AT&T's Mobile Network Transformation: Software is the Answer

Posted by Mae Kowalke on Tuesday, April 05, 2016 with No comments

AT&T is all-in on its goal to become a software company that uses software-defined networking (SDN) to deliver telecommunicationsand is ahead of schedule on its roadmap to that goal. In a nutshell, that's what John Donovan, Chief Strategy Officer and Group President of AT&T's Technology and Operations division, said in a recent keynote speech at Open Networking Summit 2016. 

The speech was ostensibly an update on progress of AT&T's 
Central Office Re-architected as Data Center (CORD) initiative, and a look ahead at goals for rollout of its Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management & Policy (ECOMP) platform. 

Donovan reiterated the business drivers compelling AT&T to embrace software-defined networking (SDN)
including a 150,000% increase in mobile data traffic on the network since 2007, and continuing growth in mobile videoand the important role of open source in the company's virtualization plans. 

"OpenStack and other open source platforms are central to our software transformation," he explained. "We've doubled our usage of open source software in the last year."

Last year, the carrier built 74 AT&T Integrated Cloud (AIC) nodes to run virtual network functions (VNFs)beating its original goal of 69and plans to increase that to 105 by the end of 2016. It's also on track to reach 30% virtualized network control by end of 2016. 

Stressing the importance of open source, Donovan explained that the AICs are built largely on OpenStack, and much of the hardware involved is white box. He predicted that service providers will have to adopt the white box model to survive, and noted that building virtualized infrastructure necessitates not just putting components together but also collaborating with hardware and chip manufacturers.
"The traditional hardware approach is too slow," he stressed. "The only way to stay ahead of the demand curve is software."

The next big thing at AT&T
mostly complete after an intense 18 months of developmentis ECOMP, the engine behind the company's software centric network. 

"ECOMP is the foundation for everything we're doing," Donovan explained. "It's a scalable, comprehensive, network cloud service and infrastructure delivery platform. It provides automation of many service delivery, service assurance, performance management, fault management, and software defined networking tasks."

Designed for OpenStack but extensible to other open source platforms, ECOMP is, to paraphrase Donovan, the playbook AT&T wrote, because it was unprecedented. AT&T recently released a white paper explaining how ECOMP works, and asking for feedback from the developer community. Within a few months, based on that feedback, AT&T will decide whether or not to release ECOMP as open source.

Donovan's speech also touched on how AT&T is using predictive big data analytics to proactively address problems before the customer is affected, their cooperation with academia to develop innovative approaches to SDN and other aspects of virtualization, and the success of education opportunities for employees to engage re-focus their areas of expertise.

A lively Q&A session after the speech explored topics ranging from AT&T's role in other telecom-related open source projects, how AT&T chooses development partners, the role of public cloud operator's in AT&T's plans, and potential service provider competition from companies like Amazon and Google.

Clearly, AT&T is a company to watch for anyone with a stake in the virtualization/SDN space. It will be interesting to see how their software-focused cultural and technology transformation plays out and influences others in the industry.