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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- AT&T will start deploying SDN and network functions virtualization technologies this year as part of its Domain 2.0 vision for a next-generation network -- and it's willing to shake up vendor relationships to get there.
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Last year, the carrier announced AT&T Domain 2.0, a plan to transform its network using SDN and network functions virtualization (NFV). During a keynote address at the Open Networking Summit this week, John Donovan, AT&T's senior executive vice president for technology and network operations, said 2014 is the year of "beachhead projects" that will move his company toward Domain 2.0. AT&T will use SDN and NFV to create a "user-defined network cloud." This will be a multi-service, multi-tenant platform that "taps into NFV and SDN to perform a broad variety of network functions and services," he said.
"NFV moves network functions from ASIC-based hardware to software running on general purpose computing. Those virtual network functions can be instantiated anywhere and more quickly than they are today," Donovan said.
There is no army that can hold back an economic principle whose time has come.
John Donovan, AT&T
AT&T will follow four principles as it builds out this user-defined network cloud, he said. The infrastructure must be open, simple, scalable and secure. The openness means AT&T is ready to do business with new vendors, even companies that are not traditional telco vendors, he said.
"We're leaving the [procurement] process open," he said. "We appreciate the benefits of collaboration, and we're going to make sure we stay open to new ideas and maintain a competitive process. So if a company comes along with an innovation, they'll have a chance to pursue it with us."
"Our strategy is more than just a network design change," Donovan added. "It's a change in how we do business with suppliers [and] with how we manage platforms, systems and software. It changes our people. We have to take advantage of cultural change at our company."
Donovan called on the networking industry to work with AT&T to build SDN and NFV products that enable this user-defined network. "We've reached out to 100 different vendors to drive a whole new ecosystem of network equipment," he said. "Some won't share the same interest we have in moving to a new future, but some have."
Donovan identified hardware vendors Ericsson and Metaswitch as two established suppliers that are on board with AT&T's plans. He also identified two smaller vendors, Tail-f Systems and Affirmed Networks, which are working closely with AT&T. He lauded Tail-f for its network control software, which can manage network gear from multiple vendors by interfacing with their existing control planes. He also praised Affirmed Networks for the technology it's developing that virtualizes the Evolved Packet Core (EPC).
AT&T's SDN plans: The bigger picture
There are key areas that AT&T will not touch as part of its SDN initiative, at least for now, Donovan said. Those areas include the routing core, the optical transport network and radio access networks.
The carrier's decision to focus on the EPC, also known as the mobile core, as well as IP Multimedia Subsystem technology, opens up several possibilities for innovation, according to Lee Doyle, chief analyst for Wellesley, Mass.-based Doyle Research. He also noted Donovan's mention of turning AT&T's 4,600 central offices into environments that support a networking cloud -- a move that Doyle speculated would take advantage of existing infrastructure at those locations, including fiber, DSL, content delivery networks and potentially edge routers.
Overall, AT&T's SDN and NFV plans could affect between 40% and 50% of its annual infrastructure budget, Doyle said. The initiative will involve billions of dollars of spending. If anything is going to spur laggard vendors to comprehensively embrace SDN and NFV, that's the kind of money that will get it done. However, AT&T also hopes the move toward SDN and NFV will reduce its capital budget.
As part of its year of "beachhead projects," Donovan said AT&T will try putting controllers on existing platforms and building a set of capabilities it can test. In 2015, the carrier will start building out new platforms, part of the AT&T Domain 2.0 initiative. The legacy infrastructure that comprises Domain 1.0 will have to go. "We won't do overlay networks," he said. "We will tag things as Domain 1.0, toe-tag it and move to 2.0."
AT&T confident it can secure, manage new network
Donovan faced pointed questions from the audience following his presentation. When asked whether AT&T's operational support system (OSS) could handle this transformation. Donovan said his team has identified 1,000 applications in AT&T's OSS environment that are targeted for retirement.
"We will have new applications and new technology that will allow us to do policy and provisioning as a parallel process, rather than an overarching process that defines and inhibits everything we do," he replied.
One audience member expressed skepticism about AT&T's ability to secure such an infrastructure.
"We have an architectural design for security -- a platform called Astra -- which is abstracted and cloud-based," Donovan responded. "We're in the process of moving from a firewalled enterprise into highly distributed data piles with rigorous requirements for compliance around that, and [we're working on] an architecture where data is hard to find and difficult to assemble into something meaningful."
When asked to explain why AT&T was doing SDN, Donovan replied, "There is no army that can hold back an economic principle whose time has come."