AT&T wants the world to see its software for spinning up services

The carrier may make its ECOMP back-end platform open source

20160315 att john donovan ons

John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of AT&T Technology and Operations, spoke on March 15, 2016, at the Open Networking Summit in Santa Clara, California.

Credit: Stephen Lawson

AT&T has revealed details of a software platform that makes it easier for customers to order new services, and the company may release the code as open source for other service providers to use.

The massive U.S. carrier has been on a full-tilt push to put its network under software control for the past several years, aiming to slash the time and effort required to deliver new services and change settings like the speed of a customer's connections. It's starting to offer subscribers a way to set up or modify services instantly through a Web portal. The effort is also helping AT&T save money, partly by using generic "white box" hardware.

That's the way the world's carriers are going, says IHS Infonetics analyst Michael Howard. For decades, operators have used customized systems to translate the services they promise their subscribers into the infrastructure tweaks needed to deliver them. The vast infrastructure that service providers use for this, called OSS/BSS, is often duplicated when one carrier buys another, which is why AT&T had thousands of back-end applications before it began the effort, Howard said.

AT&T is now working quickly to simplify that infrastructure, and on Tuesday, the company invited its neighbors over to see how. At the Open Networking Summit, technology and operations chief John Donovan announced a white paper that describes ECOMP, AT&T's software platform for developing its software-defined Domain 2.0 project.

"We're opening the hood of our network and showing you the engine," Donovan told a hall in Santa Clara, California, that was crowded with engineers from carriers and vendors. 

Then Donovan asked for feedback from the industry about what's in the white paper. If there's enough interest, AT&T will open-source ECOMP so other carriers can adopt it to streamline their own networks.

One network engineer from a large North American service provider said he's interested. It helps to have a one of the world's biggest operators implementing the new technology and sharing its insights, because all carriers want to do the same sort of thing and it requires a steep learning curve, said the engineer, who asked not to be named.

The conference is focused on open-source approaches to SDN (software-defined networking) and NFV (network functions virtualization). These technologies are expected eventually to take the place of today's carrier networks, which are mostly built around dedicated appliances with proprietary hardware. They won't be able to keep up with new kinds of traffic like virtual reality, AT&T's Donovan said. Where sending a minute of video requires 4MB of data, a minute of VR video can take hundreds of megabytes, he said.

An effort to build a common platform for these new networks, called Open-O, launched late last month. Asked if AT&T would join the project, Donovan said the company would look at Open-O but he couldn't commit to anything.

ECOMP and Open-O might turn out to have a lot in common, IHS's Howard said. Carriers should be looking for ways to make their software-defined systems work together for the sake of multinational customers, he said. Until they do, instant service setup will only work in the carrier's home country. Anything else, like ordering a fatter pipe for a branch office, will continue to take a long time.

ECOMP will have a big influence on service providers' OSS/BSS teams because it tackles some of the most complex tasks carriers need to carry out, IDC analyst Elisabeth Rainge said. But it's not as if AT&T has all the answers.

"AT&T, China Mobile, NTT and Telefonica, along with Facebook and Google, continue to push forward a variety options for how to operate infrastructure at scale," Rainge said.

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