Donovan: AT&T's SDN path is hitting 'huge' milestones

While AT&T (NYSE: T) put a lot of emphasis on its smart city and Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives at its 2016 AT&T Developer Summit in Las Vegas, the thread that connects it all together – whether it's smart cities, streaming video, connected cars or something else – is the network.


That was the message from John Donovan, senior executive vice president of Technology and Operations at AT&T, during an address to developers before CES officially kicked off this week. The network has been at the center of transformation at AT&T for at least a couple years.

"When we talk about improving the network, what we mean is addressing more than the wires and towers and devices," he said. Although the company is doing those things, "our vision for the network is also much more than that." It's not just connecting two points; it's also about adding capabilities and intelligence onto the network, he said. The services that run over the connections and the developers who help realize the vision are all part of the equation.

Part of what's enabling AT&T to offer new services faster is its software-defined networking (SDN) strategy, and Donovan said its SDN path is hitting huge milestones. Millions of wireless users are running on a virtualized network and its initial SDN product, called Network On Demand that was introduced in early 2014, is now used by more than 275 business customers around the world.

While previously the industry was built around a model where operators specified, standardized and implemented technologies, that process is too slow. Standards are still important, he added, (and presumably other AT&T executives would agree, including when it comes to 5G). But a more agile approach is required, which is where open source comes in. Granted, open source isn't necessarily a new concept as AT&T was involved in the development of UNIX and the C programming language, he noted.

But now it's on track to go from having 5 percent of its software built on open source to having 50 percent of it built on open source, and AT&T is heavily involved in almost all the major open source efforts, including Open DayLight, Open NFV, ONOS and OpenStack. With OpenStack, that's "a really big deal for us," he said. One of the key elements of its software-centric network is the AT&T Integrated Cloud (AIC), where it uses nodes in various physical locations around the world running virtual network functions. The AIC is based on OpenStack.

Last year, the company planned to deploy 69 of these AICs around the world, and that was considered quite ambitious, but not only did it meet that goal, it beat it, deploying 74 such locations built on OpenStack, Donovan said. The multiple locations also mean it can place them closer to customers and better contain security threats.

The carrier has employees contributing to the other open source groups as well, a point Donovan made and one that's noteworthy given the number of open source groups, some of which overlap. Speculation rose last year that Open DayLight and ONOS could merge, but those rumors were shot down when ONOS formed a strategic partnership with the Linux Foundation.

A lot of AT&T's innovations are developed in its foundries, and it's going to open a new one focused on health care in Houston next month. The new foundry location will focus on four key areas: care within the home and clinical environments as well as solutions for mobile caregivers and enterprise.

Donovan touched on AT&T's progress in deploying VoLTE as well. Late last month, AT&T said its VoLTE network covers more than 295 million Americans, a figure that includes 27 million active subscribers, more than any other U.S. carrier. The operator is rolling out VoLTE market-by-market and testing each market before launch. The company also said it saw the first VoLTE exchange between its customers and another carrier in limited, selected areas, but it did not name the carrier. It's also working with others on the same feature as well.

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