Taming Network Complexity with Digital Twins

Digital twins can help manage and troubleshoot complex networks by providing an accurate replica of the network's configuration and state.

Taming Network Complexity with Digital Twins
(Credit: Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo)

Digital twins are often associated with manufacturing, where a virtual replica mimics the workings of a complex physical system, such as a jet engine or a machine on a production line. But increasingly, there is interest from enterprises, telecom companies, and cloud providers in applying the technology to networks.

A perfect storm is driving the adoption of digital twin technology in these organizations. First, enterprise and service provider networks are incredibly complex and highly dynamic. At the same time, networks are constantly incorporating new technologies and expanding. And users are more demanding than ever before, wanting faster speeds, higher availability, quick resolution of problems, and no major outages. Additionally, network managers face new cybersecurity and regulatory challenges.

Second, digital twin technology is increasingly more available and well-received and has reached new levels of maturity. Organizations can easily build detailed digital versions of their networks. And the computational power and sophisticated algorithms needed to run digital twins are readily available.

The growing adoption of digital twins, in general, and the melding of physical and digital systems has spawned a new market, according to the venture capital firm LETA Capital. The company predicts the “phygital” market (as LETA Capital calls it) will be worth $216 trillion by 2030.

Networks and digitals twins: A natural match

The telecom sector has been an early adopter when it comes to using digital twins for networks. Many providers are trying to roll out new services (like 5G) and face competition in almost every geographic market they serve. They also have demanding customers who want an instant resolution to any problems and have very little tolerance for performance glitches. Trying to deliver services and address these issues is challenging due to the complexity of telecom networks.

“Current networking infrastructures often face fragmentation issues that make it difficult to support new network rollouts, expand capacity, and introduce new features that can help address societal challenges,” said Dan Isaacs, the GM and CTO of the Digital Twin Consortium. His comments were delivered last year when the consortium announced the formation of a new working group to address the application and adoption of digital twins in the telecommunications market.

Why the interest in digital twins? “Digital twins provide a 360-degree view of network performance and usage patterns, enabling improved analysis, optimal coverage, accurate predictive analytics, and effective management approaches,” said Isaacs.

Specifically, a telecom provider can use a digital twin of its network to test different strategies and make decisions about how to deliver services.

One example is to use a digital twin to simulate the propagation of radio waves in a specific location to optimize antenna placement. That capability is increasingly valuable when deploying 5G services.

3G and 4G radio waves travel over great distances. So, an antenna placed on a hill or the top of a building can provide coverage to a large region and tens of thousands of customers. In contrast, 5G’s higher frequencies (compared to 3G and 4G) mean the signal travels over shorter distances and is easily attenuated by obstacles like buildings and trees. As such, telcos must install many more antennas. They often use little antennas that clip onto a lamppost or the sides of buildings and serve many fewer customers. Those antennas are much lower down in the landscape, which means they get blocked by more objects.

Companies like HEAVY.AI have been working with telcos to help them plan their 5G deployments, using digital twin technology to take into account rapidly changing factors like the construction of new buildings or the growth of trees and vegetation along a signal’s line of site. The company uses real-time data about an area, analyzes that data, and then looks for changes to optimize antenna deployment to match services with demand.

A role for digital twins in the enterprise

Enterprises and cloud providers are using digital twin technology to manage their complex networks. In many cases, the technology provides better visibility, aids in troubleshooting, and supports network management automation.

Chiara Regale, Senior Vice President of Product Management at Forward Networks, says that there are many enterprise network use cases for the technology. In an interview, she noted some use cases are specific to the type of user. Specifically, she said digital twins are being used in the following areas:

  • Network engineers and NetOps staff are using digital twins for troubleshooting, outage prevention, and path verification and analysis.

  • Network security teams are using digital twins for incident response, vulnerability management, and to maintain a proper security posture.

  • Cloud and multi-cloud managers are using digital twins for end-to-end visibility, service assurance, and continuous security audits.

Additionally, there are use cases that cut across all three user groups. In particular, all can use digital twins for change control, inventory management, compliance/audit, and workflow automation.

Regale notes that some large enterprise users report quantifiable benefits using their digital twins. “An accurate inventory reconciliation yielded $6 million in savings for one client,” says Regale. “Another had nearly a 35% reduction in P0/P1 outages, and still another had an 80% reduction in the mean time to resolution [MTTR] when problems occurred.”

A final word on digital twins for networks

Digital twin technology helps manage the complexity of networks by providing an accurate replica of the network's configuration and state. That allows for better visibility, troubleshooting, and automation in network management. Various use cases for digital twins include network security, compliance and audit, inventory management, and workflow automation. The end result is that digital twins can help improve network efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance security.

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About the Author(s)

Salvatore Salamone, Managing Editor, Network Computing

Salvatore Salamone is the managing editor of Network Computing. He has worked as a writer and editor covering business, technology, and science. He has written three business technology books and served as an editor at IT industry publications including Network World, Byte, Bio-IT World, Data Communications, LAN Times, and InternetWeek.

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