AT&T's new mobile 5G network "is our first deployment where we can really say that 5G was born in the cloud," explained Alicia Abella, AT&T's VP of integrated planning and program management, in a recent interview with Light Reading. "Because we're taking advantage of all the cloud technologies that have been developed to really support the demands that we're going to see in terms of services and applications that are going to be enabled by 5G."
"That's why we were able to launch 5G as quickly as we did," she added. AT&T launched a mobile 5G network in parts of a dozen cities at the tail end of 2018, though 5G services are only available to select customers. (See AT&T's 5G Switches On in 12 US Cities, but Only for 'Early Adopters'.)
But this doesn't mark the end of AT&T's work at the intersection of cloud technology and 5G, Abella said. When asked whether AT&T would consider moving some of its functions from its private, internal cloud and onto a public cloud operated by the likes of Amazon or Microsoft, "you can imagine being able to do that," she responded.
"There are probably workloads that we have that would be good candidates to move out there. I wouldn't say that they're the network ones, but maybe some of the traditional IT application services that could run on a public cloud that we wouldn't need to host," she said, adding that "looking at appropriate applications that could run on a public cloud is something that we're looking at."
She cautioned though that AT&T has made no decisions in this area, nor does it have a timeline to do so.
Nonetheless, AT&T's cloud-powered 5G network stands as the culmination of more than four years of work by the carrier in the area of software, virtualization and cloud. Indeed, it was in 2014 that AT&T's John Donovan publicly said that AT&T would virtualize 75% of its network services by 2020, a goal the operator has said it remains on track to reach. The announcement of AT&T's virtualization goal set into motion a variety of actions within the operator to replace hardware-based solutions with cheaper, software-powered alternatives. (See AT&T Describes Next Steps for Network Virtualization.)
"We've been laying the foundation for this for the last couple of years," Abella explained. Abella is part of AT&T's network cloud and infrastructure division headed by Chris Rice, who reports to AT&T's CTO Andre Fuetsch. "We're definitely a very strong proponent of putting stuff out there early in the real world."
In the past four years, AT&T has introduced some noteworthy software-based products and services, and has also made some key strategic cloud decisions. On the product side, Abella said AT&T launched an internal, private cloud running mainly on OpenStack using standard x86 processors. And on top of that cloud AT&T has introduced some virtualized, software-powered services and applications, mainly for enterprise users under the operator's FlexWare brand. (See AT&T Launches Flexware as Enterprise VNF Platform.)
On the strategic side, AT&T exited the public cloud business, essentially ceding it to webscale players like Google and Amazon. And, among other actions, the operator inked a deal with Oracle to move thousands of its internal databases to the Oracle Cloud IaaS and the Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). (See Oracle Touts AT&T Cloud Deployment.)
All of this set the stage for AT&T to move some of its core network services into its private cloud. Abella said that some functions of AT&T's existing 4G LTE network and traffic have already been migrated to its private cloud. "We continue to migrate services and even our own internal network traffic onto it," she said.
But it was the launch of mobile 5G that was based entirely on the cloud, Abella said. The result, she said, is a network that AT&T can modify and expand much more quickly.
"It's all about taking advantage of the capabilities that the cloud gives you," she said, explaining that AT&T can now adjust to traffic demands much more easily with its cloud resources, rather than trying to predict what demand might be a year from now and buying hardware in anticipation of those changes. "I can, in software, easily move that traffic, move those services and applications to where I have extra capacity. And it doesn't have to interrupt the service; you don't have to waste time calling vendors and having them come in... It's more efficient. It's more cost effective. And just better overall."
AT&T hinted at its cloud-powered 5G service last year when it announced with SK Telecom, Intel and the OpenStack Foundation plans to create an open infrastructure project for clouds called Airship. The aim was to evolve its network cloud, via Airship, to fully containerize the OpenStack control plane. (See Oh the Humanity! AT&T's Airship Open Infrastructure Project Takes Off.)
AT&T is not the only telecom company working to move network functions onto cloud infrastructure. Verizon, Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom, CenturyLink and a variety of other operators across the globe are making similar moves, partly to give themselves more flexibility as they work to introduce new services and partly to reduce their dependence on expensive hardware only available from select vendors. Indeed, it is those trends increasingly driving enterprises, government users and a variety of other players into cloud-based architectures.