AT&T on the homestretch of virtualization goal

AT&T is on the final leg of having 75% of its network virtualized in 2020, but there are still a few hurdles to clear on the stretch run.

AT&T first outlined its virtualization project back in 2013 as part of its Domain 2.0 initiative. The plan included using its internally developed ECOMP, which is now part of ONAP, and software-defined networking (SDN) to virtualize and put into production critical network functions.

Along the way, AT&T came up with the stated goal of having 75% of its core network functions virtualized by 2020. AT&T stood at 30% of its goal at the end of 2016 and then spent the next two years scaling out and globalizing its virtualization efforts. Mazin Gilbert, vice president of advanced technology and systems at AT&T Labs, said AT&T finished up last year with 65.5% of its network virtualized, which hit last year's goal.

So with slightly less than 10% hanging in the balance this year, is it getting easier or harder for AT&T to hit its target goal?

"The answer is kind of a 'yes' and 'no' answer," said Amy Wheelus, AT&T’s vice president of cloud and Domain 2.0 Platform integration, in an interview with FierceTelecom. "Yes, from the perspective of we've learned a lot over the last few years. We've learned about how to really design those VNFs (virtual network functions) to really make them work better in a cloud-like environment. And so from that perspective, it is getting easier.

"So the last ones that are left are some of the harder, more difficult things to virtualize because they are more complex. So there's a little bit of difficulty there. We're still on track and plan to hit that target."

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Standardizing VNFs has been an ongoing issue for the telecommunications industry as a whole. AT&T has been very vocal over the past few years that VNFs need to be "more like Legos and less like snowflakes" so they can deployed at a faster, more cost efficient rate.

"There are many different vendors providing VNFs out there and many different infrastructures that they have to provide VNFs for," Wheelus said. "We're working together in the industry to try to get to a more common NFVi (network functions virtualization infrastructure) approach to virtualization and infrastructure. That will help all of us across the industry to be able to better standardize."

ONAP and OPNFV, which are part of the Linux Foundation's LF Networking, are working on testing, onboarding and creating VNFs that are standardized.

"We're also working with OpenStack because OpenStack is the infrastructure layer," Wheelus said. "Also, some of the work that is done at the edge with Akraino fits into that as well."

The Linux Foundation's Akraino Edge Stack is an open source software stack that supports cloud services optimized for edge computing systems and applications. In January, the Linux Foundation announced that Akraino Edge Stack, EdgeX Foundry, and Open Glossary of Edge Computing, all of which were previously standalone projects, were rolled into the newly created LF Edge umbrella organization.

While AT&T is driving towards achieving next year's virtualization goal, Wheelus said the telco is also focused on NFVi this year, as well as its 5G rollouts.

"We've got a working group of about 10 to 12 operators from around the globe that will be working on NFVi with OPNFV," Wheelus said. "It will bring a telco, or a service provider, viewpoint to NFVi. We're looking to do that this year. We feel this is the year that we need to do that to help the industry move forward in a common direction."