We're at the precipice of a new era. Cloud is now a standard part of a corporate technology stack. Big data, artificial intelligence, and scalable infrastructure models are becoming status quo and changing technology as we know it. 5G is close to reality, and we may see a massive 75 billion devices connecting to the internet. Organizations are leveraging on-demand access into cloud providers and partners, exponentially increasing the complexity of their network architecture. And everything must be available on demand, at any time. Service providers need to stay ahead of the curve to meet their customer’s requirements or face irrelevance.

Network architects are looking for ways to scale while monitoring and managing massive complexities. Manual configuration is not an option when considering both the speed and complexity required by the current on-demand multi-provider network architectures. With a zero touch operational methodology, you can implement automation into aspects of network operation and maintenance including workload elasticity, configuration changes, security, testing, performance monitoring, and self-healing capabilities. In some advanced environments, zero touch networks are starting to apply artificial intelligence to infrastructure and security strategies. The goal: bring simple solutions to address complex challenges

While more automation is taking place in network architecture, infrastructures—and sometimes the people managing them—aren't quite at the point where "zero touch" or zero human involvement with end-to-end solutions can addresses every task. However, the path is inevitable.

A well-designed network architecture is a critical foundation for your IT strategy. Our customers often ask us which provider offers the best solutions – but the right question is how they can build a solution that lets them leverage all providers' products with a minimum of effort or new buildout. Zero touch plays a part in the bigger picture of transforming IT strategies that involve hybrid and multi-cloud to make sure your foundational network architecture doesn't fall behind.

Zero touch is headed places

In recent years, zero touch has evolved to go beyond automation in just the initial deployment to also encompassing automation of the entire 360 lifecycle process. This can cover simple tasks like rebooting a server or general maintenance, to more complex actions like changing the elasticity of workloads in real-time based on demand or disaster recover.

As more pressure gets put on organizations to deliver more functionality while controlling cost, agility will be a critical factor. Manually configuring networks not only requires highly skilled engineers but is prone to error. Cost and complexity for network engineering can be overwhelming, especially if organizations are unable to retain talent. Additionally, manually configuring a network can take time, sometimes weeks, or even months when relying on physical installation. With zero touch, networks can be configured in a matter of minutes without the need for people to manually do the work. Some worry about automation eliminating the need for engineers, but we are far from that. Instead, it can free up engineers’ time to spend it more on mapping out creative solutions like creating solutions frameworks and designs to meet specific business objectives. Moving away from monolithic systems and towards flexible, modular service-based architectures that are self-contained and self-healing will be beneficial for network providers, their engineers, and their end users.

Hurdles of zero touch automation

One of the biggest challenges for fully implementing zero touch is resources, or lack thereof. While the goal of zero touch is to eliminate human intervention, it will still require humans to set up the automation systems which requires a specific skillset around network automation.

Enterprises may also initially have a hard time accepting and trusting a service provider’s zero touch infrastructure due to the high level of risk and giving up manual control. This is a similar attitude change as has happened with cloud, when system architects would say, “how can I trust running a workload on someone else’s computer that I never touch?” Now many of the resources that we use every day run in a cloud environment, without the customer ever knowing it. Like with all innovations and changes within the industry, a cultural change and shift in mindset will slowly take place in order to successfully move towards zero touch networks. The businesses that are successful in moving to it quickly will secure critical benefits over their competition. As with all new technologies, some won’t be a perfect transition, and lessons will be learned—which is why testing these environments is going to be extremely crucial. There are many moving parts that need to be fully integrated within an automated methodology.

What’s next for zero touch automation?

Zero touch is far from an overnight process. While we're not fully there yet, there are certainly promising steps being made in the right direction towards making it a reality. For instance, Digital Realty’s Service Exchange is a 100% automated hybrid multi-cloud offering that allows you to turn on or off cloud access, link to other data centers, or get high speed private connections to your partners, all from just one, single connection. And by using a portal to centrally manage your cloud services, it requires less human intervention, speed to market, and more control. Service Exchange is bringing game-changing automation to your colo and cloud environments which can then be used to fortify other areas of your IT strategy like edge computing.  

Service providers can safely test to see where automation helps. Prioritize what tasks are the most critical and time consuming for you currently and consider automating those first. And from there, test, test, test, and test some more. I look forward to exploring and discussing the future of zero touch networks more with fellow industry experts at ITW this year. It's one of the many exciting and promising aspects that is driving our industry forward.