AT&T's Donovan: 2016 is a critical year in virtualizing our network

DALLAS -- AT&T (NYSE: T) says that is on track to virtualize even more of its network functions onto software this year, a sign that it's inching closer to meeting its goal of virtualizing 75 percent of its network by 2020.

John Donovan, chief strategy officer and president of technology and operations for AT&T, told attendees here at the TIA 2016 trade show that this year is important in advancing the carrier's software-centric initiatives to the next level.

Earlier this year, the telco set a goal to migrate 30 percent of AT&T's applications into a private cloud in 2016.

"We built the foundation in 2015 by virtualizing 5.7 percent of our network," Donovan said. "This year for us is our critical year where we move from roughly 6 percent to 30 percent and we build the scale and capabilities to take this thing into a whole other level because to get there you have to be good at the technology and be good at the processes."

Already, there are plenty of signs that AT&T is heading on the right path. Over the past year, the telco built out 74 AT&T Integrated Cloud (AIC) facilities where it runs the virtual network functions.

Donovan said that it will grow the total amount of AIC facilities it has "to 105 by the end of 2016."

Unlike the traditional network facilities it built in the past where vendors created upgrades and features that were limited to only their equipment, the software-enabled network AT&T is building incorporates a more open environment.

"In these AIC facilities we're using more white box equipment and open and interoperable commodity hardware rather than closed proprietary machines," Donovan said. "This accelerates innovation by encouraging competition, lowers costs and improves efficiency, which is critical to the prices we can charge customers to hold fairly steady."

The telco's 2016 migrations to software are part of a broader initiative it is taking to virtualize 75 percent of its network by 2020.

A key element in AT&T's transition of its network to software is the development of its Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy (ECOMP) technology.

According to AT&T, ECOMP enables automation of many service delivery, service assurance, performance management, fault management, and SDN tasks. What's more, ECOMP is designed to work with OpenStack but can be extended to other cloud and compute environments.

"ECOMP enables us to deploy, control and upgrade network capabilities," Donovan said. "ECOMP is the most complex software project we have ever undertaken at AT&T and we think it's one that will be a pivotal shift in the history of networking."

But AT&T isn't going to keep ECOMP all to itself. Having written over 8.5 million lines of code for ECOMP, the service provider is releasing many of its codes into the open source community by working with SDN-related organizations such as Open Daylight and Open Contrail.

While he did not provide a timeline, AT&T plans to make ECOMP available to other members of the service provider and vendor communities involved in driving SDN and NFV into networks.  

"We're looking closely at releasing ECOMP into open source so other providers can use this software and outside developers can contribute their own code," Donovan said.

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