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AT&T Releases Open-Source Hardware Specs for NFV

By Tara Seals June 23, 2015

AT&T is releasing into open source the specifications for the commodity hardware that it will use to run its network appliances, once it converts to a software-based network architecture.

This is a notable move given that AT&T is a first-mover in the network function virtualization (NFV) space. Its SVP of technology and operations, John Donovan, has said that the telco has a goal to control more than 75 percent of its network using a software-driven architecture by 2020—it will hit five percent  this year.

As a result, in the next five years, AT&T expects its next-generation network to reflect a downward bias toward capital spending. This will come from relying less on specialized hardware and deploying more open-source and reusable software.

“One of the things I’m most excited about with our transition to a software-centric network is our involvement with the open source community,” Donovan said in a blog. “Open source will speed our innovation, lower costs, and help us build the foundation for our 2020 goal.”

He added, “By making the technical specs available in open source at the Open Compute Project, we’re inviting any white box hardware maker to build and sell them to us and also allowing others to build on the concept and design.”

The first NFV steps the telco has taken have been to virtualize critical network functions such as domain name service (DNS), network analytics, the intelligent data platform and virtualized provider edge routers. And the move has already allowed AT&T to do some very interesting things, like roll out its Network on Demand service. In just 80 seconds, using a self-service app, customers can adjust their network speeds as needed, and dial back down when traffic recedes, on the fly.

AT&T’s GigaPower gigabit home and enterprise Internet service will soon also benefit from the transition to NFV. “We have to install a lot of complex and expensive equipment in our central offices to deliver it to each neighborhood,” Donovan explained. “Stuff like gigabit passive optical network open line terminals, or GPON OLTs, if you’re a glutton for acronyms.”

Converting those complex appliances into software running on commodity servers and other hardware forms the basis of any NFV implementation, but carrier-grade deployments will mean doing something other than simply cloning a hardware device completely in software and continue running it as before. This is unlikely to reduce complexity and won’t translate into the operational benefits that carriers need.

In AT&T’s case, it plans to break out the different subsystems in each device, then optimize them by rewriting how it runs, and ditching unnecessary components.

In the GigaPower example, “we’re virtualizing the individual line cards in each OLT, and turning them into a single PON MAC (media access control) card,” Donovan said. “This vOLT, or virtual OLT, will become open hardware that reduces power consumption, scales faster and costs less.”

AT&T has also launched the Domain 2.0 supplier program for its next-gen network, which includes ecosystem partners like Brocade Communications, Ciena and Cisco Systems. There are 10 vendors in the program to date, which all play various roles to drive the creation of the next-generation network.

“With Domain 2.0, we are seeking out agile and disruptive suppliers to help us innovate more quickly as we drive forward towards our next-generation network vision,” said Susan Johnson, senior vice president for AT&T Global Supply Chain.

But even though NFV is in its early days, the carrier infrastructure market is already moving to a decidedly software-centric investment model, as AT&T’s plan indicates.

Image via Shutterstock

"We are seeing strong signs that the end of the hardware era in carrier IP telephony will soon be upon us," said Chris DePuy, vice president of carrier IP telephony research at Dell'Oro Group.  "Some vendors are choosing to no longer take orders for hardware systems, while both vendorsand service providers are engaged in significant trialing of NFV systems involving carrier IP telephony functions.”

He added, “We expect that by the end of 2015, several service providers will be carrying live traffic over such systems.”

Among the early adopters: Pacnet, NTT and Colt are also deploying NFV at various points in their architectures, to support a range of services including on-demand provisioning.

Edited by Dominick Sorrentino

Contributing Writer

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