AT&T Sheds More Light on SDN, NFV Initiative

The carrier is ahead of schedule in virtualizing its network, and unveils its ECOMP software platform for building a software-centric infrastructure.

AT&T logo

AT&T's high-profile effort to transform its infrastructure into a software-defined environment is humming along.

At the Open Networking Summit (ONS) 2016 this week, John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of AT&T technology and operations, gave attendees an update on where the carrier stands with its multi-year Domain 2.0 project to embrace such technologies as software-defined networking (SDN) and network-functions virtualization (NFV) within its data centers.

In an accompanying post on the company blog March 15, Donovan wrote that AT&T is ahead of schedule in virtualizing its network, and that trials of the carrier's CORD project—which is being used to help fuel AT&T's fiber-optic network project—will kick off in the next few weeks. CORD (Central Office Re-architected as Data Center) was first introduced by Donovan at the ONS last year.

In addition, he gave the industry its first glimpse into ECOMP (Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy), the software platform the carrier is using to build its cloud-based network. It's been under development for two years and represents "one of the most challenging, complex and sophisticated software projects in AT&T's history."

"It's a mouthful," Donovan wrote. "But it's also important. ECOMP is an infrastructure delivery platform and a scalable, comprehensive network cloud service. It provides automation of many service delivery, service assurance, performance management, fault management and SDN tasks. It is designed to work with OpenStack but is extensible to other cloud and compute environments. ECOMP is the engine that powers our software-centric network."

AT&T and other carriers are turning to software and the cloud to make their networks more agile, scalable, cost-efficient and dynamic. A simpler, more flexible network enables them to more easily and quickly develop and deploy new services to their customers, manage the fast-growing traffic running over the networks and respond faster to changing business conditions brought on by such trends as mobility, big data and the cloud. Verizon officials almost a year ago announced they were going to adopt a software-centric approach to their network.

In his blog post, Donovan noted that since 2007, AT&T has seen a 150,000 percent increase in mobile traffic, and that will grow 10 times by 2020. In addition, 60 percent of the total network traffic is video, with more than 114 petabytes running over the network each day.

"These facts and predictions have driven us to re-architect our network based on a new paradigm, one where our ability to scale is based more in software than in the hardware," he wrote.

The carrier is ahead of projections regarding the virtualization of its network. AT&T officials last year said that, in 2015, 5 percent of the network would be virtualized. They beat that, bringing it in at 5.7 percent. The goal now is to hit 30 percent this year, planning to increase that to 75 percent by 2020. Currently, 14 million wireless customers are on AT&T's fully virtualized mobile packet core, and millions more will be migrated there this year.

ECOMP grew out of a need to find a way to make all this happen, he wrote.

"One of our biggest challenges was that there was no playbook here for us to follow when it comes to virtualizing and software-controlling a Wide Area Network," Donovan wrote. "But the technical and economic principles are sound. So, we decided to take the lead in writing the playbook for NFV/SDN deployment in the WAN. And we're excited to start opening that playbook to developers as well as connectivity and cloud providers."

ECOMP "is very powerful as it allows us to build our next-generation cloud-based network in a vendor-agnostic way, giving us great flexibility for deploying NFV/SDN in our network. As a model-driven platform, this framework costs less than maintaining existing network systems. And it allows us to accelerate the implementation of new services quicker than ever before."

The carrier is now looking for input from the wider cloud and developer community. Engineers have written a white paper outlining ECOMP and want to get feedback, which will help determine where AT&T takes it. One possibility is releasing ECOMP to the open-source community, he wrote.

"We believe that one of the most important tenets of the open-source community is that you don't just take code," Donovan wrote. "You contribute it, as well. This collaborative spirit is a driving force in our transformation."