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Summary:

AT&T is taking the first steps toward transforming its network into a data center. It’s not touching the cellular network — at least not yet — but it will start virtualizing its mobile core and application infrastructure.

Gigaom Illustration
photo: Gigaom Illustration

AT&T has decided its time to remodel its network, tossing out old legacy telecom gear and replacing it with shiny new servers. At Mobile World Congress this week, AT&T SVP of Technology and Network Operations John Donovan outlined a broad plan for Ma Bell to transform its network into a data center.

John Donovan

John Donovan

Last I week I wrote about the emerging trend of the mobile-network cloud, how carriers may one day rip out all of the expensive base stations in their networks and virtualize their functions as software on off-the-shelf servers. AT&T isn’t going that far — and no carrier really can for several years — but it did announce some pretty bold plans to overhaul the fundamental makeup of its network.

First off, AT&T is working with a little-known software-defined networking startup called Affirmed Networks to replace its LTE mobile core — a byzantine collection of purpose-built packet and signaling gateways — with a virtualized evolved packet core. In addition AT&T has selected Ericsson, Tail-f Systems and Metaswitch Networks to help it design a future services framework, which Donovan described in AT&T’s blog:

“We’re calling it the ‘User-Defined Network Cloud.’ What does this mean for our customers? For one, this vision is focused on allowing us and our customers to create new products and services faster than before. With the flexibility of the cloud, our customers will be able to use network services on-demand, in near real-time and scaled to fit specific needs. This will lead to rapid innovation like we’ve never seen before.”

Donovan didn’t exactly go into specifics but you can imagine an architecture where telecom services and functions start looking like apps in an app store. AT&T could add services like video content, conference calling and functions like media compression and voice-over-LTE by simply loading software into its new virtual core. Customers could add them to their devices and their service plans as easily as they would download apps from Google Play, discarding them or reconfiguring them at will.

Don’t expect a miraculous transformation overnight though. AT&T seems to be more in the conceptual phase right now. Donovan said it would announce more partners and a more specific roadmap later this year.

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  1. I think overtime more Fortune companies will realize the efficiency of the cloud for all application purposes. I think we are just getting started with cloud computing.

  2. I hope this speeds up load time on the web.

  3. There are a couple of major points about the AT&T announcement that are interesting.

    First, they are opening up their vendor list. Why? Because more vendors means more competition, and more competition means more competitive pricing. It’s not a commodity thing so much as a competition thing (though white box will play a role obviously).

    But how can they open up the vendor list now? Why not before? Largely because legacy networking relies on a bunch of esoteric features that only a few vendors could match. SDN represents a new architecture, which levels the playing field to some extent. This breeds competition.

    Second, John Donovan talked about reducing the time to deploy new services. Make no mistake: this move is also about long-term OpEx and service agility. SDN is about workflow automation. It will be interesting to see if they use SDN to loosen the grip that their OSS systems have around their neck.

    I wrote up a bit more on this announcement here for reference: http://www.plexxi.com/2014/02/3655/#sthash.3dqHGh3R.dpbs

    Mike Bushong (@mbushong)
    Plexxi

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