AT&T shows how serious it is about SDN, NFV and open source

In case there were any doubt, it's becoming clearer every day that it's no joke: That old, staid telecom giant known as AT&T (NYSE: T) is actually turning its engineering ship around in a big, big way, and it's not your grandfather's or grandmother's network anymore.

And for all you haters out there, let me be clear: I'm talking about the network engineering team here. Not the marketing department, not the public policy arm and not the people dealing with the National Security Agency (NSA). (For those who remember the endless industry fights over wireless wiretapping years ago, surely these five letters will ring a bell: CALEA.)

It's been well reported that AT&T wants to virtualize 75 percent of its network by 2020, and it intends to reach a critical 5 percent by the end of this year. It's a lofty goal. As John Donovan, senior executive vice president of AT&T Technology and Operations, said at AT&T's analyst conference last week: "What we're doing is ambitious in scale and scope, and it's aggressive in its timeframe and investment." But it's necessary and central to AT&T's transformation.

Still, there's no denying that moving to a more software-driven environment means that some jobs are going to go away. That's one of the scariest results for many in the industry. However, AT&T says that thousands of engineers are being retrained or being offered the chance to receive training with software-defined networking (SDN) in mind. Employees who joined the company years ago to work in TDM are given the opportunity to reskill themselves in, say, network security or big data.

You can also argue that AT&T really doesn't have a choice. If it had stayed the course it was on years ago, it likely would not be able to employ nearly as many people in the long run. And it's worth noting something else Donovan said: AT&T's network saw a 100,000 percent wireless network data growth between 2007 and 2014, with mobile video traffic doubling in 2014 alone. That's a whopping amount of data.

I was reminded of AT&T's network evolution progress during a conversation earlier this week with Steve Gleave, senior vice president of marketing at Metaswitch. Metaswitch was selected last year as an initial vendor for AT&T's user-defined network cloud concept, along with Ericsson (Nasdaq: ERIC), Tail-F Systems and Affirmed Networks. AT&T also is using Metaswitch's Perimeta session border controller (SBC) to power a portion of its software-centric network.

Gleave noted that AT&T has a desire to protect its market share and not get eclipsed by the other companies that either are or in theory could deliver the same type of communications services. It potentially has a lot to lose, too, "but they also have all the right assets in place," he said. "I'm actually sort of full of admiration because I think they really have grabbed this. We're fortunate we have insight into a lot of telcos. They really all need to think about it to survive, but AT&T has stuck the flag in the ground. It's something you may not have expected years ago."

Of course, it's still early days for most operators. A recent IHS survey of worldwide carriers showed that 82 percent of service provider respondents have either already deployed SDN, are now deploying SDN, or plan to evaluate it in 2015. But it could be many years before bigger parts or a whole network is controlled by SDN, according to IHS. Most operators are starting out small with SDN deployments, focusing on only parts of their network to make sure the technology works as intended. 

AT&T also is evolving to more of an open source software approach. Where today it uses about 5 percent open source software, it expects that to increase to more than 50 percent in coming years, according to Donovan's presentation last week. 

We all remember how AT&T Mobility fell flat on its face when the first iPhones created a huge capacity crunch, especially in markets like San Francisco. Nobody's going to cry "boo-hoo" for the old phone company. But it deserves credit where due. If it wants to show the world that it is, indeed, a changed company when it comes to its network engineering, it's doing a pretty good job of it. --Monica