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

Stephen Lawson | March 5, 2014
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.

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.

 

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