AT&T Labs' Lu: Look at 5G holistically and build transformation elements

During a keynote address at the TM Forum Action Week conference, AT&T Labs' David Lu says his company has the winning combination for network transformation and 5G. (FierceTelecom)

PLANO, Texas—When it came to network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN), AT&T didn't have a choice on whether to embrace them, according to AT&T Labs' David Lu.

AT&T started its NFV journey by separating hardware from software with its Domain 2.0 project to not only cut the cost of hardware, but also break vendor lock-in while adding software control across its core network.

"If we as a company do not change the way we operate in a few years we're out of the business," said Lu, vice president, SDN platforms and systems, AT&T Labs, during a Monday morning keynote address at the TM Forum Action Week conference. "There's no way we can run such a model and continue to pay the top dollars to the vendors to bring additional equipment. We just cannot. So that started our transformation."

The transformation journey for AT&T has included large doses of open source orchestration and automation software, such as ONAP, while driving disaggregation of network hardware and software.

Currently, AT&T is supporting more than 3,900 MPLS nodes across 204 countries on its global IP-based network. It also has dedicated Ethernet services in 169 countries and has deployed more than 1.2 million fiber route miles globally. AT&T also supports 1.44 million wavelengths of 40G and more than 1.4 million wavelengths of 100 Gbps with plans in place for 400G.

On an average day, the AT&T network carries more than 274.6 petabytes of data traffic and "5G is going to dump more traffic on us," Lu said.

In addition to SDN, NFV, and disaggregation, AT&T also built its Network Cloud, which is an evolution of its AT&T Integrated Cloud (AIC.) As part of its transformation path, AT&T is currently working on software-defined controls for automation and orchestration of its 5G network including the radio access network (RAN.)

Lu said the bigger picture includes edge computing, which will support millions, and eventually billions, of consumer and business devices at the network edge with latency of 1 to 5 milliseconds. In order to enable edge computing, the software-defined network needs to align with the 5G network.

To provide a seamless 5G experience there needs to be the following elements working in tandem, according to Lu: the physical infrastructure, the fronthaul to the edge computing, backhaul to AT&T's major points-of-presence (POPs) and the applications themselves.

"In an AT&T internal review, one of our top executives finally realized and told our CFO 'Don't look at 5G as only RAN, you look at 5G holistically.' You have to make all of the infrastructure work seamlessly," Lu said.

RELATED: AT&T teams up with Microsoft on cloud, edge, AI, 5G

Another large piece of the puzzle was put into play in July when AT&T announced a multi-year deal with Microsoft  to move non-network workloads and systems, including its OSS/BSS, to Microsoft Azure's public cloud. 

Lu outlined some of the elements that AT&T required from Microsoft, which included making sure the public cloud network was secure along with guaranteeing to customers that their data was protected. AT&T also wanted close control of the access, and an artificial intelligence-based monitoring control of the environment

"We also require Microsoft to work with us to deploy infrastructure as code," Lu said.

By competing on knowledge and system integration, AT&T has the winning combination, according to Lu.