Inside AT&T's open source, software-defined transformation

The telecom giant goes all-in on network virtualization.

John Donovan, Chief Strategy Officer and Group President, Technology and Operations at AT&T said during his keynote at Open Networking Summit earlier this month that they are going through a data explosion at AT&T. The has been more than 150,000% growth in data traffic on AT&T’s wireless network from 2007 through 2015. Out of all this traffic, over 60% is video. And virtual reality (VR) promises to push networks to their limits.

To address these changing market dynamics, companies like AT&T need more agile, scalable networks. Donovan told the audience that the “traditional hardware approach is too slow. The only way to stay ahead of that kind of demand curve is software. We are all in in virtualizing our network.”

AT&T is planning to virtualize 75% of its network by 2020. In 2015 they targeted to virtualize 5% of their network, and that was the hardest part as it was laying the foundation for the future. They managed to do 5.7% and now they are aiming at 30% in 2016. Over 14 million AT&T wireless customers are already on this virtualized network and the company is planning to migrate millions more this year.

Open source technologies like OpenStack are playing a very important role in this transformation. AT&T is working with open source project like OPNFV, OpenDaylight, Open Contrail, ON.Lab, the Open Container Initiative, Cloud Native Computing Foundation, Open Compute Project and many others.

“We doubled our usage of open source software in just the last year, going from 5% to 10%, and that number continues to grow,” said Donovan.

At the heart of AT&T's software-centric network transformation is a platform they call Ecomp: Enhanced Control Orchestration Management and policy. “There was no playbook we could follow when we started this transformation," said Donovan, "Ecomp is the playbook we wrote. It is a scalable, comprehensive network cloud service and infrastructure delivery platform. It provides automaton of many service delivery, service assurance, performance management, fault management and software defined networking tasks. It is designed to work with OpenStack but it is extensible to other cloud and compute environments as well,” added Donovan.

He said that historically a major software project at AT&T could take tens of millions of lines of code, thousands of people, years to build and, in some cases, a decade to mature. “That approach doesn't work when you are seeing demand curves. We have to be faster, more agile and more open,” said Donovan.

He told the packed room that Ecomp consist of about 8 million lines of code. It required about 300 agile developers to code the various subsystems. And it was built in just a year and half.

The company released a white paper , to explore the interest in the work they did on Ecomp. “We are opening the hood of our network and showing you the engine,” said Donovan. “Where we go from here depends on the feedback we get from the cloud and developer communities. [W]e want to know what you think about our vision and direction. We need to know that you’re willing to collaborate with us, to contribute your time, your effort, and your code to this initiative.”

If there is enough interest from the community; if people are willing to collaborate on the project, AT&T may release all the work they have been doing to virtualize their network as open source.

He concluded his keynote with these words: “I am inching closer and closer to explaining our software transformation in the past tense and telling you that AT&T has become a software company.”

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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