AT&T lays out 'radical' network changes with SDN

The carrier is looking to cloud computing as a model for delivering services

AT&T is remaking its infrastructure as a "user-defined network cloud" in the pursuit of greater flexibility, lower costs and faster response to user needs, the carrier's infrastructure chief said.

"We're doing with the [wide-area network] what the world has done with the data center," said John Donovan, senior executive vice president of technology and network operations, in a keynote address at the Open Networking Summit in Santa Clara, California. AT&T wants to be able to quickly develop new services and applications and adapt to changing network demands with the kind of agility that cloud service providers have today.

In a forceful statement of direction, Donovan gave more details about AT&T's move to open up its network to new ideas and small vendors, which the company sees as critical to remain relevant in the future. Traditional carrier networks aren't adaptable, are hard to scale up and aren't as cost effective as they could be, Donovan said.

"A time like this requires an urgent call to action," he said.

His message played well at the conference, a major annual event for researchers and vendors pursuing SDN (software-defined networking), which shifts the control of networks from hardware to various layers of software. AT&T and other service providers have moved more quickly than enterprises to adopt SDN, partly because their networks are the tools of their business.

AT&T kicked off the migration with its Domain 2.0 initiative late last year, sending out a Request for Information to ask vendors how they would support SDN and NFV (network functions virtualization). That process produced four names, which conspicuously didn't include networking colossus Cisco Systems. Instead, the initial group consisted of Ericsson, Metaswitch Networks, Tail-F Systems, and startup Affirmed Networks.

The carrier is going to continue seeking out new vendors and other partners, including university researchers, for input on how to build and run this new type of network, Donovan said. He called it an "open process" and a "radical" departure from the way things were done in the past. "It's not just a closed room with a handful of networking companies making decisions," he said.

It will also be a new day for development within the company, shifting from a slow, deliberate telecommunications model to a so-called "devops" approach, where the developers of new tools work closely with operations professionals.

Still, a service provider the size of AT&T can't exactly turn on a dime. The network evolution will happen in a series of steps, Donovan said. This year, the carrier will embark on "beachhead" projects to test the new architecture and extend the useful life of current systems. To do that, it will put new software controllers on existing platforms. Next year it will start deploying completely new systems based on the new Domain 2.0 architecture, he said.

The company has its work cut out for it, particularly in its OSS (operational support system), the collection of software used to control and manage its network, Donovan said. AT&T has identified more than 1,000 OSS applications to retire, he said. As they go away, APIs (application programming interfaces) will open up the network to more third parties.

The migration will begin with core functions such as policy and authentication and in later years move to the edge of the network, including its wireless infrastructure.

With Domain 2.0, the carrier aims to cut by two-thirds the time it takes to qualify new technologies for use in its network, Donovan said. With an average approval time of 18 months, that could become six months. AT&T isn't funding startups, but it has met with more than 1,200 young companies in its pursuit of new capabilities, Donovan said.

The changes in AT&T's network are also changing the carrier's internal culture and job roles, but the company aims to keep its existing workforce in place. "The objective here is to leave no person behind who wants to make this journey," Donovan said. In his address, he said twice that AT&T is recruiting people with relevant expertise.

One thing the new architecture probably won't affect is network neutrality, because the scheduling functions that determine quality of service already exist and will only be automated under Domain 2.0, Donovan said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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