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

At the Open Networking Summit, AT&T details how it is virtualizing its network to meet exponential traffic demand growth.

By Sean Michael Kerner | Posted Mar 15, 2016
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The move toward Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN) isn't just marketing hype, it's a technical reality, says AT&T. In a keynote at the Open Networking Summit (ONS) today, John Donovan, senior executive vice president at AT&T Technology and Operations, outlined the progress that his network has made in transforming from a hardware-bound monolith to a software defined agile network.

"The traditional hardware approach is too slow," Donovan said. "The only way to stay ahead of the demand curve is software."

Donovan stated that AT&T is publicly committed to virtualizing 75 percent of its network by 2020, a goal which isn't all that far-fetched, given the progress that AT&T is already making. AT&T first committed at ONS 2015 to virtualizing five percent of its network by the end of 2015. Donovan noted that the first five percent is always the hardest five percent to achieve, as it lays the foundation for the future.

The plan is now to have 30 percent of the AT&T network virtualized by the end of 2016.

"We have 14 million customers today on our fully virtualized mobile packet core, with millions more being migrated in 2016," Donovan said. "Virtualization will touch every single part of our network."

From a design perspective, AT&T built 74 AT&T Integrated Cloud (AIC) zones, where virtual network functions are operated. The plan is to have 105 integrated cloud zones by the end of 2016. Donovan noted that AIC is built largely on the open-source OpenStack cloud platform.

"Much of the equipment powering our AIC service zones is whitebox," Donovan said. "Service providers have to go to a whitebox model if they want to survive."

Donovan emphasized that the whitebox effort isn't just about pulling parts off the shelf but also about directly engaging with silicon and component manufacturers to get the gear needed to power the network. He noted that the Open Compute Project, which held its annual summit last week, is a key place where the whitebox networking hardware discussion happens.

AT&T is also making extensive use of open-source in order to enable its network transformation.

"OpenStack and other open-source software platforms are central to our transformation," Donavan said.

Donovan noted that AT&T also works with OPNFV, OpenDaylight, ON-Lab, Open Contrail, the Open Container Initiative (OCI) and the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF).

"We have doubled our usage of open-source software in just the last year, going from five percent to ten percent, and that number will continue to grow," Donovan said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at Enterprise Networking Planet and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

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