AT&T travels the open-source road to help build an industry ecosystem

In order to drive down costs and ramp up the speed of innovation, AT&T is taking an open source-first approach to virtualization. 

While some service providers, such as CenturyLink, pick and choose elements of open source, AT&T is all in. AT&T has its fingers in various open source groups, many of which it has championed in the early going before turning them over to an open source community.

"I think the main point is we've been talking in the industry about leadership and how we are bringing software-defined networking, how we are bringing edge and how we are bringing 5G together to really try and drive that next generation experience for our customers," said Mazin Gilbert, vice president of advanced technology and systems at AT&T Labs, in an interview with FierceTelecom "This is really what we are after. This is what we've been investing in. Every move, every step we're taking is towards exactly that. I think what is really phenomenal in the approach that we are taking at AT&T is how we are building this innovation from an open source perspective."

Mazin Gilbert, AT&T

Gilbert said one of AT&T's networking goals was disaggregating the radio access network (RAN), which it's working on with open source group O-RAN. It's worth noting that Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and chief technology officer of AT&T, is chairman of the carrier-led Open Networking Foundation and also the chairman of the O-RAN Alliance.

Gilbert said O-RAN is working on the blueprint for disaggregating the RAN on the wireless side while also pursuing ONF's reference design for SDN Enabled Broadband Access (SEBA) and ONF's Virtual Optical Line Termination Hardware Abstraction (VOLTHA) project, which AT&T put into open source two years ago, on the wired side.  (ONF is a member of the Linux Foundation.)

"You're going to see a significant involvement from AT&T, not only in the architecture of O-RAN, but in this disaggregating of the RAN, which allow us to do more next-generation-type workloads," Gilbert said. "Over the next few weeks, you're going hear more from AT&T on these blueprints for O-RAN."

Earlier this month, AT&T announced it was building its Network Cloud using software from another open source project called “Project Airship.” Airship was initially formed in last year by AT&T, along with SK Telecom, Intel, and the OpenStack Foundation. Vendor Mirantis has a $10 million, three-year deal in place to work with AT&T to use Airship for the Network Cloud build out.

"We've got a lot of traction in the Airship community," said AT&T's Amy Wheelus, vice president of cloud and Domain 2.0 Platform integration, in an interview with FierceTelecom. "Airship is a single workflow, life-cycle management tool that is declarative in nature and does software deployment for containerized software. So we are seeing use cases coming up on how we can change the way we do security, how we can change the way we do patching, things like that, using Airship under the cloud platform to do that work.

"We are looking to graduate Airship too a full project within OpenStack at the end of April and have the first release by then. So those are some goals the community has for Airship."

Gilbert said that Airship was also a key element in the Akraino telco edge blueprint. In January, the Linux Foundation announced its LF Edge umbrella, which now includes Akraino Edge Stack, EdgeX Foundry, and Open Glossary of Edge Computing, all of which were formerly stand-alone projects at The Linux Foundation. AT&T contributed the initial seed code for Akraino to the Linux Foundation.

Akraino was designed to create blueprints for edge compute and edge cloud. Gilbert previously told FierceTelecom that he sees Akraino working closely with ONF. Gilbert said currently there are 19 active blueprints underway in Akraino.

Amy Wheelus, AT&T

"Nineteen blueprints seems like a lot, but there are different use stages for when those blueprints should be used and where they should be used," Wheelus said. "The way I like to think about it is you have your core data center world, your core cloud, but then you move out to the telco edge of the network. Then you move out to the access edge, and then even further out to the customer edge. So those blueprints will work in different places."

Two years ago, AT&T contributed its internally developed ECOMP automation and orchestration software to the Linux Foundation, which used it to help create ONAP (Open Network Automation Platform). Early last year, the Linux Foundation put ONAP, along with, OpenDaylight, OPNFV, PDNA and SNAS, into its newly created LF Networking Fund (LFN).

"We are trying to, as an ONAP community, support network slicing," Gilbert said. "We are trying to support interfaces to allow ONAP and the RAN control in ONAP to interface with the access RAN in our wireless network. There are some key goals AT&T is contributing to ONAP to make it 5G ready and to make it RAN and wireless access ready.

"We could always deploy a technology, but to scale that technology and reduce our costs to deployment, the integration costs, will always be a bottleneck. "

On the artificial intelligence front, AT&T and Tech Mahindra announced two years they had partnered to create the Acumos platform with the goal of putting it in to open source. The Acumos AI Project is how under the Linux Foundation's LF Deep Learning Foundation umbrella, which was designed to spur innovation across artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning.

Gilbert said the LFN community, mainly ONAP, was working with the LF Deep Learning Foundation to make sure the two platforms were talking to each other and sharing analytics.  AT&T is also active in the Linux Foundation's Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF)

Gilbert said that AT&T's Foundries also create an ecosystem for application developers to test new technologies, such as 5G, IoT and the telco edge.

Related: AT&T on the homestretch of virtualization goal

By jumping into open source with both feet, AT&T is well on its way towards its goal of having 75% of its network virtualized by next year. Open source has also allowed AT&T move quickly towards 5G, IoT and edge deployments, while also enabling internal efficiencies of its network.

"We are an open source-first model for how we are trying to operate," Wheelus said. "We are creating an ecosystem that can really sustain the speed of innovation that we want to operate at. If each individual company is working on their own, and not working together, it hinders that innovation. We think that by working together we can move faster."