SDN Technology

AT&T Describes Next Steps for Network Virtualization

Donovan reviewed how the transition to open source and network virtualization has changed AT&T. "The term 'audacious' is how one blogger described it," Donovan said, adding that he was "gratified" by that description. (See AT&T Reveals Audacious SDN Plans.)

"AT&T was a very different company in 2008," Donovan said. Development cycle times were measured "literally in years, not in the months or even weeks that you find today."

AT&T was driven to change by mounting demand. "We had to approach innovation like this to meet the significant challenge we are facing," Donovan said. The network has seen 100,000% wireless growth between 2007 and 2014. Mobile data traffic surpassed mobile voice traffic in 2010.

Smartphones drove that demand, but mainly video, Donovan said. Video is the majority of network traffic. Total video traffic doubled in 2014. Wireline video is also booming. Also, Ethernet is taking off, and AT&T is migrating away from Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM).

Why not 100%?
"Throwing equipment at the problem isn't the answer," Donovan said. "It's simply not sustainable."

Previously, the industry built networks using a "specify, standardize and implement" approach, but that has proven too slow and cumbersome, Donovan said. Standards are important, particularly for regulated industries like aviation and medical. But communications providers need a more agile approach.

"Ultimately, our vision is based on two key concepts. First is SDN, next is NFV," Donovan said. "Instead of relying on specialized hardware for network functions, these concepts transfer heavy lifting to software."

AT&T has widely discussed plans to virtualize and control more than 75% of its network using cloud and SDN. In May, AT&T noted that 5% of that work will be done by the end of the year, relying extensively on open software. (See AT&T Touts Its First Virtualized Functions ).

"When we get to 75%, an astute question will be why not 100%?" Donovan said. But some apps are simply unsuitable for migrating to virtualization.

'Mass march'
Last year, AT&T merged its data center and network, and moved 60% of IT apps to the cloud, with a target of 100%. Moving IT to the cloud was educational, Donovan said. "If you take a 40-year-old mainframe app and move it to the cloud, you can get a lot of experience for virtualizing network functions."

This year, almost two thirds of AT&T's multi-tenant apps will be in the cloud, Donovan said.

Re-educating networking staff is key to the transition to virtualization and open source -- and it's a big job, Donovan said. Some 96,000 employees have registered for courses, and 56,000 people have earned badges in addition to their degrees. AT&T has changed IT and compensation, employee ratings and matches. "Our mass march is well on its way, as evidenced by those numbers."

Unsustainable economics
Another questioner picked up on AT&T's plans to transition from TDM. How can AT&T guarantee the quality of service needed for applications such as telemedicine or surgery? TDM provides the quality of service applications like that need.

"It's a thoughtful question -- I'm going to start by giving you a flippant answer," Donovan quipped. He said TDM requires overprovisioning the network to an extent that's economically unsustainable. SDN and NFV allow network providers to make much more efficient usage of their networks. "If I give you hardware reliability and the maximum load I put on the network is 40%, and someone on an OTT service can offer 90% usage, it doesn't matter because I won't be around to sell the service," Donovan said.

People requiring TDM-level reliability won't pay to achieve it in hardware. "You have to solve the problem in software, because it takes the network utilization up," Donovan said.

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— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected]

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