At this year’s annual International Telecoms Week (ITW), Digital Realty's CTO Chris Sharp sits on a panel with other industry leaders to discuss the rise of zero-touch networks.

The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) describes a zero-touch network as a management system that leverages the principles of network functions virtualisation (NFV) and software defined networking (SDN) to manage itself and the data crossing it. Essentially, a network that automatically ensures high availability and reliability to save time, reduces cost, and minimise downtime. It also frees up humans to do more complex decision-making tasks, and value-added activity, not just constant network adjustments.

Customer experience is one of the main drivers for adoption of zero-touch networks. There is a constant need to be connected and it therefore increases the demand for data. Consumers want to watch an entire Netflix film on the bus whilst on their commute to work. But this isn’t just one person on the bus – it's thousands of people all over the world, all with different demands for what their data can do, like make data-driven phone calls, or play the latest internet-based mobile game.

Huge amounts of data demanded and delivered in different forms to millions of users puts pressure on networks to deliver exponentially more than they have in the past, creating the need for those networks to optimise faster and more effectively than human management can achieve.

It's not just consumers. Take the retail industry as an example – retailers generate an immense amount of data, from in-store spending data to website browsing, to inventory monitoring. Big data analytics, and increasingly artificial intelligence (AI), turn that data into insight, but both of these technologies need quick, robust connections to access and transport the host of data from all of these different sources and rapidly process the vast amount of data to generate those insights.

Techniques like interconnection can help to a point, but as the networks become ever more complex, businesses need to optimise data flows. Zero-touch networks represent the gold standard in that optimisation. Their ability to predict and manage ebbs and surges in data, optimise server conditions and constantly route data for the lowest possible latency will provide an unmatched environment for the complexities of AI and big data.

To facilitate the demands of the future, data centres and network operators need to invest in AI in their networks to make them zero-touch. Technologies like the internet of things (IoT) and AI are creating new demands for speed and reliability, and to meet those needs, we need to provide intelligence within the network itself.