. New technologies are constantly being added, many old technologies need to be maintained, and the sheer volume of mobile communications is straining existing structures to their limits.

Managing the multitude of protocols and devices underpinning these technologies has become a complex challenge. And very often, the solutions that are developed apply only to specific technologies and don’t address related issues across the network as a whole.

Teaching systems to cope

This complexity has been identified as an obstacle to future growth, but it may actually be possible to address it by making the systems even more sophisticated. Software can be set up to fix some of its own problems, and indeed many systems already come with a number of self-management features. But the full potential of this approach has not been realised since the concept of autonomic computing was first introduced by IBM in 2001.

The EU-funded UniverSelf project set out in 2010 to take this research another step ahead and make the benefits available to telecoms operators. Three years on, the team had developed dozens of autonomic tools – known as network empowerment mechanisms (NEMs) – that telecoms operators can use to run their networks. These tools can, for example, optimise bandwidth allocation on a fixed network, or adjust content delivery to help mobile users save energy. They adapt to changing circumstances to achieve their aims.

A matter of priorities

The partners have also developed a solution to ensure that all these features can be managed through a single interface and work in perfect harmony, across technologies, both for wireline and wireless services. Laurent Ciavaglia of Alcatel-Lucent, the project coordinator, explains that this system – the Unified Management Framework (UMF) – takes stock of all the NEMs installed on a network and makes them accessible through a single interface.

Why bother? Because the UMF does not only keep track of the NEMs but also resolves conflicts between them and enables operators to set priorities. Individual NEMs can clash, causing oscillation in the system or degrading performances, says Ciavaglia. But once a particular objective – energy efficiency, for example – has been given priority, the UMF will arbitrate accordingly.

This innovation could help telecoms operators to make significant savings. It could also improve the customer experience, for example for mobile users, but there is still a long way to go. At the moment, the UMF only works for the NEMs developed by the project, but Ciavaglia notes that the project has designed an open format that can be used to include other technologies with minimal adjustments.

Large-scale deployment of the UMF or a similar approach to autonomics in network management would require industry-wide consensus on a suitable format. The project partners are keen to advance the debate on standardisation. 

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