AT&T Labs VP: SDN, 5G will enable scale like no other

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AT&T is among the operators that have linked software-defined networking and network functions virtualization to 5G, and Mazin Gilbert, the world-renowned technologist who was recently appointed vice president of AT&T Labs, is reinforcing that connection.

Mazin Gilbert AT&T Labs (AT&T)
Mazin Gilbert

“There is a tremendous marriage between what we are doing in software defined network and ECOMP and 5G and next generation access more broadly,” he told FierceWirelessTech.

With the Internet of Things and other 5G-related trends, the amount of data is just going to grow even more exponentially.

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“By bringing those two world together, it allows us to do things at scale that we can’t do today,” Gilbert said.

Much of the reason AT&T is where it's at today is tied to the tremendous mobile data growth that started some eight to 10 years ago. There's no way AT&T could support the kinds of traffic coming down the pike with IoT and 5G without some serious changes –which is exactly what it's doing with SDN and NFV. Famously, the company has said it will virtualize more than 75 percent of its network by 2020.

ECOMP, which stands for Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy, is the platform that AT&T is making available to enable global service providers and cloud developers to meet network demands for technologies like autonomous cars, augmented and virtual reality, 4K video and the IoT. Last summer,  John Donovan, AT&T chief strategy officer and group president of technology and operations, announced that AT&T was releasing ECOMP to the open source community. AT&T is on track, with the help of the Linux Foundation, to put that out in early 2017.

RELATED: AT&T open sources ECOMP to Linux Foundation, hopes to make it industry's standard for SDN

In the process of marrying things such as SDN, machine learning and artificial intelligence, AT&T is looking at how to predict the video and data consumption of devices on its network for the next five seconds, five minutes or five hours, and adjust the bandwidth for each device on the spot – around the clock and while dealing with billions of devices at the same time.

“How do you do that all instantly? You can’t do that with today’s legacy systems,” Gilbert said, and you can’t do it with just 5G. But with 5G combined with software defined networking, “we can spin up and adjust traffic flow around the clock.”

He likens it to architecting the roads of a city based on traffic flow, accidents and other trends, and doing that every second, around the clock. With wireless, it’s about using the spectrum in the most intelligent, efficient and optimal way. Gilbert believes AT&T is well suited to lead the effort.

“We know software,” he said, noting that AT&T Bell Labs is where UNIX and languages such as C++ were created. The size of the project is staggering: ECOMP is more than 8 million lines of code, and 35 to 40 percent of that is currently open source, with the remaining headed that way.

“It’s a cultural change, it’s a cultural transformation, [and] I think it’s one of the biggest and most complex projects that I’ve certainly ever worked with and I’ve been with AT&T for over 25 years,” he said. “It’s a very large undertaking but we’re doing it because we must get into a world where we’re able to get the speed and the flexibility and the agility to spin up virtual network functions.

"We’ve got to get into a world where we have a holistic solution where we’re going away from proprietary technologies that takes weeks and months and years to build, just for us, to open standards that we could use but other providers could use it. We don’t want anything custom for us. We want things to be Legos – we could use them as Legos and other providers can use them as Legos. We want a way in which we have scalability.”

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