AT&T confident in ONAP’s ability to attract more operators

data center (pixabay)
If data centers are at the "core" of the cloud, then towers, central offices and small cells can be considered to be at the "edge" of the cloud.

AT&T is so confident in Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), an operating system for automating virtual network functions, that it believes more players will jump on board to support it in the coming weeks.

“I think ONAP becomes basically the de facto standard for SDN for operators,” AT&T Labs President and CTO Andre Fuetsch told FierceWirelessTech. “I’m predicting that the majority of operators around the world will sign onto ONAP.”

But what’s even more exciting, he said, is getting the cloud players interested as well. Microsoft is actively participating in ONAP and while he declined to name others, one can expect to see more non-traditional players get on board. “This is really about how the network is becoming more relevant and giving more optionality to developers,” he said.

ONAP is one of the biggest open source initiatives out there today. AT&T decided over a year ago that it wanted to potentially put its ECOMP code out into the open source world and asked the community if that would be of interest. The answer was a resounding yes, so AT&T packaged it up and open sourced the platform earlier this year.

The Linux Foundation took charge of it and shortly thereafter it was decided that the code base would be merged with China Mobile’s Open O. Now they’re well on their way to having more than 50% of the global mobile subscriber base of operators sign on to ONAP and becoming active participants and contributors.

Fuetsch said ONAP is complementary to, not competitive with, what ETSI is doing with the Multiaccess Edge Computing (MEC) group, which used to be called the Mobile Edge Computing group. He also clarified that AT&T’s Edge Computing efforts encompass more than just mobile; it’s also about wireline and enterprise.

AT&T is embracing Edge Computing in a big way, and it’s all leading up to 5G. Past generations of wireless were focused on specific things like voice calls, messaging or data and it’s always been about speed, but with 5G, it takes the networking to a whole new level—and it’s taking advantage of a lot of the advancements that cloud technology provides, Fuetsch said.

”It’s also allowing us to operate our network much like the cloud operators operate their infrastructure,” he said. “That means there’s a lot more automation, a lot more flexibility, the ability to introduce services very quickly,” as well as the ability to isolate and treat issues as they come up.

As for five 9s reliability, “we go beyond five 9s with this new architecture and with 5G because we now can be more distributed,” he said. Depending on the service level required, “we can make sure that those packets get there.” And because of the ability to reach a lot of customers in multiple bands—not only in the licensed and unlicensed bands, cellular or millimeter bands, “we just have all this optionality now of how we’re going to touch these devices.” If end game requires a highly reliable service, it might choose to serve that on a lower band with better penetration through walls and propagation, and if it’s a service that demands high bandwidth like a DirecTV Now show, it could go out over a millimeter wave to support 4K or 8K.

By its very nature, AT&T is well set up to deliver the kinds of services it’s talking about via edge computing. With 65,000 cell towers and thousands of central offices, it’s operating a highly distributed network, so why not take advantage of that distribution? As AT&T explains it, if the data centers are the “core” of the cloud, then the towers, central offices and small cells are at the “edge” of the cloud, and moving the edge closer to the end user makes it all the more appealing.

Fuetsch talks about self-driving cars of the future and how they’re expected to generate well over 3 terabytes of data per hour, from all the cameras, sensors, radar and Lidar. By generating that much data, you effectively need a mini data center in the trunk of your car to keep it on the road safely. But the average car is used a small amount of the time; it’s usually in a parking space. If there’s an opportunity to offload some of that data to the cloud, that would be great. But data centers today tend to be far away and the latency is probably too long to do a lot of things. Enter the cell towers and central offices that can act like the data centers and be much closer to the end user, thereby reducing latency.

And there’s a video angle as well. Over half of AT&T’s traffic is video, and it’s only going to grow. When you consider public safety—AT&T won the contract to serve FirstNet—and all the cameras on first-responder vehicles and body cameras on the officers themselves, you start to see the volumes of video that are being generated and consumed. Being able to analyze the video in real time so that public safety first responders can do their jobs more effectively demonstrates that Edge Computing can be an important tool at their disposal.