AT&T’s Donovan: We've hit the tipping point in our software transition

Now that AT&T has virtualized 34% of its network via software, the service provider remains confident that it can reach 55% by the end of 2017.

John Donovan, senior executive vice president for AT&T Technology and Operations (ATO), said during the Cowen and Company 45th Annual Technology, Media & Telecom Conference that having the experience of getting to its first virtualization milestone means the next one will be even easier.

AT&T John Donovan
John Donovan

“The hardest part of anything you do technologically is getting from 5-30% because that’s where you have to get your economics worked out, get your processes worked out, and that’s what’s going to drive your efficiency,” Donovan said. “For us, in software defined networking last year was that year when we went from 6% to 34% so going to 55% is a formidable task.”  

Donovan added that “we’ve hit the tipping point where by the end of this year we’re doing to be doing more things in software than we are the old way.”

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By transitioning to software-based network elements, AT&T is positioning itself to gain two benefits: accelerate service delivery and make more efficient use of capital.  

Donovan admitted that AT&T’s networking architecture for 25 out of the last 30 years did not keep up with the pace of compute and software development.

“Networking was the laggard here so the last five years at AT&T SDN has been transformative in not only the economics, but has us on this on this curve of speed where we’re faster at deploying capacity and we’re faster at how we manage the business,” Donovan said. “When you’re faster, you’re more efficient.”

But as AT&T makes this transition, the key question is how it will affect its supplier community, which built their businesses on providing hardware solutions for the better part of the last century.

After the initial concepts have been worked out, AT&T is seeing its vendors fall in line by developing solutions that align with its needs. In order to reach that point, AT&T had to create some of its own software designs that vendors could follow.

“It’s no longer this mythical spooky thing and the resistance of can it work is behind us,” Donovan said. “In order to do that we had to develop OEM products ourselves, not because we wanted to go back to the Western Electric days but because we had to show them it could be done and go to those supply chains and have them build to that.”

Another part of AT&T virtualization effort has been sharing its software code with the broader IT and telecom community. During the first quarter, AT&T launched its Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy (ECOMP) virtualization platform into the open source community.

By putting ECOMP into the open source community, AT&T said it will be able to further its goal to make the platform the telecom industry's standard automation platform for managing virtual network functions and other software-centric network capabilities. Earlier this year, AT&T announced that it is open sourcing ECOMP to Linux Foundation

Service provider interest in AT&T’s ECOMP platform has been growing. Since announcing its alliance with the Linux Foundation, Bell Canada and Orange have pledged support for AT&T’s standard. 

“We put one of the biggest projects ever landed in Open Source a few months in The Linux Foundation, which is basically the network operating system,” Donovan said. “We wrote an operating system for all of networking and then gave it away.”