AT&T taps Mirantis to update its Network Cloud for 5G

Cloud platform provider Mirantis has won a three-year deal with AT&T to help the carrier build out the next generation of its Network Cloud for 5G. The companies aren’t providing an exact dollar amount of the deal except to say it’s worth more than $10 million.

AT&T is building out its Network Cloud using software from an open source project called “Project Airship.” The open source project was initially formed in May 2018 by AT&T, along with SK Telecom, Intel, and the OpenStack Foundation.

“Simply put, Airship lets you build a cloud easier than ever before,” said Amy Wheelus, AT&T’s vice president of cloud and Domain 2.0 Platform integration, in a blog post announcing the project last May. “Whether you’re a telecom, manufacturer, healthcare provider, or an individual developer, Airship makes it easy to predictably build and manage cloud infrastructure.”

Boris Renski, co-founder and CMO of Mirantis, said Project Airship is extremely important for AT&T because it’s what makes it possible to roll out many data centers and manage them on a single life cycle. “AT&T had the foresight to start building this in open source about one and a half years ago,” said Renski.

More than 100 data centers comprise AT&T’s Integrated Cloud (AIC). At the time of announcing Project Airship, AT&T said it was changing the name of AIC to “Network Cloud.” And now, AT&T is using the moniker “Network Cloud for 5G.”

Renski said AIC still exists and has just been renamed Network Cloud. And now the carrier is refreshing and building out its cloud further, coinciding with its push into 5G.

“Most of these dramatic infrastructure refreshes happen in sync with the mobile network refresh,” said Renski. “Importantly, what drove this rearchitecture and name change is the necessity to also roll out 5G workloads.”

VMs versus containers

AT&T's AIC was built using cloud infrastructure software from the open source project OpenStack. Mirantis was an early OpenStack collaborator, and the company provides a commercial OpenStack distribution. Mirantis has also been working with AT&T for a number of years. OpenStack’s original software was built to use virtual machines (VMs) in the data center.

AT&T’s Network Cloud for 5G is being built on OpenStack using containers as opposed to VMs. And those containers are managed by a container management system called Kubernetes.

“With many data centers, you need to have a single control plane to manage them,” said Renski. “This new network cloud architecture makes it much simpler to push out updates to a fabric that consists of many data centers.”

AT&T, via Project Airship and Mirantis, will build its Network Cloud for 5G based on containers and Kubernetes. But it will still have plenty of workloads running on VMs within its legacy AIC.

“AIC is out there and has many existing workloads,” said Renski. "Network Cloud for 5G is the next architecture. The initial workloads are related to their rollout of 5G.” He speculated that in the long term, AIC may become completely subsumed by the Network Cloud.

In terms of the big picture as it relates to wireless networks: in the past when a network’s data centers or central offices needed a refresh, that usually involved buying proprietary equipment from big telecom vendors. “With 5G this is a completely different path,” said Renski. AT&T is taking commodity hardware and running software that derives from open source projects.

“This is a big paradigm shift from previous refresh cycles,” he said.