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Lab Automation Build vs. Buy: Striking a Balance

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Many organizations see lab automation solutions as something they either build themselves or buy off the shelf. Learn how the majority of our customers are doing both.

Striking a balance between in-house and commercial lab automation means placing the right strategic bets in both areas. It also requires taking a step back and constantly re-evaluating those bets.

That’s how lab managers and their bosses view transforming their test labs to meet the challenges of the future. In doing so, they take into account the technology’s rate of change, the widening utility of open source, the structure of their company, and other factors that influence the evolving requirements for a state-of-the-art test lab. They don’t lose sight of the end goal: to bring high-quality products and services to market in a rapid, agile and efficient fashion.

Many organizations view the development of lab automation as a binary decision: they should either build a solution themselves or buy one off the shelf. But these options aren’t mutually exclusive. Today, the market offers a spectrum and a continuum of automation offerings. In fact, the majority of our customers are doing both. They're placing bets on internally developed software, and they’re placing bets on open source and commercial software. Next, they’re spending their time and resources integrating and orchestrating the components so they work together as a system. Finally, they’re constantly re-evaluating and optimizing as a means towards continuous improvement. This is all driven by the organization’s need to achieve their objectives at a business level: to deliver the highest customer value and internal ROI.

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Many organizations view the development of lab automation as a binary decision: they should either build a solution themselves or buy one off the shelf. But these options aren’t mutually exclusive… the majority of Spirent customers are doing both.

With the overall business objectives in mind, it’s essential to comprehend all factors related to the development of a lab automation solution—total value, total cost of ownership and business risk.

Total value: What’s the solution’s benefits and ROI and how are they measured?

The focus of this assessment is on the efficiencies delivered by the solution, the CapEx and OpEx avoidance, as well as the increased quality. ROI benchmarks and KPIs should be established from the onset. These measurements would cover cost advantages from the consolidation of a lab which would include optimization of lab equipment usage and lowering inventory CapEx.

Lab optimization often accounts for reductions of physical plant requirements and lowering of utility costs. Benefits in team productivity, minimizing siloed inefficiencies with global resource accessibility are another measure. Holistic benefits and ROI won’t be realized until after the adoption cycle is fully complete. Before a solution delivers its holistic benefits, a temporary diminishment in productivity in the implementation and integration is part of the process of a solution adoption. Measuring ROI too early will not deliver a true measure of the solution’s ROI.

Total cost of ownership: What’s the holistic lifecycle cost for the of the solution?

From an OpEx and CapEx perspective, a comprehensive understanding of the budget requirements for adoption is essential. The key focus is on the acquisition and development costs, maintenance costs and opportunity costs. Proper scoping of a prospective solution should account for all components. Inadequate scoping can result in 'solution creep,' impacting expense and delivery dates, affecting the perception of a solution’s value. Investment in a homegrown solution involves development in the short term – to get it up and running – and in the long term – to maintain the solution in the future.

At a high level, TCO categories include accounting for purchase price of the software and hardware associated with the solution, the installation and integration, training the customer teams on its usage and maintenance costs of keeping the solution up-to-date with upgrades and configurations. Some solutions fail in the long term because aspects of support, repairs and maintenance are not accounted for. Also, in assessing a lab automation solution, stakeholders should examine the opportunity cost and weigh the potential of greater ROI not realized in the future with a different investment because resources were committed to the solution under review.

Business risk: Have all the strategic variables been taken into account in the solutions choice?

The focus here relates to feature inflexibility, support challenges of homegrown bespoke software, as well as the suppliers’ business continuity. Sometimes an organization adopts an internally developed automation solution with a targeted answer to a problem. Yet, as new expanded requirements emerge, demanding increased scale and functionality, the solution may be unable to deliver the full range of capabilities needed.

Later, when a more holistic automation solution is evaluated, the logistics of integrating the next generation of automation with the original solution may carry cumbersome inefficiencies. As well, buying off the shelf can have liabilities, such as the vendor may go out of business or be acquired by a larger enterprise, where product roadmap plans or capabilities originally purchased are no longer prioritized.

Weighing your odds

These are the same deliberations every company makes. Organizations place their bets in different areas based on their competencies, total value, TCO, ROI and business risk. An engineering manager would never ask her developers to build a new NoSQL database when dozens of viable options already exist in the market. She’d be smarter to ask her team to develop specific value-added services on top of NoSQL technology to gain value for her application. She would direct her teams’ competencies in building software that generates revenue or reduces cost. Her team would be implementing software that supports business value, and in doing so, the organization experiences a significant increase in profitability in the program.

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One of our customers, Calix, provides global cloud, software platforms, systems and services required to deliver unified access networks and smart premises to communications service providers. They recognized that deployment of NG-PON2 (Next Generation Passive Optical Network) across enterprises and consumer broadband segments, would significantly increase the complexity and scale of testing required to assure quality releases. They had already invested in elements of testing infrastructure, some developed internally, which proved beneficial. Instead of overhauling their entire test and lab infrastructure, they sought a solution that could integrate with the beneficial aspects of their existing infrastructure, while holistically optimizing their complete array of regional test labs.

Their problem was not unique in the industry. The typical challenges organizations in this space face include:

  • Expanding network complexity

  • Escalating number of vendors and volume of software releases

  • Increasing lab validation times to identify, isolate and resolve faults

  • Inconsistent tools and methodologies between Development and Operations

  • Inherently slow network on-boarding and activation cycles

Calix brought in Spirent’s team of test and lab automation experts, supported by our suite of product technology, to achieve their lab automation goals. While Calix had already adopted DevOps practices, they were employed in different teams and regional sectors, yet not in a uniform manner throughout the organization. With the objective of achieving continuous testing (CT), they needed to consolidate the resources in their global test labs with the use of shared resources, the ability to rapidly model and instantiate test environments, automate test execution, and deliver visibility of results and resource utilization – all through a web interface providing global access to remote users.

Ultimately, with Spirent’s solution, they realized a 300x improvement in their test processes. A test setup procedure that originally took 50 hours was reduced to an automated process taking 10 minutes. Calix rethought how they tested, placed their bets in a number of ways, in a phased approach, and was rewarded for making smart choices throughout the evolution chain of their solution.

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Calix examined the advantages of cutting-edge test lab automation solutions providing the state-of-the-art in testing, the requirements of the 21st century test lab, and supporting service-oriented architecture. When telecom organizations don’t have the expertise, resources, or time, to perform testing and assurance functions internally, they may seek the option of choosing from a suite of managed solutions to perform these functions as a Service.

Lab as a Service (LaaS) combines a qualified partner’s test expertise, products and resource management capabilities into a bundled service. This allows customers to quickly acquire advanced testing functions that are seamlessly integrated with other operator functions within their environment. This delivery expertise in LaaS should offer cloud-based and automated CI/CD continuous testing of multi-vendor communication service provider (CSP) solutions enabling web-scale agility and mature DevOps efficiencies. They should apply the latest cloud and virtualization techniques to foster highly-efficient automated testing.

Want to learn more about test and lab automation? Check out our eBook Building the New Telecom Innovation Pipeline.

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Clark Whitty
Clark Whitty

Principal Product Line Manager

With over 20 years in the test and measurement industry, Clark has deep expertise in deploying network automation and productivity solutions throughout the entire product lifecycle.  As a Principal Product Line Manager within the Automation Platform Technologies business unit at Spirent, Clark designs, develops and deploys network automation solutions for service and infrastructure providers around the world.