AT&T Aims to Virtualize 75 Percent of Network by 2020

Officials with the carrier are looking to accelerate the multi-year development of its ambitious software-defined cloud network.

cloud network

AT&T is looking to accelerate the development of its software-defined network, setting a goal of virtualizing and controlling more than 75 percent of its network using the new architecture by 2020.

In a post on the company blog, John Donovan, senior executive vice president of technology and operations at AT&T, calls it "an ambitious target," particularly given that the carrier first announced its plans for the User-Defined Network Cloud during the Mobile World Congress in February. However, the pieces are being put in place to enable AT&T to hit the goal, Donovan said.

It's not just talk," he wrote. "We have the right innovators and communities in place to hit our mark. We have collaborators on board with a shared vision. And we're already seeing the first customer benefits."

AT&T is in the first year of an ambitious six-year plan to transform its network from one that relies on expensive, complex gear and copper wiring to one that is more based on software, driven by the principles of software-defined networking (SDN) and network-functions virtualization (NFV).

The goal is to create a networking infrastructure that is more efficient and cost-effective for the carrier, and will enable it to more quickly spin out new applications and services for customers. Upgrades to customer services will require updating the software rather than replacing hardware components.

SDN and NFV take the network control plane and network tasks—such as load balancing, firewalls and intrusion detection—off the underlying hardware and put them into software that can run on low-cost commodity systems. Networks become easier and faster to program—enabling organizations to more quickly deliver services to meet the quickly changing demands brought on by such trends as mobility, big data and cloud computing.

"We are in the process of doing designs for the customer-facing network to take it entirely into a cloud-based architecture," Donovan said during a Barclay's tech conference call with analysts Dec. 10. "That's the game-changer, because you deploy software instead of appliances. Your test cycles go from 18 months to 18 minutes. You provision the stuff directly with the customer; you can put the definition in the hands of the customer. And so it's not a theoretical exercise, it's actually stuff, it's playbook stuff. It's stuff that is tangible and real in projects and we are working our way through it."

AT&T officials announced in September that Austin, Texas, this year would become the first city to see the benefits of the carrier's User-Defined Network Cloud initiative. Donovan in his blog post wrote about several innovations the carrier's already launched in connection with the cloud effort. One is what officials are calling Network on Demand, where customers—using a self-service app—can ramp up their network speeds as needed, and then dial them back as demand lessens, and doing so takes only 80 seconds.